With all the strides made lately toward ecological awareness and responsibility, how come green cellophane Easter “grass” still shows up on the store shelves? Isn’t it a bit ironic that McDonald’s has been forced to develop an environmentally sound alternative to Styrofoam while employees at Bunny Turf, Inc. are still shredding up heaps of neon green strips with a half-life of 200 years?
Back when I had to deal with the stuff as a necessary evil of young motherhood, I told myself I’d like it better if it was somehow recycled—re-purposed from some equally annoying product. Instead of making all those strips from scratch, I always thought the Bunny Turf people should maybe reuse the see-through parts of the Publishers Clearinghouse envelopes I threw away by the truckload each year. Add a little green dye, chop and re-bag it, and presto…one bothersome by-product replaces another! But by June, still finding the glossy clumps rooted in my carpet and underneath my couch cushions, I’d see the flaws in that thought process. No commercially recycled product could ever come close enough to the real thing, I realized, since there was no way of recharging each teensy fake blade with a thousand volts of static electricity. And without that characteristic cling lingering long after the Cadbury eggs have disappeared, the product just wouldn’t be genuine Easter grass.
Of course I didn’t always hate the stuff. I once welcomed its emerald plasticity as a sign of the season the same way I embraced cotton candy on opening day of the fair, Twinkies returning to my lunch box, and those bright yellow and orange corn syrup kernels that came out of hiding each Halloween. I even liked the feel of it, stuffed all springy and bright in my basket the night before Easter, full of promises even better than anything that was bursting forth in my back yard. By morning, this special nest would cushion my stash of chocolatey eggs, little pink and blue marshmallow chicks, and whatever else I could grab before my taller, faster sister plucked it out of hiding.
I bought my daughters their first bags of grass with the same childish exuberance. How precious they were going to be, I thought, prancing around in their little footed jammies looking for what the Easter bunny left and laying it reverently in their very own clump of virgin turf! But somewhere between then and the fifth year I had to rip the long green plastic shreds out of the bowels of my vacuum cleaner, I became less enamored. “I am never buying this crap ever again!” I vowed. “It’s like tinsel on steroids!” As soon as the girls’ Easter haul was eaten and I had re-purposed their baskets, I’d scrape as much of the stubborn tendrils into the trash as possible and pray that my Hoover Wind Tunnel could manage the stragglers. I actually did succeed in removing it from my premises long enough to imagine that, if I put out really big solid chocolate bunnies that year, the girls wouldn’t notice their baskets were bare on the bottom.
“Happy Easter!” one of the Grammies announced the next day, holding out a new basket for each girl. She had been to the dollar store and loaded up on jelly beans, plastic eggs she’d stuffed with spare change, and enough Easter grass for the new millennium. That’s when I gave in, stopped allowing my Easter grass grudge to dampen my holiday gaiety, and finally accepted a few elemental truths: 1) I would not have to buy more Easter grass; but 2) I could also never hope to remove it from my home because 3) the Grammies would always bring more. They had a direct line to the original source, it seemed, plucking from what they began hoarding circa 1958. (I know, because one year in Becky’s allotted clump I found a retro foil Hersey’s wrapper from my favorite candy when I was her age.) Before long, I became pioneer mom for my own “green” movement, stockpiling my ancestral ball and—except for what I lost once in a batch of dirty socks—cramming it all back into a dusty Hannaford bag in the closet. Then, when the girls finally admitted they believed a giant rabbit hopped into their living room with candy only because of the candy part, I dumped the mother lode, bag and all, into the trash and watched Waste Management haul it away.
But it seemed like just a brief moment in time before I wanted it back—that foolish, ancient clump of plastic grass and all the memories that went with it. “I’m so glad you had Easter grass!” I said to the Walgreens clerk the day before Easter some years back. “I like the green, but it’s good you had pink and yellow because I bought my girls these matching pinwheels, too!”
“That’s nice,” she said. “How old are your girls?”
“Twenty-two and 26,” I answered.
Old enough to appreciate how perfect the grass cradled the “big girl” treats their dad decided to hide instead of chocolates. He thought it might be really fun to do one more Easter egg hunt with the girls before we moved to Rangeley. And do it with liquor store nips. He was right.
I have plenty of time, they tell me, before I’ll have to start garnering my own grandma load of grass. Meanwhile, I might just surprise them with a new Easter tradition and load up a couple State of Maine-shaped Easter baskets I saw advertised in Down East magazine. I figure I can load a ton of candy in a big basket like that, stretching Twizzlers all the way from Fort Kent to Kennebunk, and nesting a couple Reese’s eggs down in Eastport. Only thing is, I’ll have to line it all with brown grass to be regionally correct this time of year…and remind them to never assume what’s hiding up around Rangeley is a Milk Dud or a chocolate-covered raisin!
I was in the Walmart the other day when I heard an exchange that warmed my heart like only eavesdropping in Walmart could.
“So, for Val’time’s Day, you want candy or flowahs?” a guy asked his sweetie. “You ain’t gettin’ both.”
“Chocolates!” she answered emphatically. “But none of them dahk kind…too bittah. You can save the damn flowahs for when I croak!”
Something told me he wasn’t going to spring for a card to complete his shrink-wrapped valentine. Even so, I wanted what she was getting. Hearing the squeak of cellophane as he stashed it alongside his Bud 30-rack stirred something primal from deep within and long, long ago. Way back—before Hallmarks, roses, romance, and a husband—I longed for a big, brassy display of affection like that. A huge box of Luv U just for me! Then, even if the other girls got double decker, ten-pounder chocolates, I’d have the little teddy hanging off my backpack to prove that, for one special day back in February, I had a valentine.
He waited till she was a safe distance away in search of Pringles, then pondered a display of neon pink, heart-shaped boxes like a man on a mission. Deciding she really was worth something extra special, he grabbed a five-pounder milk chocolate assortment with a tiny white “Luv U” teddy bear taped to the top—a reminder of his affection long after the candy ran out.
“Woah! Where did that come from?” I wondered. Spend a little time among the rows of plastic-flowered fuchsia hearts, and suddenly I was back in junior high craving chocolate nougats and a teddy bear trinket? Head down, I hurried my cart past the giant, extra-postage-required singing cards—averting my eyes to the cupid print boxer shorts and fire engine red nighties—nervous that, by the time I got home, I’d start having a hankering for Monkees reruns and my old lava lamp, too. Luckily, I managed to shake it off, making it back up the mountain to celebrate Valentine’s Day without a cellophane wrapped heart in sight. I had to wonder, though, what part of me could revert back to my lovelorn adolescence so fast and hard that I could almost feel the candy caramels getting stuck in my braces? How much could I actually blame on the mega marketing machine beating inside the Walmart, and how much did I need to admit that, deep down, I still longed for overly sweet, kitsch-coated Valentine validation?
I suspect it started back in elementary school, in the days before teachers had to mandate equal treatment during Valentine’s Day class parties. I’d peer into the paper sack taped to the side of my desk, thrilled when it held almost as many cards as the flirty girls with perfect hair got. On good years, when there’d even be candy in the bottom of my sack, I figured out the little hearts stamped “BE MINE” or “KISS ME” tasted way better than the “U R SWELL” ones.
But I’ve always preferred all things chocolate, a passion lovingly passed down from my first favorite Valentine, my dad. The only heart health he knew was how good it felt to hug and slip each other a Snickers at the same time. In the days before high-fructose or low-glycemic anything, our father-daughter time was sweetened with Skybars, and family outings were fueled by orange slices—not the tree-ripened juicy ones, but the jellied candy kind—my dad’s idea of a power snack. It was my dad who gave me my first Whitman’s Sampler, a testament of his unconditional love and a test of my true feminine will power. How long after I ate the coconut mounds, the cherry cordials, and the other prime pieces could I let the box sit in my room before I’d cave and polish off those lingering dark ones filled with molasses and other things only Grandma really liked? Not long at all, I discovered and, by February 16th, I was using the empty box to store old photos and other keepsakes. I’m pretty sure that was the year I began associating Kodak moments—those happy times surrounded by love and family—with the haunting smell of recently devoured chocolate.
“Must be a girl thing,” says Tom, my husband of 44 years, whenever he sees me enraptured by Lindor truffles and such. Aside from the occasional sack of bull’s eyes he picks up from Mallard Mart, Tom saves his sweet tooth for blueberry pie. “This is the nicest thing you could ever do for me,” he reminds me each time I bake him one and he savors every slice. He could care less about chocolate, unless he’s playing middle man or needs a few pieces for bargaining chips. “If you really love me, just bring me a couple chocolates,” I tell him this time of year. And every year, he looks at me long and hard to see if I’m just saying no with my lips, while my very soul is shouting “Yes, please! Hand over a whole tray of Ferraro Rochers or don’t even bother!”
Yup, it’s a girl thing, all right, all tangled up in hormones, history, and borderline hysteria. And like all girl things, my man observes from a safe distance, teetering between being an enabler and waging tough love to try to snap me out of it. “Hey, don’t you really wanna save some of that for later?” he wanted to know the last time he saw my choco-holic tendencies get out of control. It was our first day of vacation in Hawaii and I was half way through a box of chocolate covered coconut and macadamia mounds.
“No,” I insisted silently, my mouth too busy and my brain too lost in luscious ooey, gooey-ness to speak. Couldn’t he see I was in paradise, for crying out loud—savoring every moment? Besides, the chocolates were a gift, waiting for me in a welcome basket the minute I opened the door to the condo. It was only natural that the pretty box with the palm trees and volcanoes caught my eye before the papayas and grapefruit at the bottom of the basket. But, knowing me all too well, he recognized the behavior. It was the same pattern he’d seen at Christmas when our daughter, Helen, made me rum balls with Godiva brownie mix and enough rum to make Captain Morgan lose his sea legs. “Yum, what a nice thing to give her Mumma,” I sighed, helping myself to just one more until, finally, the question became less about Helen’s love and more about how much did I love myself. And, if I really did, could I stop shoveling in rum balls?
“Brought you something,” Tom announced, returning home from his last grocery run to town. I perked up immediately. It was getting close to Valentine’s Day, after all. And, although I’d been fairly adamant about not wanting “a whole ton of chocolates,” I knew he cherished me like no other. He smiled sweetly, and I could hear the faint rustle of cellophane as he reached into his coat pocket and deposited two Lindor truffles into my hand. “Oooh…the peanut butter filled ones,” I said, “My favorite!”
He’d barely gotten his coat off before I called after him. “Got any more?” I asked, mouth full of half-melted heaven. “I’ll make you a pie!”
Note: The following is an update to Portraits of Thanksgiving, published in November 2010.
Back in my teens and early twenties, I thought posing for the family Thanksgiving photo was kind of annoying. Just about the time I’d be digging into my carefully allocated favorite foods—while declining any not-so-favorites still circling past me in the hopes I’d free up some precious plate space—the request would be made. “Look up…over here…and smile everybody!” I’d oblige, mid-mouthful, smiling just enough to not mess up my spearing and shoveling momentum. Even when I became a hostess rather than a guest, I’d pause only for a half-seated pose, saying “cheese” then “Who wants more gravy?” mid-route back to the kitchen.
“What’s the big deal?” I wondered silently. “We all know what we look like. Besides, I already have a shoe box full of these different-year-same-dining room-table-type shots.” And then, I found the old Polaroid.
Sometime in early motherhood, when the little girl things I’d taken for granted became vitally important pieces of a legacy I needed to preserve for my own girls, the dusty shoe box turned into a treasured archive. And digging way down to the bottom, we found a real gem—one of my first Thanksgivings captured in black and white.
The year was 1958. Nine of us are seated around my Nana’s table: myself, my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, my sister, my mother, and my grandparents. We’re all in various stages of spooning and serving and planning out second helpings when the camera freezes us for a happy, hectic instant. I am two-and-a-half, perched on a step stool beside my Nana in a frilly dress I still dimly remember. My mother, seated on my other side, has just turned 30. She’s beaming a wide, relaxed smile while her arm is poised like a safety spring to hold me, her youngest, from toppling over and taking the holiday festivities down with me. Nana, looking over her shoulder with a hasty grin, seems to be saying something vintage Nana like: “Hurry up and take the picture before everything gets cold!” The only evidence of my Dad in the portrait is the burst of his flash bulb in the upper corner of the mirror hanging over the table. Below, three generations of heads turning toward the photographer’s light for a few immortal seconds, are reflected in the mirror, too.
Now much older and a potential Nana myself, I’ve stockpiled a hefty share of special Thanksgiving prayers. For family and food, love and well-being. And always before saying them I think back to that old Polaroid print, knowing that it’s in the scanning of the grey setting that my here and now becomes vivid. Because all the adults—the grandparents and parents posing at that Thanksgiving table—are now long gone. After the flash bulb burst and my Dad sat back down, we all went back to our steaming plates, blissfully unaware that most in our precious gathering would, one by one, be leaving the table way too soon. Especially my Mum, who looked up from her holiday feast thinking she was posing for just another snapshot. How could she know she’d already lived two-thirds of her short life?
Forever freeze framed in my memory, the actual photo from 1958 is stashed in my attic archives, somewhere amid the decade-old Big Move to Rangeley larger boxes of unsorted knicky-knacky stuff I’m still saving for a someday project. Someday, I’ll take it out of the shoe box and preserve it like it really deserves, framed for all posterity amid the prints of my daughters’ birthdays, holidays, vacations and everything in between. Someday, sometime mid-February, when I’m finally ready to take up scrap booking to get myself through another Rangeley winter. Meanwhile, I’ll keep focusing on the newer pictures playing on perpetual repeat in my head. Set in a storybook of my own making, it stars me and my beloveds during another year of challenge and loss, of beauty, hope and abundance, of my wildest dreams unfolding before me. This Thanksgiving, as I pause, smile, and really look at my family around the table, I will celebrate being there with them, and how blessed I am that the people I can be close to again are the same like-minded souls I want to be close to…forever. This year, I’ll give special thanks for the medical miracles that touched my tiny corner of Maine. For the days we each got vaccinated with huge grins and waiting winter-white arms. And, especially, for the day I walked away from Maine Medical Center and my angels in scrubs with a brand new hip and a heart full of hope, flipping the page on my fear that the next stop was a wheelchair. Those memories shine like a billboard now, fading out the images of what could have been with the light of newfound freedom. And they pave the way for new ones, like recommencing cousins reunions where we update the 60-year-old Thanksgiving picture and toast to grey hair, grandkids and longevity.
I’ll gladly be sitting still for this year’s picture, aware that it IS a big deal to be another year older around the same old table. And I’ll still never lose sight of my antique Thanksgiving Polaroid. It’s a necessary backdrop, a reminder of my essence and my impermanence, a gentle warning that, in contrast, my here and now is too vibrant for me to dwell on portraits of my life gone by. Spirit willing, it lets me picture myself well into my 80’s surrounded in living color by my family and friends, focused on the blessings right in front of me.
If ever there was a time to call a moratorium on April Fools’ Day, this would be it. With the pandemic and everything else going on in the world between last April and now, I just don’t need more shock and awe even if it’s supposed to be all in good fun. Besides, what would the jokes be about this year? Cancelled vaccine appointments? Lost stimulus checks? Scary fake rumors about Saddleback and fishing regs? Definitely not funny!
So, once again, when April Fools’ Day came around, I did unto others as I would have them do unto me. Nothing. No gags, no practical jokes, no tee-heeing as I watched friends and family make buffoons of each other.
I did break protocol a bit this year, though, just for a sanity check. I never used to flip my calendar until a week or so into the month. But standing in my kitchen the other day taking a long, mournful look at the snow squalls blanketing my yard, I couldn’t help but sneak a peek at the new month’s calendar page. “Ha! Real funny!” I snorted, verifying the date under the spring green landscape the calendar publisher thought would be accurate. “Maybe I should hang my Christmas stuff back up, put on some carols, and just let myself go full-out crazy.” Then I wondered…if I did go totally nuts in my little snowbound cabin in Rangeley, would anyone know? Tom might, but I’d have to be severely symptomatic. Beyond that, I probably wouldn’t get a phone call or even a silly email because, for years, I’d been begging to be left the heck alone. If I didn’t lend any credence whatsoever to first-day-of-April customs, I hoped those who did would bypass me in their celebrations. “Wish granted,” I sighed. As I let the calendar fall back to March, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of loneliness knowing that my pre-retirement days of commuting to a cubicle—where I’d enjoy the camaraderie of being suckered into some silly office prank—were over.
Apparently, some Medieval hoaxers felt the need to set aside a special occasion for ridiculing other villagers, so they proclaimed April 1 as “All Fools Day.” How thoughtful! And how noble that everyone in modern society from school children to scientists still sanctions a day for poking fun at each other! Could it be that those who perpetuate such rituals are fed up with Christmas compassion, are sick of Valentine sweetness and are dreading Mothers’ Day devotion so they reserve a day in between to cut loose with a little bad behavior? I’ll bet the worst of them—knowing that, come April 15, they’ll have forked over large reserves of hard-earned cash to the IRS—especially look forward to the day when they can lighten their own anguish by evoking momentary shock and discomfort on others.
Yup, I bowed out of the foolish festivities and called a truce years ago. After decades of allowing family members to entertain themselves at my expense, I begged them to let me off the hook. “How about from now on April 1st just slips by me uneventfully?” I asked. “Spare me further trauma.” Seems like they listened. They decided my longevity and sanity were worth a bit more than their glee at scaring me silly or watching me make an ass out of myself “all in good fun.” Besides, those who love me enough to play pranks on me have realized I don’t need any help from them to feel foolish. I manage to do that all by myself year-round.
Now, when I say “foolish”, I don’t mean I spend most of my days feeling like I’m walking around in slippers curled up at the toes and a floppy hat with bells on it. I’m referring to the occasional need to look around to see if anyone noticed me doing something ridiculous or, at worst, the desire to leap into a big hole if only one would open up right next to me. My stunts couldn’t hold together a Three Stooges script. But they do supply enough self-induced embarrassment over the course of a year to, I guess, spare me that extra special dose come April 1st.
I’ve made an August fool out of myself a couple times, for example, on account of keys. I wound up standing on the steaming pavement with curdled milk and sour kids in my shopping cart peering at my car keys through electronically sealed glass. And, even though I was in my 20’s, I’m probably still getting extra numskull credit for the time I locked myself out while sunbathing on the second-floor roof of my apartment house. The rest of the house, you see, had been converted into doctor’s offices, and the only soul who could get me into my third-floor apartment before sundown was a nurse working downstairs. I had to wait, overlooking Edgerly’s Funeral Home and Friendly’s restaurant half dressed, until she came out to her car at lunch. To this day, I’m still grateful she didn’t decide to brown bag it that day!
So, if I do something foolish but no one is around to see or hear it, have I really made a fool of myself? Nope, not in my book. But having witnesses who would otherwise be going about their daily business means I’m downright dopey. That was certainly the case when, as a young mother, I lost patience with a game my daughter Helen used to play with her little sister. She’d grab Becky by the hood of her snowsuit and, holding her at a 90-degree angle in the shopping cart (a common thread in my misadventures), emit a series of banshee wails in her ear until she screamed back. Having enough of it one day, I suddenly stopped shopping, whisked Helen toward me by the collar, and did a 30-second simulation of her howls and snarls into her left ear: “EEEEoooo.. .arf, arf. . .owoooo. . !” She was startled, but not nearly as stunned as her kindergarten teacher who saw my entire performance.
Another thing I’ve come to wonder is if I can blame major blunders on malfunctions other than my own. Or perhaps idiotic occurrences are mostly brought on by equipment failure between my ears? If you’re unsure of the difference—how I determine where the actual blame lies for certain snafus—let me offer a couple illustrations. I’ll begin with defective clothing, one of the most degrading malfunctions.
A family member who shall remain nameless once left her half slip behind on a downtown sidewalk. It just lost all elasticity and slithered to her ankles. Not her fault, especially since she was very slim. And not too terribly humiliating since she just stepped out of it without ever breaking stride. Nobody even noticed how this young woman deposited her undergarment on Main Street. She never really lost face and was able to blame the malfunction on the fashion industry.
I wasn’t so lucky the time at a cookout I tried to implicate poor manufacturing instead of myself. Squeezable mustard bottles had just come on the market and I managed to spray several bystanders and my host’s patio ceiling in an attempt to squirt some on my hotdog. When I couldn’t make any come out, I kept squeezing harder until the plastic nozzle with the arrow indicating “open” blew right off the top. “Foolish thing!” I grumbled. Everyone was sympathetic, though, because they knew the foolish thing wasn’t inside the bottle but behind it.
Whatever the causes, after so many episodes of being the poster girl of goofiness, I’m appreciating my April Fools’ Day abstinence. No more tee-heeing, muffled ineffectively behind perpetrators’ palms. No belly-busting bursts of giggling or fingers pointed in my direction as I hang my flushed face in disgrace. And, so what if I do something ridiculous all on my own? There was, after all, more than beautiful scenery beckoning me to a life of relative seclusion in a remote part of Rangeley!
Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you will never walk alone. — Rodgers and Hammerstein
My Year in Review slideshow was shaping up to be kinda dull. Same Rangeley lake blues and forest greens but, comparatively speaking, the picture reel I’d play back in my mind when 2020 was finally over lacked the color and variety of a normal year. No aquamarine tropical getaways with my fuchsia-tipped toes in the sand. No tie-dyed roller coaster or concert adventures. No festive candids of cousins or college girlfriends coming together again.
Then Dwight came into the picture. A red-shirted, striped-socked ambassador of goodwill and goofiness, he burst into my bubble and took me on an amazing virtual race around New England.
“Dwighto!” I yelled into the phone last summer, his college nickname coming back naturally like we’d been strolling around campus just yesterday. But, aside from Christmas cards and Facebook messages that now joked about Medicare rather than keg parties, we’d lost touch. “Ummm…whatcha up to these days?”
Probably some fund raising thing, I thought. Probably involving Big Macs and little kids. Hopefully not something that would make me want to haul out the “Sorry, I’ve already chosen my charities” card and hand it to an old friend I hadn’t talked to in 20 years.
He was taking on a new summer retirement project, he said, supporting the Ronald McDonald House Charities of New England (RMHCNE). Its mission, providing housing near major hospitals so families could stay close to their critically ill children, was near and dear to him. So, after almost 40 years in the McDonald’s business, he was doing more than serving on the board of directors.
Oh, here it comes, I said to myself. The big pitch. He was excited, telling me about RMHCNE this and that. In much the same tone he’d get if we ever asked him things like “What’s really in a Chicken McNugget?” Calmly, convincingly, he’d explain about the “100 percent white meat chicken with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”
But me being such a lousy listener, and him being such a smooth spokesman, at first all I heard during our phone call was “critical funds…blah…blah…blah” and “joining my mission.” Until he said something about “coming up to see you guys.”
“Looks like you and Tom are closest to Rumford,” he said, “and the McDonald’s on Route 2.” But he’d also be stopping by the Golden Arches in Farmington and then Bethel, if that was more convenient. “I plan to walk 20 to 25 miles per day.”
Wait…WHAT??? I perked right up. He was walking here. From Boston. And back again.
“Yup, walking,” Dwight confirmed as my investigative reporter instincts kicked into high gear. More than 1,000 miles in 58 days. To all seven Ronald McDonald Houses in New England, and 67 local McDonald’s restaurants in between. Starting at the Boston Harbor house in mid-August, then coming full circle by mid-October. If all went as planned, he’d be strolling toward Rumford around September 6.
Wow, I thought, not your average walk for charity! Or even your average walk, as in “I’m going out for a walk” where I’d be out and back in before Tom started to realize I’d left the house. And if he did, he’d know exactly where to come find me on my well-worn route.
“When I retired, I went from 60 miles per hour to zero overnight,” Dwight explained. “I got fat. And when I started doing something about it, I discovered I was really good at walking. A loooong ways without stopping.” In the process, he thought about the families he served as a long-time RMH fundraising volunteer. What was it like to need to stay by your critically ill child’s bedside as much as possible when you’re miles from home? What could he do to make a difference, to pay forward his gratitude for having five healthy grown children and six grandchildren? His walking meditation turned into a daydream, which then turned into a plan—an action plan for raising at least $100,000, for “keeping families close.”
“That’s SO cool!” I said. And so Dwighto.
Although he’d never admit it, Dwight had a flair for putting the extra on top of ordinary, for methodically and unpretentiously going above and beyond till he made everyday things better every day. He fairly strutted off the UNH graduation field into owning and operating one of the most successful fast food franchises in New Hampshire, then proceeded to give back wherever he could. And yet, apparently the managing, coaching, community-building guy still had a bit of a wild streak. The kind that prompted the rest of us to ask things like “You’re gonna do what?” and “Are you sure?” The kind that made me and my girlfriends once tell him he had “a Robert Redford thing goin’ on.” Blonde, blue-eyed with a sense of humor that easily tempered his serious side, Dwight had just enough Sundance Kid charisma to make you want to go his way.
About time I got to tease and compliment my friend in person, I thought as our phone call wound down. “We’d love to meet up with you,” I said. “Have a nice dinner when you…”
It took awhile for it to happen, crashing our conversation, crushing my enthusiasm. But suddenly my “aw crap COVID” consciousness came charging back, halting me at the brink of crazy talk territory. Dinner…inside? A couple drinks…like…in a bar? Sitting around reminiscing about 1977 as if it was still 2019? Shoot, no matter how our old friend managed to come close to our bubble, we all wanted to live out a long retirement, to keep walking toward new horizons, fishing favorite spots, doing whatever kept the gleam in our golden years.
“Dammit, Dwighto! Tom and I will see what’s happening by September. But we really are taking this Corona thing seriously.”
“Yeah, I hear ya,” he said. He was, too. Which was why, despite everything, he had to move forward with his mission. Not being able to host its usual annual fundraising events, RMHCNE had lost a huge source of funding for current operations. He was their hope, their crazy, brave inspiration for reaching out and coming together in a farther than arm’s length new world. COVID could put a few bumps in the road, but couldn’t stop him. So all spring and early summer, Dwight continued to train, walking up to 25 miles a day—mapping out his route, his stops and overnights—and driving it with his wife, Audrey. He practiced washing his clothes in hotel sinks, gleaned safety and health tips from his family, from athletes and Appalachian Trail hikers and from anyone who knew anything about backpacks, footwear, and hoofing it solo through the countryside.
“Let’s sneak up on it,” we agreed. We’d make a plan for how we could get together and how I might be able donate my social media skills to help spread his story. Full of early summer optimism, I flipped to September 6 on my desk calendar and scribbled “Dwight…dinner in Rumford?”
Then I did just that…snuck up on it. Like a sloth rather than the energizer bunny Dwight really deserved. When I should’ve been mentally chomping at the bit behind the starting block, high-stepping in warm up mode, the first time I saw his ginormous “Join the Journey Home” spreadsheet detailing all 10 legs of his route, all I could muster was a tepid “huh…” If so much simple, everyday living had to be re-routed around the damn pandemic, I wondered if a one-man marathon based on faith, trust and who knows how many hurdles along the way could possibly stay on track.
Went to college with this guy, isn’t he cool? For July and half of August, that was my angle, how I’d give a shout out about my one degree of separation from someone fearless and fascinating. From there, I wasn’t sure how I’d remain rooted in Rangeley and stay in step with Dwight’s story.
Then he took off. And brought me with him.
“Yippee! Dwighto’s off and running…or, I mean walking!” I yelled to Tom as I replayed the live video from outside the Boston Ronald McDonald House. It was August 17th—Departure Day—just like it said on the ginormous spreadsheet. And I’d been “sneaking up on it” still, out riding my bike over dirt roads and logging bridges, about as far away from Mile 1 down in Boston Harbor as I could be. “Wow. I guess he’s really doing this!” Tom marveled, leaning into the screen to watch his college “roomie” wave to the camera and start his long trek north. Clad in Ronald McDonald red and white striped socks, a bright red t-shirt showing Ronald reaching out to help, and long, baggy shorts—carrying a big backpack with flashing safety lights—he was one heck of a roadside sideshow.
Ready, set…GO! I’ve never been one to spring into action at the sound of a starting pistol. Ever since I had to sit on the bleachers for school field day, the only time I even try to beat feet is when I see a snake or want to gain ground at Six Flags or a U2 concert. But one look at my colorful friend becoming a blip on the horizon and I was scrambling for a way to walk a thousand miles in his shoes and bring others along, too. Fast. I finally opened the spreadsheet and my tool box and became Dwight’s walking buddy in the best way I knew how.
“Went to college with this guy, isn’t he cool?” I said a few days later when I shared a link to My Journey Home—Journey of 1,000 Smiles, a blog I ghost wrote from Dwight’s frequent updates. I maxed out the Google Maps walking route feature with my visual translations of his loop around New England. Then I almost went color blind to anything not red or yellow selecting the day’s shots from all the Happy Meal hued photos stacked in my inbox. McD’s welcoming crews, all thumbs up upon Dwight’s arrival, a myriad of golden arched meets and greets up the NH coast into Maine, friends joining him for a few miles and passersby handing him money and cheering him on—town by town, the pictures were like a slideshow set on fast forward. And keeping pace with a story line was exhilarating. Virtual or not, I hadn’t felt that much like a real roving reporter since back when I jogged an entire parade route covering a Ronald Regan campaign stop!
By the time I talked to Dwight from his hotel near the Portland Ronald McDonald House, I think he was getting used to me tagging along. What’s up? Where are you? Whatcha eating for dinner? Who’d you see today? How many McD’s have you visited so far? How much money is coming in? How’s the weather been? He’d barely get his sneakers off and sink into his hotel bed before I’d call and start playing nightly news anchor.
When Dwight actually came walking toward me outside the Boardwalk Inn in Rumford, it felt surreal to be three dimensional with him. Like we were in our own blog, simulating the next exciting episode for real. It was one of those sunny late summer days we locals love to brag about, and I was sitting at a picnic table that seemed like it was sent straight from Heaven. COVID restrictions aside, I’d forewarned our friend that dinner + Rumford wasn’t typically part of a memorable night on the town. So being able to “dine out” on the deck right outside his room was a dream come true.
Dwighto was so stoked to stop, sit and eat all at the same time he sat right down in his clown duds and devoured the sandwich, chips, ice cream, cookies, and whoopie pies we brought from the Oquossoc Grocery. Between bites, he entertained us with travel stories, about how more and more supporters were recognizing “the clown on the side of the road” and boosting his running tally with online pledges and drive-by handouts. He was digging down to the bottom of his quart of Giffords Chocolate Lovers when I posed the one burning question I’d been holding onto till I could get an up close (as possible) and personal answer: “How in the heck have you not tripped yet?”
“Not sure,” Dwight laughed. “But I think about it a lot, catching a toe on the pavement or rolling off the sidewalk.” Then he got serious again—Chicken McNugget serious. “Off the record” he said, “I do have really bad blisters on my feet, which never happened before in training. I’m toughing it out, though.” Later, he’d tell me that the almost 30-mile stretch from Farmington to Rumford he covered that day was one of the toughest of the entire journey. All he’d had for fuel since his early morning McMuffin was a couple small bags of peanuts and a granola bar. “Not densely populated with places to stop in for a snack along that section of Route 2, never mind a sneaker store, if you know what I mean,” he said.
Certainly did. That’s why I gave him the extra whoopie pies and cookies, compliments of the Oquossoc Grocery staff who wanted “to help him on his way” the next morning. And I relayed a tip from a seasoned hiking source. “Duck ’em,” I said. “Cover your bandages in duck tape so there’s no friction over your feet. It’s how Mainahs make do till they get down country again.”
Promising to stay in touch and get closer—crowded together and rowdy closer—as soon as safely possible, we called it a night and walked to our truck. Dwight was doing his “end of the day limp” and I was doing my everyday slow shuffle, hanging onto my hiking poles for stability and trying not to trip. “Good thing I’m a much better virtual walking buddy than an actual one,” I joked. If Dwight was surprised, he concealed it with a brotherly grin and a pat on the back. All night, I’d been hiding my hiking poles under the picnic table like I’d hid my cerebral palsy most of my adult life. Until recently, when the “mild” birth condition I’d always overpowered with bullish determination began pushing back harder than ever in its attempts to sideline my 64-year-old body. Now there was no more staying “off the record” with my loss of mobility.
More days than not, I was able to do 13-mile trips on my beloved e-trike. But my three to five mile jaunts—where people saw me as “the up and down the road lady”—were a thing of the past. And I was afraid that soon I’d just be writing about walking. Sitting at my desk moving my fingers instead of my legs.
Dwight’s story was on a whole different scale, but how did he do it? With everything at stake, how did he keep pushing forward without getting overwhelmed? “Hour by hour and, sometimes, step by step,” he confided. He always knew where he was on his 1,000 mile, 58-day, town by town spreadsheet, but didn’t drag the enormity of it down the road with him. “Some mornings it seems like 20 miles might as well be 200. Like I know I did it yesterday but today who am I trying to kid. And other times, I get on a roll and surprise myself. I look ahead and, wow, there’s my next stop already. I’ve done what I set out to do.”
Driving away from Dwight, I started seeing the topography of my everyday travels in a whole new light. No longer blurred in the periphery outside the truck tires, I imagined Dwight negotiating each twist and turn, rise and dip with sure, steady feet. “Dwight walked here,” I thought the next time I rode the maze of roundabouts and river crossings along Route 2 outside Rumford. I saw him laughing on his way past the giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Blue I promised he couldn’t miss, then heading on his way southwest.
Over to New Hampshire and Vermont, down into Western Massachusetts, across Connecticut and Rhode Island. Each state’s place markers in the long red chain on my Google Maps route came to life with daily pictures and running commentary as Dwight circumnavigated New England till the blog was one scrolling collage of “Go, Dwight, Go! You Got This!” signs and fan photos. Still animated from his visit, I could now see myself vividly in the journey. And the more I remembered Dwight’s words about not losing ground to fear and doubt, the more I left my editor’s chair and felt him walking with me.
“C’mon Joy, you got this!” I could hear him, along with my family, cheering me on as I put one foot in front of the other, back and forth, till I’d done a mini marathon out in the driveway. Day after day.
“You gotta do one other thing for me,” Dwight said the last time we spoke. He was nearing the home stretch and we were sorting through the pictures of his sixth Ronald McDonald House visit for an update to my “look where our hero Dwight is now” links on the RMHCNE Facebook page. “Please don’t call me a hero. There are plenty of real heroes out there. I’m not one of them.”
No one likes to argue with a clown, especially a clown with duck taped feet who is all “off the record” serious and “100 percent white meat” defensive. So I did what he asked and kept the title to myself. It was moot, anyways. Because by the time he strolled back to the finish line on a rainy October afternoon in Boston, he didn’t need my words of distinction. We all knew—the friends, families, and everyone who joined in along the way. Dwight had walked over 1,000 miles in 58 days, stopping at 67 McDonald’s restaurants and all seven New England Ronald McDonald Houses. Raising more than $125,000, he helped pay for over 840 nights worth of lodging for loved ones who needed to stay close to their child’s bedside.
Around Christmas, Dwight sent a thank you note—for the “amazing” blog, and the special summer picnic he said helped him recover and kept him on track. It was followed by a hard-bound photo book commemorating the Journey Home. I don’t need to flip through it often to jog my memory. But when I do, I’m thankful. For the bright red blip on my horizon who shifted my focus beyond the limits of 2020, the sorry situation, and the state of my shrinking world. For my old friend and walking buddy, Dwighto, my reluctant hero.
“Don’t forget, be here this Thursday afternoon for composites!” one of my sorority sisters would announce over dinner each spring. First time I heard it, I had a Hill Street Blues moment, wondering why we needed an appointment with a police sketch artist. There’d been a particularly rough night that weekend when one of the girls allegedly went missing in the alley between the Keg Room and the house. But, far as I knew, all sisters were currently present and accounted for.
In sorority lingo, composites meant composite photos, and no one could afford to be MIA for that. It was our chance to get gussied up and have our glam shot featured in the official University of New Hampshire Phi Mu lineup of ladies that year. The wall-sized composite would be framed and hung near the front entrance, making us the newest, brightest faces in a legacy of women that, at the time, seemed like it began in the dark ages. “For all posterity,” as my mother-in-law used to say when she’d sit for the camera. I didn’t think much about posterity back then. Or about needing to leave my mark on much. But I jotted a reminder in my calendar and yellow-highlighted it. Because I certainly didn’t want to be the hole in the tapestry—the weird “picture not available” girl with a name and white space instead of a face.
“Why didn’t I try harder to not look hungover or otherwise sleep deprived?” the girls and I wondered when we first saw ourselves in the finished composite. And I kicked myself for assuming that clear lip gloss and a touch of mascara was enough to make myself up for a portrait. Ah, well, good enough for black and white film, though, I thought. With our dark turtleneck sweaters and classic regal poses, we all seemed to fit right in—sisters from different mothers—captured in silver-toned sophistication for another year.
“It wasn’t that kind of sorority,” I tell people when they find out I was in one and start studying me from a new angle. How hard did she try to look like Farrah Fawcett? Did she wear mostly pink? Have PJ parties with Buffy and Mitzy? Nope, nope, and definitely not. We weren’t your typical stuck up/rich girl sorority. We were the party sorority. The one girls were comfortable calling their home after Alpha Xi Delta and Chi Omega didn’t invite them back. The one the frat guys came to looking for a fun date. We signed notes to each other LIOB for “Love In Our Bond” and sang Ramblin’ Woman, our theme song, every time more than a few of us got together and had a few too many. Still do.
And yet, surrounded by all that wild, kooky, unconditional love, I was alone. A solitary young woman bordered off from the composite whole. Oh, I had Tom, my then-fiancee, some dorm girlfriends, and family back home. But I kept myself freeze framed, under glass. On record, I was the fifth row from the top on the right-hand side of the Class of ’77. But in my heart, I wasn’t anyone’s girlfriend. Especially not my own. And I really didn’t like seeing myself smiling into the camera as if nothing was wrong.
It wasn’t so much being in front of the camera that bothered me. I was photogenic, so I was told, a poster girl for good orthodontia and clear skin. My mother used to call me her Ivory Soap Girl after the naturally pure-looking faces that sold soap back in her day. “Show me that smile,” she crooned each time I posed for a snapshot. For holidays, for prom, for first dates, for graduation. And then she was gone. The summer between high school and college, just weeks before I was heading off to UNH, she died so suddenly I went from “spreading my wings” to never wanting to lift myself off the ground. For years, I couldn’t put a picture of her out on display or look at a “happy” one of me for very long, couldn’t bear to see myself grinning into a camera without her in the picture. Her smile reminded me of my smile, the one she easily prompted in my pre-liftoff days when we’d sit around and chat about decorating my dorm room, about Tom, and all that girl-talk stuff I’d never be able to take for granted again.
I wouldn’t realize for decades that it was normal to want to isolate myself from other women, to feel awkward about sharing recipes, clothes, or hair styles. It was just me, I thought, arrested in development. I didn’t want to be motherless at barely 18. Didn’t want to admit it, discuss it, to be that much different from the other girls figuring out womanhood. So I faked it. I joined Phi Mu in my junior year and, although I deemed myself “not good girlfriend material,” they didn’t seem to notice. Immersing me, whether I accepted it or not, in the feminine energy of my new tribe, they kept me from shutting down, kept me partying and singing and playing along, until I was ready to open myself up again.
“Woah, would ya just look at how young and hot we were?” That was the general consensus when, forty-some years later, one of the sisters unearthed her copy of our composite and brought it to our summer reunion at Robin’s cabin. “Why didn’t I appreciate being that skinny while I was that skinny?” one of us asked as we all craned our chicken necks, adjusted our bifocals as needed, and peered at our respective pictures. Yup…or appreciate my smooth, symmetrical face, my naturally white teeth, my good hair day, and my miraculous contact lenses, I wondered as I honed in on my 20-year-old self. Because even though, relatively speaking, I stayed young and slim and evenly proportioned for a long time, I could not tarry in that moment, could not just be that Joy back then. I wanted to hurry up and graduate, marry my sweetheart, and get on with life. Meanwhile, I’d bury my grief, conquer my insecurities, trying to be even thinner, smarter, all-around better.
“Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six,” I told the girls later that afternoon, reciting my favorite Nora Ephron quote. “If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four!” We’d stashed the composite and were splashing around in the lake—admiring how each other’s bathing attire covered without overly constricting our Nana-bods. We all laughed and reminisced about our skimpy two-piece suit days, pleased that each of us, along with our drink holder-sized margarita sippy cups, fit so well in our floating rafts without spilling over.
We laughed even louder when the whole bevy of us donned goofy tropical sunglasses for our official Phi Mu girls of summer group photo shoot. “It only took us 40 years, but we finally put some color into our composite!” I said, with a grin almost as bright as my heart-shaped flamingo shades. Forever “the writing major,” I dubbed us the “PHI a-MU-sing Besties” and offered to create a Facebook group. A special private one, we agreed, so we could tag posts of ourselves letting it all hang out without other friends and family members creeping on us. That way, even in the middle of winter, we could log on and relive all our fun and games. Except for the Cards Against Humanity game we played on Saturday night. Any mention of that, and all the definitions we had to learn from the Urban Dictionary, would stay officially off the record!
“Ya know, we really shouldn’t be so shy about strutting our stuff,” Deb said from behind her toucan glasses. “For a bunch of sixty-somethings, we’ve got it goin’ on!” Yes, time had been good to us, mentally and physically. We were healthy, active, engaged in our communities. We felt good about our jobs as mothers, as wives, as nurses, educators, scientists, program directors, as caregivers to parents passed and those still in need. We’d weathered life’s storms relatively unscathed. And, by gosh, we all had really nice hair and only a few well-earned wrinkles. “We’re having even more fun now than we did in college,” Linda declared, her bright blue eyes shaded by ice cream cone lenses. “But other than that, we haven’t changed.”
Yes and no, I thought. In the mirror, if I stood back far enough, I could still see vestiges of the fifth row from the top girl on the right-hand side of the Class of ’77 composite. But I had changed. On the inside, in my mind and in my heart. After years of convincing myself that Christmas cards and social media was enough—of asking why the heck I needed to drive all the way to Robin’s lake when I lived on my own—I was there. Really there. So much so, I wouldn’t need a picture to remind me. But when I saw one, all the colors and sensations of the moment would come bursting back to life. With me in it. Surrounded by beautiful, funny, talented, like-minded soul sisters, I’d recognize myself—not merely captured while wanting to be someone or somewhere else. Candidly caught in the act of living.
I call it there-ness. Being mindful in real time so photos don’t leave me vaguely bewildered, trying to recall being part of something that, apparently, I posed for. Being open so I don’t miss out on possibilities just outside my comfort zone. Showing up so I can be shown love and acceptance. After two Phi Mu reunions in a row, I knew I was finally getting the hang of the whole there-ness thing, of being one of the girls. I’d slowed down long enough, come to just the right place, to find my old college chums waiting, ready for me to catch up. When I did, I started becoming better girlfriend material all over the place. With my grown daughters, my “sistins” (sister+cousins), my sister-in-law (and love), and my almost long-lost biological sister. With the awesome Rangeley women who welcomed me to my forever home. And, especially, with my mother, my original best friend. She’s always in the periphery now, casting light.
Our next Phi Mu summer reunion would be even better, we decided as we left Robin’s. Maybe at Kate’s new house, or Donna’s. Until then, we’d meet up at Lynn’s, go see a show, go out to dinner. We wouldn’t wait for months on end to keep “the summer fun” alive.
But that was last summer’s fun. Before COVID-19 made it not such a good idea to cram into someone’s cabin to share every available inch of sleeping and eating space with women from five or six different states. Suddenly, connecting online seemed like a lackluster substitute for real face time. Until the Ramblin’ Women zoomed into cyberspace!
“Well hello ladies! Looks like we got our composite back, and it’s the Phi Mu version of Hollywood Squares!” I said, doing my best Paul Lynde impression. We were on our first of many Zoom chats, and I was thrilled to see how a shared giggle could simultaneously highlight so many side-by-side screen profiles. Fifteen of us had logged on, and were queued up beaming into our devices from living rooms as far away as Alaska and Australia. “Hiiiiii!” we’d holler, or “There she is!”—shouting out each other’s names like a bunch of laughing gulls flocking up after a long winter. For the next hour or so—one by one or all at once—we gave our coping with Corona reports. So far, we were all well and accounted for, taking it day by day, joking when we wanted to scream. Crying when we couldn’t help ourselves. I peered round and round the chat room at each lovely face, mine included, until the edges of my laptop screen disappeared and we were all back at Robin’s, socially not distancing in our usual style.
“Wow…so many friends in one Zoom meeting! How did you deal with the constant interruptions, or figure out who should be talking when?” I got asked recently. Easy, I said. Like we always did, with a lot of yelling over each other. You can’t live in close quarters with a big bunch of boisterous women and not know how to jockey for air time. And what about Zoom fatigue? Don’t I get exhausted having to work so hard interpreting nonverbal cues and mirroring facial expressions through my video monitor rather than in person?
Not yet, thank goodness. Matter of fact, my “composite” chats make me feel the exact opposite. They energize me. With girl power and gratitude and hope and new perspective. And each time I sign off, blowing virtual kisses into my web cam as the online visits end, I feel like I’m in the last scene of Love Actually. While the Beach Boys sing “God only knows what I’d be without you,” the lens pans out. From each face, each pair of friends reuniting, zooming out to infinity, until I see how perfectly I fit in the mosaic of all things worth holding onto for a lifetime. Love, actually, is all around me. And it’s held together with lots of girlfriend material—soft, stretchy, super comfy, really good girlfriend material.
I was drifting back to childhood, watching the gigantic Snoopy float hover over the Macy’s parade, when the sound of Jim’s voice took me way back. Almost to the cradle. “Happy Thanksgiving from Moosehead to Mooselook!” he hollered in a voice roughened from years of talking over steam engines and chain saws.
“Same to you!” I said, glad that his hearing aid and the goddamn cell phone he kept threatening to throw in the lake were working at the same time. I was thankful just to be on his happy holidays list, to picture him leaning heavily on his hand-hewn cane gazing over at Mount Kineo as, once again, we wished each other all the best.
And I sure was glad I stuck to my story long enough for him to be part of it.
Two summers ago, I was ready to let the whole “returning to Moosehead” chapter of my life peter out and fade into memory. At least the part where I kept going “Back Where It All Began,” to the small cabin in Rockwood where my love for living by a big lake out in the woods first took root. Where I kept trying to find its original owner, forge a connection, and express my gratitude.
But I just couldn’t close that book. The mountain wouldn’t let me. Each time I looked across the lake at Mount Kineo—my rock, my childhood center of gravity—something deep and true kept whispering I was not alone. How could I be the only one who was so eager on the drive from Greenville to see the craggy cliff face loom up out of the lake, to fixate as it morphed to a gentle, forested giant just up shore from the Moose River? There had to be at least one other soul, hopefully a living one, who came of age as I did on the opposite shore—watching that serene, enduring mound of earth watching over me.
Long before I heard the term “happy place” or ever had a need to return there in my mind, I had the Rockwood shoreline of Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo. From the time I was six, my parents let me wander alone out to the dock without a life jacket or any concern that I was not being watched. I’d hop out of my sleeping bag before the lake got too riled up, fling a line as far out toward the mountain as my little casting arm was worth, and sit on an Army surplus canvas stool with one eye on my bobber for hours on end. Even then, I knew that my fishing pole was more or less something to do with my hands while I gazed across the water. “Looks like a giant, tree-coated woolly mammoth laid down beside the lake and decided to stay forever,” I remember thinking. And, despite being afraid of the boogeyman, the dark, and you name it, I felt as calm as the early morning lake, protected. No matter what, lake plus mountains equals good.Sostay. Rest. You belong here.“
As soon as my horizon opened wide enough to embrace the world beyond my mother and father, I fell in love with places like that. Places where the water meets the sky. Wide open blue and green places named after moose and rocks and safe harbors. And I fell hard. Especially for the tiny cabin my family stayed in across from my first favorite view. A cabin called HOJET.
HOJET was the first letters of each person’s name in the family who owned the cabin, my dad explained when I was old enough to spell out the sign that hung above the front door. Wow, I remember thinking. They built their own cabin here and claimed it forever with that red wooden sign. Everyone else, myself included, was a lucky visitor to HOJET, to this magical cabin with the made up name in the land of Bullwinkle and the beached mammoth mountain.
But who were they, this HOJET family? Some really nice people named Dunn who lived near us in Blandford, Mass., and let us stay there when they weren’t was all I knew. When and how money changed hands, I didn’t care. And did we need a key to get in? Or could we just pull on the curved branch of a handle, open the thick wooden front door and make ourselves at home? Who knew? All that mattered was it was ours. Mine. For Memorial Day weekend and another glorious week after school got out, everything in and around the cabin became my place, my movie reel of the simply wonderful things that could happen just because it was summer, we had that spot, and we had each other.
“Someone must feel something similar,” I said when I rediscovered the place on my birthday, Memorial Day weekend, more than 50 years later. “Or they wouldn’t have rebuilt expansions around the two-room camp and kept the old sign that told me for sure I’d come back to the right spot.” Yet, not seeing any signs of life or recent use, I wondered if maybe I was alone in my enthusiasm. After all, nonstop lake life wasn’t for everyone. As a year-round resident in a mostly summertime neighborhood on my other favorite lake, I knew that folks weren’t always as head over heels as I. Some loved conditionally, seasonally. Only when the bugs weren’t biting and their iPhones were connecting, and they could still get to town for some hustle and bustle. And while some husbands/wives might be tickled pink to stay upta camp for a long, long time…their wives/husbands…not so much.
The old cabin knew the real story. So did the mountain. But I was the only one who could tell what needed telling. So I did what I’d been doing since the first time I held a pen so long it left a callous. I poured my heart out, published “Back Where It All Began,” and started combing the North Woods for the right reader—that one kindred spirit who shared my sense of belonging—maybe way back before I ever came along and staked a claim. Then, when everything short of paying for a people search failed, I returned the following Memorial Day and shoved a copy of my story and a letter introducing myself inside the rickety screen door. And I stood there for a long time, gazing across at Kineo, trying not to question the perfect timing of the universe.
“Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river,” I reminded myself each time I reread my words, saw the last picture I took from the front porch. Putting it all out there in print had been pretty cathartic, landing a spread in the Rangeley Highlander so huge I should have been able to just look at it, pat myself on the back, and smile as I got back to minding my current events. But coming almost-full-circle just wasn’t enough. I wanted more, a new chapter, a new interpretation, some proof that, as Patti Digh says in her book Life Is a Verb, “the shortest distance between two people is a story.” I wanted the verb of my life to be about Moosehead—in future tense, plural.
Three months later, as the finest weather in Rangeley was doing its best to keep me here and now and focused on the lake right in front of me, I found Jim, my missing link. Or rather, he found me by finding the story I’d left at his cabin. He wrote right back, but I didn’t find his response in my PO box in time to answer. So he drove “only a hundred miles or so” out of his way from his house in Connecticut to introduce himself in person. And, after finding me not home, he left a note in my screen door. He’d really love for me to join him upta camp over Labor Day, he wrote.
“Not your typical story line,” I thought as I peeked over at Kineo on my way to Rockwood. “And one that might not translate real well in the retelling.” I was on my way to stay with some old guy I’d never met in a cabin I hadn’t set foot in for half a century. At night. Alone. Why? Because I was sappier than a maple sugar house in March and wanted the “happily ever after” part of the fairy tale. Because, at 63 years old, I clung solidly to my sense of home, of place, to my longing to cement whatever ancient memories I’d made there. Because whatever happened to bring my family and the Dunns together way back in Blandford (the teeny hillside town in western Massachusetts where was born), I needed to shed more light on it. If only to help me feel in my heart what time, the loss of innocence, and the loss of my parents had blurred in my head. Hiding in my mother’s garden with gladiolas towering over me. Eating my favorite Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup at the red, chrome-edged kitchen table in my jammies with rubber nubbin Spoolie “Sunday school” curlers in my hair. And leaving there in the pre-dawn dark in the backseat of our Rambler to drive up to Moosehead.
So, there I was, heading down the steep, familiar slope toward the old camp, on my way back over that timeworn threshold to some sort of sequel—to whatever last pieces I’d be able to wedge into the central gap of an antique puzzle on the other side. To the man and the face behind the J in HOJET. And, all of a sudden, I didn’t even need to knock.
“You must be Joy from Blandford!”
There was Jim, welcoming me in a Yosemite Sam voice that muffled any whispers of doubt. Smaller than his voice and slightly stooped from age and injury, he still looked to be what I call “stugged”—sturdy and rugged as the log door he held open for me. And his face? Well, given my tendency to draw “what my dad would look like today” on other guys’ faces and my lack of subject matter much beyond age 70, I hadn’t tried too hard to imagine it. And even if I had, I’d have been wrong. In a good way. Picture Sean Connery letting himself go woolly and woodsy, swapping his tux for buffalo plaid, suspenders and moccasins, and tying whatever hair still grew on the back of his head so that it hung in a grey rat tail halfway down his back. That’d be the guy who hugged me hard and led me inside.
“I said to hell with going to the barber after I retired,” Jim told me later. A lifer Navy vet who couldn’t understand sitting still if there were things that needed tinkering, he left his last job as an auto mechanic when, at age 80, he “couldn’t lift the damn car engines no more.” We were sitting at the kitchen table his dad built, the central gathering spot for my family whenever hunger or the weather drove us inside. When it rained, I stayed there and drew so many pictures of a golden-spiked arc of sun peeking over the top of Kineo that, by weeks end, I could barely hold onto what was left of my crayons. And as soon as the supper dishes were cleared, out came the cards to play “Aw Heck,” also known as “Aw Hell” or worse when just grownups played.
I reiterated all this in great detail to Jim, of course, during his welcome back to the cabin tour. How I sat right there in the varnished log chair, also harvested and built by his dad way before people started shelling out hundreds of bucks to buy furniture like that out of a showroom. How my dad peered out that same window in the front door to see the neck of a six-foot-tall bear standing upright on the porch about as close as he could get to where my sister and I slept.
And Jim, of course, pointed out where the old cabin joined the new cabin. Where his dad rebuilt the original little shack that was hauled over from the logging camp on Farm Island into the cabin I visited. Where he later covered over the porch, added a new one, added bedrooms, a bathroom, some new used furniture, and all the little mementos and knickknacks from time spent there with his kids, grand-kids and great-grand-kids. The end result was 1950’s rustic retro meets 1990’s kitsch. And I loved every square inch.
“Good thing I rebuilt that silly HOJET sign, too,” Jim said. H was for his mother Helen, (my mother’s name, too), O for his dad Orman, J for him, E for his sister Ethel, and T for his brother Tom, he explained. “Without that, you probably would never have found the place again.” Or him, the only one left of that letter puzzle hanging over the front door, the last surviving Dunn.
And I certainly wouldn’t have found the two of us sitting side by side in our favorite chairs holding hands way past midnight, the book of word puzzles he did “just to pass the time” closed next to the third glass of wine he agreed to drink if I had another, too. We’d long since figured out that my dad “Mac” first found out about HOJET back in Blandford from Jim’s late uncle Ray. Because, more than likely, they’d crossed paths fishing the same waters around his hometown in nearby Huntington. “And I remember Mac, too, from visiting home when I was in the service,” Jim said, his eyes twinkling over his wineglass. When he raised a toast to then and now, I stopped trying to talk myself out of how very much his eyes reminded me of my father’s—a unique shade of hazel I hadn’t seen looking back at me in 20 years—and just let it be.
Three months after I left it and two years after the visit that prompted me to write it, Jim’s grandson, Scott, found my story and letter of explanation. They’d just opened up camp for what Jim thought might be one of his last visits to Moosehead. He’d signed ownership over to Scott and probably wasn’t going back. Because, after recently losing Mary, his beloved wife of almost 70 years, barely surviving a sideswipe collision with a tractor trailer truck, heart surgery, and other health scares, Jim Dunn was done. Done, he said, enjoying a lot of the things that used to bring him joy. Pretty much done with camp and all the bother that came with it. Until I reached out on paper “out of the blue” to show him how his story there was a shared one—and far from over.
“You changed my life!” Jim says with great gusto whenever we’re together, which is as often as possible and mostly at HOJET. He loves to retell his version of finding my story and the inspiration he needed right when he needed it most. And I never get tired of listening—to that and all his tall tales of Moosehead “back in the day.” Or how, whenever we eat at The Birches and people ask him if he’s ever been there before, he gazes up at the walls of the historic lodge, chuckles, and booms “Been here? I used to scrub down all these darn logs when I was 13 years old!” The stories go on from there. About how he hitch hiked from Massachusetts up to camp as a youngster and survived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until his dad came and got him and made him promise not to take off like that again unless he told someone first. How he worked log drives on the steamship Katahdin, and helped raise an orphaned black bear named Suzie, who lived in an open-door cage for 30 years and “only run off once to breed once ’cause she knew she had a good thing.” How he swapped all the gear in his buddies’ ice fishing sled with a live porcupine that hitched a ride all the way to Farm Island. The only long-term details that seem to have slipped Jim’s mind are those related to deer hunting. Over all the decades he’s been out hunting how many has he tagged? Well, he can’t really recall. That aside, he’s a story teller after my own heart. Nothing really ever happens to us or for us if we can’t regale all who will listen with our unfiltered, uncensored narratives.
“The courage it takes to share your story might be the very thing someone else needs to open their heart to hope.” A year ago, when I felt like my words had fallen into the void of some stranger’s abandoned dreams, that anonymous quote seemed like wishful thinking. But now, each time I see Jim “in his element,” bright-eyed and engaged and making new memories, it rings true. Our shared story is about giving and receiving hope. It’s about believing that, by intertwining our narratives around a beautiful, peaceful place that speaks to our souls, the ultimate story of why we are all on this earth becomes richer. A story that, in the end, anchors us like Kineo, now and forever.
“DJ’s coming upta camp with us,” Jim announced this past Memorial Day as my sister, Jan, and I were getting ready to go up and celebrate our birthdays with him. Jan, the only other original character left in my HOJET story, hadn’t returned for decades. And neither had DJ, Jim’s then 20-year-old great-grandson. He’d gone through an emotional rough spot, too, and hadn’t felt like going back to the place where he and his Pop shared so many happy times. “Until I just showed up on his doorstep all teared up with my stuff packed and said, c’mon, get in the damn car, I’m taking you up to Moosehead,” Jim said.
DJ followed his Pop’s orders. And after the silly birthday ladies and Jim swapped enough “good ole days” recollections to last him a lifetime, DJ stayed there for several more days, splitting and stacking wood, paddling in the canoe, going on moose rides, and just getting to know his great-grandpa again. Soon after he got home, DJ moved into Jim’s house, as did DJ’s new wife, Gabby.
“We all look after each other now like peas in a pod,” Jim says. But DJ, like Jim and his daughter, Cathy, his grand kids and other great-grand kids, seems to picture himself most at home at camp. His new “profile” photo shows him up at the cabin on his honeymoon with Gabby. And his “cover” photo is pretty much a copy of our favorite view—with him floating by Kineo for the first time since he was little. Jan took the picture, standing next to the headstone-shaped piece of granite Jim found on the property that now marks where he wants his ashes buried so he’ll never miss the view again.
“Happy Birthday from Mooselook to Moosehead, Jim!” I yelled into the phone on a cold, grey day in the beginning of January. “What’s it feel like to be 90?”
“No different a’tall,” he said. “Except I gotta remember to put a nine in front of my answer whenever somebody asks how the hell old I am!”
The “Happy Birthday to my favorite 90-year-old” cards were too corny, even for us. So I found one with a painting of a bear cub nestled up against a big ol’ papa bear and penned in ^ carets (low-tech precursors to the “paste” function meaning “insert here”) to make it say “Happy (90th) Birthday, (Adopted) Dad!”
Reading between the lines, we both know that it really is different, this birthday and however many more we get. Because, when the time was right and the Maine characters were willing, an afterword came to life with a refreshed plot, and a renewed sense of place. Because the scenario now stars an old guy and a younger, childlike woman who wanted a fairy tale. Fueled by wine and inspired by familiar turf, they sit holding handing hands and retelling the “good parts” late into the night out in the middle of nowhere. And especially because, thank God, I stuck with my original story, cast out my heart strings, and reeled in a keeper.
NOTE: The following was written by my daughter and first guest blogger, Becky Clough.
In early November, while at home in Maine, I shot my first deer. It was a gorgeous, golden fall morning a mere three days into the season, when a brawny buck with an early rut on the mind strode into the light of his final feed. With great weightiness I can say he did not know I was 50 yards away sitting so still, rifle raised, poised for a swift, ethical shot that I took without hesitation. He dropped in his tracks.
I approached the large beautiful animal, sobbing with disbelief. Taking my gloves off, I knelt with a hand on his head, put an acorn I’d been carrying in his mouth, then gave him a drink of my water. In offering his spirit a last bit of food and drink, I attempted to establish a grounding place—a foundation of respect for experiencing the long, arduous and emotionally complex process of actually harvesting my own meat instead of just thinking about it. This moment was three hunting seasons in the making, backed by unyielding support and education on the matter from my Dad. Although I’d spent countless hours sitting still, walking slowly, scanning the snow-filled forests of northern Idaho and western Maine, seeing deer tracks as I lay in bed at night every November, it never seemed like actually being in the right place at the right time, with the right wind, facing the right direction could ever manifest into a real deer. Until it did, quite suddenly.
After a congratulatory 6:20 AM sip of my Dad’s whiskey, and being engulfed in a long, proud hug wherein I wept into my Dad’s chest (and he told me whatever I felt was completely acceptable) it was time to snap a few photos and do the real work. (More thoughts on taking photos later.) Riding waves of emotion—disbelief, gratitude, heartache, sadness, relief—I committed to field dressing the animal while getting the feel of a buck knife in my hand as the third generation of Clough to carry it. I attempted to be careful and composed doing, frankly, the most grisly of tasks, which I’d only observed once before. I knew, though, that burying how I felt was not the point of hunting, and had never been one of my goals. In those visceral moments, bloodied and profoundly human, I was connected to my best self. Diving into something I did not fully understand, I was focused while also feeling. I was vulnerable, inexperienced and alright with it, telling myself it was okay to feel pleased and broken-hearted at the same time. Fifteen minutes later, as I removed the still-warm heart of that animal to bring home to a dinner plate, I felt a conflicted sort of contentment I’d been living too far away from for too long.
And yes, in regard to the tradition of posing in camo holding up the head of a beautiful, wild animal you’ve just shot, it is weird. And tiring. But I did smile. I also understood why, to folks who do not approve of hunting, such photos (and hunting in general) appear, at face value, to be grimly sporty and soul-less. How could I smile in a moment of such melancholy? Minutes before in my adrenaline-fueled cry, wasn’t I just lamenting how it felt so suddenly wrong because I respect wild animals perhaps more than I do most people? Well, I did not set out on this journey with expectations about the size or weight of a deer, or about counting antler tines as a way to determine my camouflaged prowess. I never thought in the many years that lay ahead of me I’d see a buck quite that mature while hunting, never mind have the right conditions to shoot it. Even now, weeks later, I still feel odd when my Dad, who is not known for his pride, urges me to show so-and-so the picture of my “big buck.”
I became a hunter in adulthood with a handful of simple goals: I wanted to keep putting effort into pursuits that lend to my increased self-sufficiency by way of filling my own freezer. I wanted to eat food that connects me physically and emotionally to a place and that place’s ecosystem. I wanted to remember that when I am eating meat I am eating an animal; an animal that lived wild and well and died quickly. I wanted to carve out a place in my own heritage from which I had become disconnected.
I am smiling in the photos. I’m smiling because I’m accomplishing my goals, because I know that few other hunters would feel the same deep sense of reverence I felt next to that animal, it being my first. I’m smiling because, for the next year I’ll have a freezer full of the best, leanest, 100% truly organic meat I can eat and share with my friends and family. I’m smiling because my Dad is taking a picture of his daughter, a successful hunter.
The following few days were filled with more opportunities to learn and feel my way through harvesting my own meat. With my nose to the grindstone alongside my experienced hunting buddies, I had space and time to verbally process my way through skinning, quartering, cleaning and butchering every morsel of venison off that deer, for which I am truly grateful. Under caring tutelage, I was shown the basics of the entire process, learning by doing things I don’t believe I could have tackled alone. It really wasn’t until that last step—butchering—that the whole experience started to feel less macabre and barbaric and more acceptable and satisfying. In fact, I found great joy in butchering, a task that was surprisingly intuitive and mindful. Finally getting to decide how thick I wanted my chops, what recipes I wanted to use with my rounds, whether or not I wanted more stew or burger throughout my winter, brought deer hunting back into a realm that felt well-balanced and wholly worth it.
It feels prudent as well to recognize that, although hunting is the original task, being able to and choosing to do it in modern times is a privilege not to be overlooked. Like many other sporting activities, hunting has become more expensive and commercialized than it needs to be. Even if done “on the cheap”, using thrift store camo that doesn’t fit, and a hand-me-down rifle, venison does not pay for itself. The monetary cost of hunter education, licenses, tags, firearms, ammunition and gas money can’t compare to the further luxuries of being mentored, of having the free time to scout, spend time at the range, and sit quietly in the woods for hours on end. I am grateful to afford and have access to such privileges.
But by far the best part of my hunt has come in the weeks to follow. Telling stories, and preparing meals with my loved ones. Sharing the bounty. There isn’t a more labor intense and pleasingly authentic meal I could eat, or pay for anywhere in the world, than the meals I’ve been eating with this venison. The first bite I took of tenderloin, seared in a well-seasoned hot cast iron and deglazed with the bourbon we had on hand, actually brought tears to my eyes. For a big, older 4×5 deer, the meat is tender and mouth watering. Besides the taste, and the umami unique to well prepared wild game, eating food that I brought from the forest to the table is an experience unparalleled yet in my life.
Heading north toward Rockwood, Tom slowed the Subaru to a crawl. I’d been peering out into the steady rain since way before Greenville, picking faded memories out of old landmarks, retracing my way through the steely blues and mottled greens of a Moosehead spring storm.
Then, at long last, there it was. Mount Kineo towering up out of the lake, its craggy cliff face dominating the fir-lined peninsula on the opposite shore. My rock. My childhood center of gravity, back in focus again for real! And, even though I knew it was silly to think it somehow would not have stayed put since the last time I laid eyes on it, I was giddy. The old mountain was still there for me.
Turning toward the dog, I said what I’d been longing to ever since our daughter convinced us that a handsome, rugged beagle pup deserved a legendary name. “Look Kineo…there’s KINEO!”
He wagged his tail, no doubt wondering why we were calling him more than once when he’d been perched right between us the whole ride up from Rangeley. Woods, water, more woods—kinda like home, but not. Probably smelled really good, too, if only he could venture from the back seat, stop teetering his front paws on the console, and just get out and GO.
Pretty much my feelings, too. But instead of an instinctive need to scour and sniff every inch of this legendary terrain, mine were a mixture of dogged resolve and calm reclamation. After four decades, I could hardly wait to be back on my old stomping ground, to seek out what had changed, immerse myself in what never would.
“Almost there,” I said. Almost to the bridge over the Moose River, to the road into The Birches. Almost all the way back. From that part of the lake, Mount Kineo would show a different side, morphing from a barren, imposing rock wall to the forested gentle giant that stood front and center in my earliest memories.
Long before I heard the term “happy place” or ever had a need to return there in my mind, I had The Birches shoreline of Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo. From the time I was six, my parents let me wander alone out to the dock without a life jacket or any concern that I was not being watched. I’d hop out of my sleeping bag before the lake got too riled up, fling a line as far out toward the mountain as my little casting arm was worth, and sit on an Army surplus canvas stool with one eye on my bobber for hours on end. Even then, I knew that my fishing pole was more or less something to do with my hands while I gazed across the water. “Looks like a giant, tree-coated woolly mammoth laid down beside the lake and decided to stay forever,” I remember thinking. And, despite being afraid of the boogeyman, the dark, and you name it, I felt as calm as the early morning lake, protected.
Life hadn’t begun to happen yet. I didn’t have anything to escape from, to overcome, no hurts that couldn’t be healed with a hug or a laugh. Yet something wise in my soul turned my time out on the dock into a teaching moment, instilled a promise in my six-year-old head. No matter what, lake plus mountains equals good. I was just learning to add and spell, to put thoughts and then words to the pictures my teacher flashed in front of me. But I already knew everything I really needed from the simple shapes and basic elements I learned to love that first summer. Go down by the water. Watch it pool around the rocks and ripple, as far as you can see, to the rolling hills and distant blue peaks. Stay. Rest. You belong here.
So began the indelible need to return, if only in my mind, to Moosehead and later, to Mooselookmeguntic. There, as life became sad or too serious, I could be six years old again. I could be whole, innocent, perfect. I could stare at the lake when I wanted to think—and when I couldn’t bear to think. I could stop myself from getting caught up in what I was supposed to be or do, and just be. I could remember my first pair of sneakers, of how proud I was to see them stretched out on the dock underneath me. They weren’t fancy, just plain old Keds. But compared to my “special” shoes (and the brace I’d be wearing by the following summer), those sneakers felt beyond average. They were magical. Never mind just looking at Kineo, I swore I could run all the way to the top!
“Kineo, I present to thee Kineo the wonder dog!” I said. We’d arrived at The Birches Resort long enough to throw our stuff into our cabin and turn around and gawk. Never having seen Roots, the dog was not moved by my Kunta Kinte impression. So I didn’t try to lift him over my head in ceremonial triumph and just let him plant his nose and all fours into the turf. Back inside, I marveled at how the little log housekeeping cabin had not changed much since the last time we stayed there in the ’70s. With its original field stone fireplace and log walls chinked with horse hair, the “Catch a Falling Star” cabin was only a few modern conveniences away from when it was built in the 1930s. Still “rustic with a view” as promised. And I was in heaven.
Not that Tom and I had gone without rustic with a view. Hardly. Thirty years ago, after selling our cabin way the heck up on the Seboomook end of Moosehead, our search for our next (and final) camp building lot brought us to Rangeley, to Mooselookmeguntic. We found the perfect spot, a gentle slope through the white birches down to a clear, cold, uncrowded lake. It reminded Tom of spending summers on Great East Lake, and me of my long, serene sojourns on my fishing stool. I couldn’t see Mount Kineo, of course. But I was surrounded by mountains in every direction. And I could definitely see us building a new legacy right here, tucked in the woods off the beaten track, but close enough to the picture postcard town of Rangeley.
Going back to Moosehead some day still surfaced in conversation from time to time. But how could we ever justify driving up there to stay in an old log cabin when we had our own good-as-new cabin on another big, moosey lake? The answer came in a serendipitous invitation from our friends in town. The same friends who remodeled our original Rangeley cabin into our dream home were building just up the road from The Birches. Would we like to come up and see their new lot? On my birthday weekend?
So there I was, Memorial Day weekend, sitting on a picnic table outside Catch a Falling Star, paying tribute, and realizing that booking a cabin as a birthday present to myself was a very smart move. Otherwise, once I saw that view, I’d have surely stayed right there anyways, immobilized, wonder struck. Had the image I kept in my mind’s eye really morphed from a crumpled Polaroid print—into the digital desktop wallpaper I found as inspiring as it was distracting—to materialize right in front of me?
On the morning of my birthday, I was still pondering. But in order to give myself the ultimate gift, I knew I had to step away from the picnic table and go a ways up the shore. Not way the heck up to Seboomook, but to a tiny log cabin just up the lake from where I sat. Back where it all began. To HOJET.
“Daddy, why’s the cabin called HOJET?” I asked, using my best Dick and Jane reading voice to sound out the wooden block letters that hung over the cabin door. It was 1962, my first trip to Moosehead, the first of many voyages down the Moose River and out across from Kineo onto the lake to dock in front of the two-room cabin. “Water-access-only” meant nothing to me yet, and wouldn’t for many years. Roads didn’t bring you to camp, not all the way. A 12-foot boat did, one crammed so full with boxes of canned food and the block of ice we had to buy in Rockwood to load into the ice box there was barely room for the four of us to bounce across the waves.
“HOJET,” my Dad said, “is the first letters of each person’s name in the family who owns this cabin.” Wow, I remember thinking. They built their own cabin here and claimed it forever with that carved sign. Way better than writing out “Joy’s Fort” (if I knew how to print that well) and hanging it above my special hiding place in the back yard. Everyone else, myself included, was a lucky visitor to HOJET, to this magical cabin with the made up name in the land of Bullwinkle and the beached mammoth mountain.
But who were they, this HOJET family? Some really nice people who let us stay there when they weren’t was all I knew. When and how money changed hands, I didn’t care. And did we need a key to get in? Or could we just pull on the curved branch of a handle, open the thick wooden front door and make ourselves at home? Who knew? All that mattered was it was ours. Mine.
For Memorial Day weekend and another glorious week after school got out, everything in and around the cabin became my place, my movie reel of the simply wonderful things that could happen just because it was summer, we had that spot, and we had each other. “Bare running through the woods!” my parents hollered each time my sister and I finally stripped off our wet bathing suits and scampered naked toward our PJs. Remembering the bears we saw at the Rockwood dump, we’d shriek with laughter, until the night one of them came to visit. Wondering what the commotion was on the front porch, Dad peered out through the diamond-shaped pane of glass in the front door and saw the neck fur of a really tall, fully upright black bear. They all figured I ‘d have nightmares, but they were wrong. I still loved to sleep in my bunk under the front window right next to the door. I’d snuggle in my sleeping bag, suspended on a log frame crisscrossed with rope, listening to my sister whispering from the opposite window bunk. “Don’t those loons sound like lake ghosts?” she’d ask. “Sssh! They’re just singing,” I’d tell her, and hunker down deep till the sun came back up.
“That was a looong time ago, honey,” Tom said. “A lot’s changed, especially with this road connecting the camps. Lots of people have torn down the really old cabins, built new ones. And, by now, even those new cabins are getting old.” Probably, I thought, as I followed him and Kineo up the road past The Birches. But possibly, some relics remained. And maybe, if I conjured up enough old birthday girl juju, I’d find what I was looking for.
“I’ve gone too far,” I said about an hour later when I walked down a driveway and looked across at Farm Island. Apparently the little girl steps I used to take in and around the string of cabins between The Birches and Black Point didn’t match the determined march of a woman in nostalgic overdrive. And my original path—through the Indian paintbrushes, around the spruce tree that Dad swore hid a nesting partridge I could never find again, past the front of the creepy “Boo Radley” camp—wasn’t easily translated to road miles. Maybe after we got the boat in the water I could re-calibrate, get my bearings. But that was doubtful, too. I’d found the Boo Radley cabin, its grayish-blue shingle siding and cobwebbed front porch no less creepy after another half century of disuse. Aside from that, though, I was lost in the Moosehead episode of HGTV Log Cabin Living. Tom’s advice to look for authentic, old-style—or added-on-to old-style construction—wasn’t workin’ for me.
So I did what I’d learned to do at times such as this. I called on my Spirit buddies, my Mom and Dad in Heaven. “Hey, guys, I know you know I’m here and it’s my birthday, and I’m hoping you can help me out a little, give me a sign. Wished I’d asked more questions years ago while you were still around. But if you could tell me now, that’d be great.” I’d turned around and was retracing my steps, noticing the “new” road signs at the top of some driveways that looked like they were from Anywhere Lake, Maine. Moose, loons, a black bear or two, cutesy plays on words about life on a lake with moose and….
I stopped, took a deep breath, and a long, hard look at big stone sign of a loon floating beneath vertical capital letters. From way back in my memory banks, a name surfaced to echo what I was seeing. THE DUNNS. I’ve got to get in touch with the Dunns and ask if we can use the cabin. My Dad’s words reverberated through me as I headed down the driveway, hoping I was right. Was the honey-colored natural log exterior now stained a chocolate-brown with an L-extension built off to the side? Could that small back stoop outside the kitchen window be the same one the bear tracked past as he ambled out of the woods? The location seemed right, the view across the lake to Kineo spot on, the pitch down to the lake the same.
And there it was—a front porch leading up to a weathered front door on a small original cabin. Above the curved branch of a door handle and the diamond-shaped window hung a block-lettered sign made of ancient wood: HOJET.
I froze. My body didn’t want to budge from where I stood bolted in place. And yet, I felt myself moving. Every cell—all that I was and ever would be—rushing, pushing, reaching out in larger and larger circles of distant memories that rocketed back to my very core. I was six again, running up the path from the dock in my magic Keds, dangling a breakfast-sized brook trout from my pole. “What a nice treat for your Daddy’s birthday!” I could hear my mother chirp, her smile so broad she always looked like the sun was full on her face. I could smell the fish frying with a side of eggs, could count the playful slaps I gave my Dad on his rump as he stood in the kitchen. “Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. But you said you’re thirty-three years old today,” I giggled. “If I give you that many birthday spanks, my hand will fall off!”
“I found HOJET!” I cried out to Tom.
“What the heck is a HOJET?” I imagined him saying. He’d forgotten that part of the story and, I guess, never sat around Great East with his family stringing together initials for potential Clough camp signs like my family did after our reading material ran out. He brought the dog around front so they could see for themselves, while I cried happy tears, mumbled gibberish, and watched Kineo across from Kineo, exploring every inch of my beloved landscape.
I never did meet the Dunns, not that trip. But when I do, I’ll thank them. For my best birthday present ever. For their new and old signs that pointed me home. For giving me the foundation to “move up to camp for good,” to a home that still has the old, original cabin where my girls spent summers laughing and playing at its center. And then I’ll ask if I can look around some more. Hopefully, as kids and grand kids of the first Dunns of HOJET, they’ll understand why I need to anchor myself there now and again—to let my past flow from me like waves, soothing the rough spots, leaving me awash in pure peace. They’ll know, as I do, that you can’t really go back. But you can stand in a spot that has spoken to your soul forever and, just for a moment, feel the years vanish.
“Write something that captures this,” Tom urged, taking a deep cleansing breath and waving his palms skyward. It was that turning point last year in May when we were pretty sure winter was gone, when the breeze lifting the last of the snow melt through the balsams held just a hint of balmy. As soon as the glacial sink hole burying our fire pit receded, we’d dragged our Adirondack chairs back into their sacred circle to sit in joyful contemplation.
Putting the this of it all into words was no small task. Ever since I became Rooted In Rangeley year-round I’d been trying. And still, there I was, seven spring thaws later, with the loons and the sparrows and even the squirrels doing a better job than I at voicing the essence, the wonder, the intricate promise of summer taking hold again here.
Tom’s coaxing was soon seconded by a request from the Rangeley Highlander. Did I have something to contribute to the annual Summer Guide, something that folks coming back up (and those already here and waiting) could relate to about sharing the greatness of our outdoors? Any quintessential reflections on “what is it about this place that makes it so special?” No, not yet I didn’t, at least nothing worthy of sitting on the coffee/picnic table and next to every cash register in town till September. It is a really good question—one I’ve answered in moments of blinding truth and in quiet reflection—but always to myself.
What, exactly, is the this-ness of summer returning to Rangeley—the advent we celebrate with chipper greetings, broadening smiles and wide open doors? How would I explain to someone from say, Tallahassee, who’d never experienced such a thing, what it does for us?
Summer in Rangeley is a kaleidoscope of vivid, elusory moments bursting with new potential. It’s a season of song and color—of fire and water and sun and wind and all the basic elements that enchant my inner child and bring my grown-up mind full-circle. It heightens my senses and stretches my patience, keeps me poised to drop everything and just get out there but mindful that, when I do, I must stay and soak it all in. And, now that I’m “upta camp” year-round, summer in Rangeley is teaching me to take my cues more from nature than the calendar.
“Well hello there, Mr. Chippie!” I hollered. “Is it warm enough to come out and play?” The “winter that wasn’t” had turned into a spring that bounced back and forth between full bloom and frosty, and I was on my way down to the lake to see if ice-out in April was too good to be true. Mr. Chippie looked up and stopped filling his chipmunk cheeks just long enough for the stiff breeze to flatten his fur, then turned tail and scampered back to his hidey hole under the porch. “Guess not,” I said, and returned to half hibernation mode myself.
“That’s OK, though,” I told myself, taking heart from the two daffodils that stood in bright defiance among last year’s leaves. “I’ve got fleece. Got firewood. And I’ve got the best spot in the world to watch and wait.”
When the subtle shift began, I felt it first. Then smelled. A warmer, gentler breeze tickled my face with just enough summer in it that, had I whiskers, they surely would’ve twitched. The balsam-laden, wood smoke-infused scent with undertones of sawdust and boat gas I’ve always found more tantalizing than perfume or potpourri filled my nose. “Aaah,” I sighed. “This is what I’m talking about.” With each deep breath, the recesses of my brain that registered contentment since back before aroma therapy was ever a thing fired on all cylinders. Then a loon call drifted across the water and I knew once again why I have no need for fancy spas and soothing music.
The view, especially this time of year, doesn’t suck either. The look of Rangeley in the summer is the stuff that sells calendars and lends stock footage for “great State of Maine” TV shows. It even seals real estate deals, ours included. “If you buy the land right down there, this will be your neighborhood,” Shelton Noyes said with great flourish when he cinched his “slice of paradise” sales pitch by bringing us up to the Height of Land. It was this time of year 29 years ago, and I remember squinting hard at the huge panorama of lake and mountains to find the little spot of shoreline we’d just fallen in love with. A few summers later, I knew exactly where my little cabin sat. “See that strip of sand right there?” I’d tell first-time visitors as we drove by. “You can’t really see it from way up here, but just down from that beach, hidden in the trees, is our place.”
After the slow, bumpy haul up Route 17, our overlooks do make a lasting impression. “Breathtaking!” everyone says. A few can’t fathom why there’s no Dunkin Donuts or Walgreens as far as the eye can see. For them, the beauty is overshadowed by isolation, by the limits of being a dot on such a vast landscape. They might never come back, not even in the summer. But the rest of us who can’t get the picture out of our minds—we come back. We come seeking our own pinpoint of land, our little strip of rock-strewn sand or mossy clearing, and find a way to pin ourselves here for good. We build our nests—for a few weeks or forever—where we can appreciate the real wonder that lies beneath the bird’s eye view shown in the tourist books.
Down in thick of it in my microcosm on the Big Lake, I celebrated with more joy than ever as this summer started “greenin’ up nice.” Right on cue on Memorial Day weekend, and right in time for my 60th birthday, the ferns unfurled, the trilliums blossomed, and the yard birds decided they hadn’t flown north too early after all. I wasn’t sure what 60 was supposed to feel like. But watching the hummingbirds return to the feeder I’d dusted off and refilled just in the nick of time, I felt myself hovering, too, vibrating with anticipation. I couldn’t take my eyes off the flowers Tom was planting either. The geraniums in the window box were the brightest red I’d ever seen. And the petunias hanging in the basket off the shed glowed like a hot pink homing beacon.
“Bring it on!” I demanded. I was more than ready to extract all the summer sweetness nature saw fit to dish out. S’mores so yummy I wouldn’t notice the black flies eating me while I feasted on ooey gooey goodness. The clear, calm mornings when the lake sparkles prettier than anything the jewelry commercials said I was supposed to want for Mother’s Day or my birthday. Boat rides into the bright blues of July and August when it feels like, if I just keep going, I’ll find where the water meets the sky. The “quick dips” I call swimming and how they make me glad I’ve left the flannel sheets on the bed. Lupines, lupines everywhere. The rain that ends in rainbows and gives the sunsets character. Sharing a glass of wine and a fine meal in a landmark restaurant so rich with history it flavors the food. Gathering with friends and neighbors who don’t just have “a cabin to go to” but a strong, resilient community. Appreciating how we’ve also come to have the same light in our eyes and spring in our step because we know for sure that it just doesn’t get much better than summer in Rangeley. And, God and Mother Nature willing, we’ll be right here to welcome it again and again.