“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything!” my mother would repeat most days during breakfast. Never a morning person, I needed her constant reminders to stop belly aching and just eat so I wouldn’t miss the bus. Mean girls, gym class, homework hassles—all such commentary was censored while she jibber-jabbered in her usual Merry Sunshine style about the weather, the cute boy she saw bagging groceries, or whatever.
Except that one morning when she got uncharacteristically bratty. Finding out she’d been passed over during the previous night’s school board meeting as a candidate to become the next school nurse, she called the newly-hired lady “nothing but an old piss pot.”
“Jeez, Mum. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything!” I told her. And for the next few days, we both shoveled our Cheerios in complete silence.
Mum did eventually become the next school nurse, and good friends with the nurse she potty-mouthed. She had a wonderful time of it, too. But I never forgot the “do as I say not as I do” look on her face when I parroted her advice. Kind of like Kenny on South Park. Her eyes got big as saucers and she tried to use the collar of her bathrobe to muffle herself so she could mumble something unintelligible. Probably something not nice about me and my back sass.
Good thing neither of us has to go back to school this year during the pandemic! Instead of spreading gossip and nasty notes behind my back, mean girls would probably just cough all over me. And Mum would have to tackle way more than head lice patrol—and that mother who kept telling her a Table Talk snack pie was a nutritional lunch for her kid. She got the official school nurse home visit talkin’ to.
“Boy, we’d sure be sputtering and swallowing hard trying not to crab about the COVID!” I said during one of our recent morning chats. I’d give anything to have breakfast with Mum again, even a silent one. Heck, I’d settle for just blowing her a kiss on the other side of a nursing home window—like my friends whose moms are the same super ancient, wicked high risk age she’d be by now. It’s a blessing, I guess, that we never had to do any social distancing. We’ve got a pretty good spiritual closeness thing going on, though. Meaning I sit in my meditation rocker, appreciating the lake view she never got to see, and yack away while she listens. And after 46 years of practice, we are pros.
“Gosh, I wish Corona was just a beer again, and face masks were just for Halloween and hospitals,” I said. “And social distancing meant spacing out dinner dates and other commitments so Tom and I didn’t over extend ourselves, and our excitement came in small doses rather than a huge burst all in one weekend? That was awesome.”
Even though it’s getting harder, I am still finding nice things to say about life during the pandemic. Like how much I appreciate not having to go back to class—whatever the heck that means this year—or figuring out what it means for any offspring requiring me to suddenly embrace home schooling. How wanting but not really needing to go anywhere most of the time is such a blessing. How every day of thinking positive and not testing positive is a gift.
But I do have my moments of verbal despair, when I have to repeat my mother’s motto like a mantra to live up to my name, to keep finding the bright spots and, when I can’t, to just keep quiet. Moments when I feel like everyone, myself included, is being an old piss pot.
“What is wrong with people?” I mumbled at my laptop the other day. “Just wear a damn face mask and be nice to each other. It’s a piece of fabric for crying out loud, not 60 grit sandpaper strapped on with barbed wire!”
“I thought you said you weren’t gonna talk about it,” Tom said.
Aw, snap, he was right. “No more Corona this and COVID that!” I’d promised that morning, the 48th day of Junlygust in the Summer of ‘Rona. Ya see, contrary to what I always fantasized about before moving upta camp for good, it is possible to get up on the wrong side of the bed here. But you gotta be stubborn about it, and pretty much blinded by things that aren’t right outside your window. Like a pandemic. I wasn’t even sick with it, thank goodness, and neither were my loved ones. I was making myself sick over it. And, apparently, the filter between my thoughts and my mouth was wearing out, springing leaks.
Especially now that Junlygust has rolled into Augember, I definitely need to just clam up about the current Corona state of affairs, to not say the C words so I don’t end up bitching about the damn virus. For me, that means not reading, hearing or even thinking about it—basically blocking out all avenues of egress into my noggin and back out my yapper. Because, especially when I’m frothed up over you know what, my stream of consciousness lets everything that trickles in come rushing back out faster than spring break-up on the Androscoggin.
But I am getting better retreating into silence with a shrug and a smile. It’s pretty simple, really, if I follow a couple basic rules.
Pick the right screens and the right direction. Do I lift my head, back away from social media apps and TV to gaze out my actual window screens and get myself back out there? Or do I sit, scroll and scowl while my real life app—the custom primo one engineered for living the good life on big lake in Maine—just runs in the background? Of course, I gotta focus up and away into what’s real, what’s all around me. Because peering down into the virtual world—at statistics and reports and county maps with all the “COVID’s comin’ to get ya colors”—that can be a rat trap rather than a resource. Information without fixation, that’s my goal. To absorb enough to keep me safe, sensible and out in the sunlight on the best days of Indian Summer in God’s country rather than holed up like Gollum, illuminated by eerie laptop light.
Don’t dig too deep. Some days I’m making positive pandemic proclamations and managing to sing and dance about my “new COVID things.” Other days, I’m scrounging around to find one piddly nice thing to say, and coming up empty handed. That’s usually when I’m not following Rule #1. I’m picking the wrong screens and the wrong direction and, as my kids would say, “doom scrolling.” It’s the social media version of what self-help guru Wayne Dyer termed “looking for opportunities for resentment.” I’m endlessly looping through posts till I find something COVID-related to latch onto and vent about. Venting is good, natural, I’m told. It helps me feel less vulnerable and afraid. What’s not good, though, is when I start harping about all the mean ‘n nasty plague-ridden stuff people are saying and doing way outside my personal space. When I try so hard to place blame that I’m digging for resentment opportunities deeper and harder than an Oak Island excavator. And giving Tom a full-blown Facebook report. That’s when he has to give me his “are you really still talking about this” look, steer me out of my chair and back to a place of gratitude. Like out on the lake, or our backyard bike trail. Or even just standing in my well stocked pantry. Those are our places of gratitude, where we see that help is never very far away, where we can keep doing our very best with the chaos beyond our control.
Slip ups still come out of the blue, though. Days when I must stop myself from going on a rant. I start to say the C words, then unconvincingly change sentences mid-syllable like a shifty John Lovitz character on Saturday Night Live.
“Hey…did you see that new article about Corona morphing and coming back next year?” I started to say over dinner. What actually came out was: “Hey…did you see that new article about Cor…um…cor…about courses…yeah…Franklin County Adult Ed courses this fall. There’s a bunch of new ones.” And trying to repeat a morsel from my latest doom dredge, I almost said: “COVID cases are skyrocketing now that Florida re-opened.” But, instead, I managed to stammer: “CO…ah…COLD. It’s supposed to be a really cold winter.”
Mum would be proud, I think.
“I just can’t say enough nice things about how Rangeley is going above and beyond since all this started,” I said after our latest supply loop. Doing the “loop” sure has changed, but not necessarily for the worse. Thanks to the wonderful “essential” people doing most of our leg work and other errands that used to entail leaving the truck, groceries and dinner out can now be had with a couple emails, calls, and grateful double thumbs up to whoever loads up the Tacoma. Off loading back home, I noticed all our bags from the week’s haul were marked “Curbside Cloughs.” That’s how I’d signed my email list to my Rangeley Indispensable Grocery Angels (AKA the IGA), and I guess it stuck.
“Curbside Cloughs,” I giggled. “Well there’s two C words with a nicer ring to them!” And I won’t mind repeating them. Until we flatten the curve and, hopefully, find a cure.
“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.
I like not having tons of lingering questions hanging over me. Especially out here in the willywags with my husband of more than 40 years, I’m glad to usually find answers to everything from the monumental to the mundane. Did we make the right choice moving up the mountain for good? What’s for suppah? How many more months till we can go on MediCare? Where’s that scratching noise coming from? Which fruit or flower-themed festival is in town this weekend? Who’s gonna drive our UPS packages past the causeway come December? If one or both of us doesn’t know, we make something up and stick with it.
There is, however, one big, burning question that shall remain unanswerable in this lifetime. One that has haunted me since childhood, all through my formative years and on into what should be wise old womanhood. And even though I can feel it coming—bellowing forth from an all-seeing, all-knowing male interrogator—I remain dumbfounded, seemingly perplexed.
“What were you thinking?”
“Ummm…that I was going to somehow miraculously get away with whatever I was doing before you saw how horribly wrong it turned out,” I say to myself, head hung low.
Typically, my onlooker’s quest for knowledge involves a moving vehicle and centers around my performance while operating said vehicle. Especially a boat trailer. Moving in reverse. Or a Subaru that, despite the commercials, is not really equipped to maintain traction in all-weather conditions.
Like the time during the ice storm last winter when I assumed all-wheel drive would help me negotiate the driveway without plowing into a snow bank and almost hitting “that tree stump right there in plain sight” in front of me. “What were you thinking?” Tom hollered, as he stomped up the driveway to take my place behind the wheel.
“Ummm…that I’d be able to throw it into reverse and rocket my way out of this mess before you came charging out of the house and you’d be none the wiser till you spotted my huge ruts come springtime,” I wanted to answer. “That I was driving the official car of Maine and was thereby granted super powers.”
But such things, I’ve learned, are better left unsaid. Especially when my dad, my grandpa, my husband, or whatever guy who happens to be a curious witness is obviously too busy storming to my rescue to listen. Besides, from the look on his face (inherited, no doubt, from his forefathers), he’s already come to his own conclusion. “She has the intellectual capacity of an earthworm and, Lord help her, wasn’t thinking much of anything.”
As far as I can tell, this need to know is purely a guy thing. Guys ask. Girls squeeze their eyes shut, think of a better place, and don’t answer. I understood this basic fact of life, this mysterious difference between the sexes, before I knew much about the birds and the bees or figured out that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I was born on the receiving end of the question and I’d better learn to live with it. It helped, though, realizing that my mother would never beseech me and my sister the same way my dad (“Mac”) did and why I, in turn, would not do so with my daughters. We’d need to save our strength, to get our stories straight. That way, when Father comes home, discovers whatever mess we’ve made and demands, “What were you thinking?” we’d cover for each other, cut him off at the pass and stand tall with our silence.
“Don’t ask,” we’d say as Daddy came through the door. “She feels terrible enough about it already.” And I, like my mother before me, would try to explain the inexplicable on our daughter’s behalf. We’d never let on what she was thinking, just field the question. It’s what we girls do. Whenever we are around to bear witness, anyways. When not, we reach out as best we can in sympathy and solidarity.
I wished my mother was actually there with me the first time I remember being asked the unanswerable. She was out trolling around on the lake with my father for most of the afternoon while I wrapped all but a few feet of line around the dock and the trees trying to perfect my spin cast. The boat had barely throttled down for a landing when Mac spotted my cluster snarl and his cry bellowed across the water: What were you thinking?
Mum gave me a “you poor thing” look. And while she stayed quiet, I could see she yearned to answer for me. “Ummm…that if she fumbled her first few practice casts, she could Houdini her way out of it. That when you finally came back, you wouldn’t see a little dock dweeb standing next to an eagle nest of knots, but a girl who could fish just like her daddy.”
Mac was still wondering what was going on in “that little blonde head” of mine by the time he walked me down the aisle so Tom could officially assume his quest for insight. “Good luck with that,” I thought. While I was sure I’d married Tom because he had all of my Dad’s good qualities minus the really annoying ones, I sensed it wouldn’t be long before he’d take up wondering what I was thinking right where Mac left off. And I couldn’t begin to tell him the truth.
If I remember correctly, it wasn’t my vehicular navigation shortcomings that first begged the question from my new husband. It was my disassembly of household objects requiring more mechanical aptitude than a monkey to put back together. Or more precisely, my tendency to force household objects back into some semblance of their former function.
“What were you thinking? Tom asked.
“Ummm…that somehow the vacuum cleaner dirt canister worked just as good when I shoved it in the wrong way. That I’d figure out it didn’t and be able to suck up this cloud of dust before you came into the room.”
Even as a new bride I knew silence was my salvation. So was taking comfort that these sorts of interchanges didn’t begin or end with me. Way back before the dawn of formal written language, I bet the first cave man pleaded for an answer. Then, when he didn’t get one, he left petroglyphs on his stone walls to try to make sense of what he couldn’t understand. He carved a man behind a woman, his loud interrogation funneled toward her in deep, squiggly lines while she crouched, shoulders hunched and palms raised in universal “I dunno” posture, next to the fire she’d let burn out or whatever rudimentary tool she’d wrecked.
Now that we live in the digital era, I sometimes wonder why the question isn’t listed on insurance claims—right under the description of whatever auto or homeowner’s possession I need replaced or repaired and how, in my own words, I hopelessly junked it up. That way, instead of filing it under “Acts of God” and providing details about how a tornado or other force of nature wrecked my stuff, I could go to the special “Acts Without the Sense That God Gave Geese” part of the form, complete the “What were you thinking?” section, and make it official. And meaning could finally be extrapolated from my contribution to historical data.
But, in truth, I am more grateful than curious, relieved that my answers can remain undocumented. Especially that time I shaved a couple layers of bark off the pine tree at the top of the driveway. Well, actually, I didn’t do it, the fender of the new boat trailer did. “What were you thinking?” Tom yelled when he came back from launching the boat, his look of utter disbelief honing in on the crumpled fender, then to the naked trunk, and back at me.
“Ummm…that my depth perception was a bit better than it actually was. That when you said to swing the trailer wide when I got back to the driveway, you didn’t meant really, really wide. That, despite what it says on the rear view mirror, objects aren’t closer than they appear.”
I just winced and shrugged. Luckily, no insurance claim was ever filed. And the stately old pine tree, still standing tall above its 30-year-old graying girdle, ain’t talkin’. Tom stayed mostly quiet, too, as he pried the fender back into place with hammers and wrenches. But I betcha somewhere back in the most primitive part of his brain he also wanted to take out his knife and leave a petroglyph on that tree truck. In honor of our forefathers and for all posterity, he longed to carve a couple stick figures—of him with big question marks funneling out of his mouth—and me with shoulders hunched, head hung low, and palms raised in universal “I dunno” posture.
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.
Whenever I met someone throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and either end of Massachusetts, I’d have to tell Mac. Besides inheriting his passion for story telling to anyone who’d stand still long enough to listen, I believed nothing ever really happened until it got reported back to Mac. And each and every time I did so, he’d puff out his chest like a partridge ready to drum and ask: “Did you tell ’em who you are?”
“Yes,” I’d say in all honesty. “I told ’em who I was.”
I wasn’t Joy McGranahan like it said on my birth records. I wasn’t Mrs. Thomas Clough, even after I took vows, signed a marriage certificate, and had that stamped on my first credit card back when Sears thought women couldn’t be held responsible for their purchases until they had a husband. Even later, when I became full-fledged Joy Clough—writer, mother, successful business proprietor, and wife to a Science Teacher of the Year—that still wasn’t who I was.
“Hi, I’m Joy, Mac’s daughter.” That’s how I came to introduce myself. It paved my way, opened doors, and usually sparked instantaneous recognition. On the rare occasion I’d run across someone who couldn’t readily remember hearing or seeing Mac, I’d have to coax out a recollection. “You know, ‘Mac’ McGranahan? Writes the outdoor column for the paper? Talks about fishing on the local cable channel? Talks about pretty much anything anywhere, but fishing stories and Maine jokes are his claim to fame. Red and black flannel shirt, suspenders…?”
“Oh, yeah, I know Mac!” most folks eventually responded. “He’s your Dad?” They’d shake my hand, assessing the mild-mannered woman who seemed to be holding her own in the shadow of such a character, retell their favorite outdoors with Mac story, and wish us all the best.
There was a time, of course, when I was just Joy, or Joy Joy as he called me when we were being silly, which was most of the time. Back before I called him by his nickname, before I ventured into society on my own, he was just Daddy. I had no relativity, no separation, no real knowledge of my own identity, and no words to label the love and security I saw in the faces of my father and mother as they reached down to hold me, lift me up. For the longest time I figured everybody’s daddy smelled faintly of boat exhaust, took their families to big lakes in Maine named after moose, and played practical jokes on raccoons. I had no clue that some moms weren’t OK having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Tang for supper so they could stay on the water till dark, or that, when company came over, some cared if their hamburgers weren’t made out of cow meat.
“Daddy, do you think God is up there?” I asked as we trolled around Moosehead Lake at dusk. Mac looked up with me at the last rays of sun turning the clouds cotton candy pink and, for the first time I can remember, could not pretend to be sure of an answer. “If He is, what do you suppose He looks like?” he asked back. From where I sat watching him steer the boat, silhouetted by lake and sky, I imagined an older, white-bearded guy kind of like him. Able to move mountains when he had to, and stop you in your tracks with his big, booming voice.
“Hey Joy Joy, come see how strong your Daddy is,” Mac would holler. Holding one arm at a right angle, he’d thrust his fist up in the air and I’d grip onto his bicep for all I was worth until he’d flex a grapefruit-sized ball of muscle, heaving my hands out of its way. Then he’d hoist me to the ceiling on one hand, bragging I was lighter than the boat anchor he had to horse back into the boat all the time, and spin me around the room till we were both giggling.
As I grew, so too did my perspective, slowly expanding my universe out and around the man at its center. Who I was evolved from Daddy’s littlest fishing buddy, to his Twist and Shout dance partner, to the young writer whose first stories he published on the Xerox machine in his office and hand-delivered to captive readers. When I graduated from “the little blonde girl who asks too many questions” to scoring my first newspaper byline, he proclaimed: “My daughter can do anything she puts her mind to.” I grew to believe it, too, especially if Mac gave me a big shove in the right direction.
Born near Boston on “the real” Memorial Day in 1928, the son of a tug boat captain and a Scottish immigrant, my Dad’s given name was Warren. But no one ever called him that except his parents and sister who, by nature and necessity, were quiet, temperate people. “I never figured out how he got the way he is,” my Nana, his mother, would tell me. “Up until the time he was three, I could just sit him out in the yard in an old tire inner tube and he’d stay put for hours, afraid to crawl out of it, not a peep out of him. How’d he grow up to think the sun has to rise and set over him? Maybe I should’ve let him have his own room instead of making him sleep on the divan all those years.”
No matter what spawned it, Mac had an ego the size of the biggest bull moose in the herd. Like the huge ol’ christer you see standing in the road and pray he goes around your car and not charging into it. He was always right. Period. And if you tried to sway him toward your way of thinking, he’d wear you down till you’d not only see his point of view, but tell him you were wrong not believing him in the first place. We usually didn’t mind, though, because he’d make everything into a joke, getting us to laugh, at ourselves, at him and the wonder of his all-knowingness. “Good thing I moved us back up here from Massachusetts when I did,” he said. “How else would you have met your future husband, gotten a job, bought a house, had kids? And good thing I keep such a nice boat down on Great Bay. Gave Tom all the more incentive to marry you and take you off my hands!” Yup, Mac, I’d say to myself, becoming your fishing pal was the trump card, way more alluring than my looks or personality! I’m sure what Tom really wanted, God help him, was to be able to tell people he was Mac’s son-in-law.
Technically, of course, he was right. Mac was half the reason I was born in the first place, the perfect complement to my mother, who knew when to stand her ground and when to bend, who matched him joke for joke and, sometimes, fish for fish. If not for his paternal influence, I might never have visited places like Rangeley, never have grown up dreaming of a guy who wanted to live with me in a cabin on a lake, never had Mr. Right waiting for me by the altar while Mac gave me his blessing.
“Smile at everyone as you pass by,” he said, waiting to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day. “You’re beautiful, and every single one of these people is here just for you.” Well, probably some of them are here to see Tom, too, I remember thinking. But I didn’t want to argue, so I rested my hand on Mac’s arm, feeling his bicep tighten under his tux, and went side-by-side with him toward my future.
“Wow, I’m pretty lucky to have a daughter with a place in Rangeley who thinks enough of her father to surprise him with a cake,” Mac told me years later after one of his New England Outdoor Writers’ annual dinners was hosted here. “Everybody realized it was my birthday and they all sang to me!”
“Yup, I told ’em who I was at the Rangeley Inn and they baked it up special,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure they had a Memorial Day parade for you in town, too.” It was the best Mac celebration ever, perfect indeed. He got to eat cake, preside over his fellow writers, and brag about how his daughter “put her mind to it” and got herself a cabin right down the lake from where he’d caught the best brookies.
“How am I ever going to top that one?” I wondered. “I really helped him toot his horn big time.” Good thing, too. A year later, Mac died in the L.L. Bean wing at Maine Medical, just after I turned 40, and mere days after he’d thrown his canoe on top of his Jeep for the last time. When he retired early ten years before, we teased him that he’d fish himself to death. He made a valiant effort but, truth was, he wasn’t a force of nature. Heart disease, his preference for Snickers and Hostess snacks and, I believe, his unyielding approach to life, caught up with him.
Mac’s a lot quieter now, and a much better listener. But I still hear him right around sunset out on the dock talking back to the loons. Once in a great while, when I get to introduce myself the way he taught me, I can almost see him grin and puff out his chest. But best of all, over the years I’ve come to know that the distinction he craved, the recognition of me being Mac’s daughter, was his honor as much as mine. Who I am, who I’ve become as an older woman, is a calmer, gentler, female version of my father with the same warped sense of humor, same need to talk a blue streak, same determination for living life to the fullest where I can see God in the open sky. “My daughter’s just like her Old Man,” he’d brag at social gatherings. And, although I couldn’t agree at the time, didn’t see it till much later, I now accept the claim as mostly true. Minus the red and black flannel shirt with Snickers in every pocket and, most days, drowning out the loon calls, Mac was right.
For more than 20 years, Mother’s Day meant time to go back “upta camp” to rake the leaves, dust off the cobwebs, and watch the lake warm up before declaring it summer-ready and heading back to New Hampshire. Time for my girls to bestow their annual, handmade Pine Tree Frosty gift coupon/card and whatever trinket their allowances allowed, even though I told them to save their money.
“Mumma doesn’t need things,” I’d insist. Being with my family, happy and healthy, and back in Rangeley, was the best possible gift. As my pile of un-cashed ice cream vouchers grew, so did my memories of this fleeting weekend in early May when the promise of warm days by the lake stretched ahead like a mirage. Inevitably school, work, and my maternal duties in my “regular” house crept back into focus so that, by mid-summer, I’d be grounded in truth: I was a split-personality mother leading a seasonal dual existence. My family’s residence—a house with more space but a lot less charm—was three and a half hours away from our true home, our real base camp in Rangeley.
On Mother’s Day 2010, I made a colossal liar out of myself. Sitting in my Adirondack chair watching the lake “turn over” from another winter, I wasn’t the least bit remorseful, though. I’d come to find out there was an even better best possible gift for Mumma. Being right here with my family, happy and healthy, and staying here was all I ever needed and then some. Beginning with that one monumental weekend, I did not need to pack and head for “home” as soon as I got settled in. I was home—for good—a bona fide year-round Rangeley resident! Faith, family, determination, and a touch of insanity bought me my fairy tale. My life was consolidated, my pared-down possessions tucked snugly in my now-just-big-enough cabin. With home base and its newly-added upper stories peeking out of the birch boughs behind me, I faced the lake and let my head align with my heart. I could stay put now way past “camp closing” time, to see the big lake ice over again, to be there still for the next spring turning. “Priceless,” I said, and gave myself a big motherly hug.
This Mother’s Day weekend marks four years since my Big Move. Just before I pulled the plug on my old life (and my higher-speed Internet connection) and left New Hampshire for the last time, I posted the following thank-you note on Facebook:
I will be celebrating Mother’s Day in my “new” home by the lake, sending love to everyone who made the dream possible. To my three mothers….Mum, who gave me life and who shows me every day how love lives on in Spirit; to Prudy, my step-Mom, who helped me love myself as a grown woman while seeing the wonder in all things; and to Ruth, my Mother-in-Law, who taught me just in time, the healing power of unconditional love. To my beautiful, strong, funny, amazing daughters, Helen and Becky, who mother me back, but keep me young at heart and always eager for adventure. (Thank you for chosing me in this lifetime!) And, of course, to Tom, my husband and forever friend. Thank you for the courage to take this free fall, for the wisdom and common sense to bring our “craziness” into the realm of possibility, for keeping my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds, for laughing with me and loving me all ways, and for always just being with me by our big, beautiful lake.
I’m still saying thanks every day since I wrote that. I thank my three mothers in Heaven for bringing me, collectively and in their own separate ways, to where I am today. I thank my daughters—for knowing I don’t need things because letting me scream like a 10-year-old with them on a mega-coaster or a whitewater raft is better than any trinket. I thank Tom, my best friend, for building this life around me and still wanting to share it with me, even through the long, cold Rangeley winters. I thank my girl friends, my soul sisters, who nurture me like mothers, and love me unconditionally for who I really am. I thank my work family, for enabling me continue my financial security out here in the woods, for helping me prove to myself and the rest of the traditional business world that earning money is just as much of a blessing as having the freedom and the enthusiasm to enjoy spending it. And, more than ever on this Mother’s Day, I thank myself, for just plain being—here and now—hugging myself in my camp chair, at peace with all that I have and have lost.
Forty years ago, I thought my joyful Mother’s Days were over. I’d proudly bought my mother a set of stoneware salt and pepper shakers with some of my $1.80-an-hour paycheck, even though she’d told me to save my money. “As long as you’re happy, I don’t really need things,” she said. “But thanks honey, they’re lovely.” Grinning, she set them in the dining room hutch for “special company.” Fortunately (and unfortunately) I had no way of knowing that was to be our last Mother’s Day. I was 17, madly in love with Tom, getting ready to graduate high school and head into my “best summer ever.” Mum died suddenly a couple months later, leaving me to stare angrily at the salt and pepper shakers and all the nick-knack gifts I’d given her that seemed so hollow. Happy? If happiness was what she really wanted for me, from me, how come she’d just taken all hope of it away with her forever?
But neither did I know then that mother-daughter chats wouldn’t stop, that the wisdom and support would come to find a different, more powerful, communication channel. I didn’t know then that, today, I’d be so relaxed in my camp chair, a mother of two grown women myself, surrounded by what I choose to bring into focus, nurtured by laughter and love that never dies. Happy. Blessed. Rooted in Rangeley—with a huge stack of coupons to the Pine Tree Frosty yet to be cashed.
It was a Sunday in mid-June when we had to summon my Dad to dislodge a mouse that had been trapped inside the drain in the laundry room sink since early spring. My mother, my sister, and I were standing at the top of the cellar stairs cringing when he finally came up. He lumbered past us with a coffee can bound for somewhere way out back.
“Why am I the one who gets to do these kinds of things?” he asked, flailing the can in our faces. “Just because I’m the only guy in the house? Cause I’m the father around here?”
Ummm….yeah….we all said silently. Dad (AKA Mac) was responsible for plumbing, pest control, and safeguarding the house from intruders. The waylaid mouse met all of those criteria.
I grew up in a one-male household. And, after marriage and two daughters, that status pretty much stuck. No brother tinkering with a truck in the driveway. No son to shatter my theories about the uniqueness of father-daughter relationships. Just Dad, our one-man magic show. Please bear this in mind as you read the following theories. Please also know that my theories took root in the early ’60s when it was expected for females to keep their distance and say things like “Eeeek!”—and socially acceptable for Dads to declare stuff “too messy for girls.” Mine always swore he didn’t miss having a son. But I bet on certain occasions, especially that morning in June with the putrid coffee can, he instantly became a secret liar. If only he’d had a male dependent at the top of the stairs, Mac could have emerged from the cellar with his heart full of gratitude, but his hands empty. “Son, go find yourself a coffee can,” he would’ve said. “There’s a project for you down there.” And the imaginary son of the early ’60s would obey, trying to keep a stiff upper lip and a strong stomach, knowing the chore was ultimately preparing him for manhood—for the day when he’d take a wife and the responsibility for any yucky stuff trapped in his terrain.
When it comes to heroes, a Dad of daughters might as well have a cape and a lightening bolt emblazoned on his chest. Faced with danger and all manner of distasteful duties, he responds, undaunted by extension ladders or jumper cables, by navigating through whitecaps, or even by investigating nighttime noises.
“Yup, it’s a bear,” Mac affirmed. It was a June night back in 1964 and he was peering into the darkness from our tiny log cabin on Moosehead Lake. My sister and I had finally nagged him into determining the source of sounds coming from the front porch. We’d listened long enough from our beds right under the windows to know that, whatever it was, it was much bigger than the raccoon visitors of previous nights. And then we yelled for backup. “Daaaaaad!!!”
In years since, we realized there was nothing even Mac could have done—except maybe spray the bear in the face with the fire extinguisher if it got rambunctious enough to shove the door open. Still, there was something about our Daddy standing in his undershorts stating the obvious that we found comforting.
“Yup,” he said, “and it’s a big bear, too.” After watching it amble away in the dark, he shuffled back to bed himself, grumpy but gratified. Because the only thing Mac was afraid of was not being the rock hard center of our universe. And that was bigger and hairier than any old Maine black bear.
It wasn’t long after I began to watch my husband Tom’s interactions with my own young girls that I discovered it’s not necessarily bravado that stirs Dads of daughters to action. It’s the call: “Daaaaad...” It sounds like a sheep with a bad stomach ache, but little girls have it mastered by age two. And much the same way a dog responds to a high-pitched whistle even though he doesn’t know why, a Dad comes. Instinctively he snatches up a toolbox, a wad of paper towel and/or a plunger along the way, knowing that, whatever it is, if it’s broken, clogged or invasive, it’s his job. From Barbies to bike chains—to those hopelessly gnarled up necklace knots he can somehow unravel with his big, burly fingers—if Dad can’t fix it, it’s history. And if he really isn’t keen on squishing, trapping, or otherwise keeping creepy stuff away from his womenfolk, he has to buck up and do it anyway.
“Daaaaddy! Keep these bees off my peanut butter and jelly!” my first-born Helen yelled from her picnic log down by the lake. She was about three, and Tom had already plucked her out of the Salmon Falls River, showed her the bears at the Seboomook dump, and desensitized her to mice so successfully that she was catching them in a minnow trap and rolling it back and forth across the cabin floor like her own animated Fisher Price toy. She was a new-age girl child, born to a Dad who stood there right in the delivery room waiting for her to show up, even though part of him wanted to be out in the waiting room with his forefathers. She and I had the best of both worlds, an ’80s “girls can do anything” male role model who still had enough Maine woods machismo to build a cabin around us and shield us from vermin. On that particular outing, a nest of yellow jackets swarming our picnic was his call to action—one he definitely did not want to answer.
“Come with Daddy, Helen, we’re going inside now!” Tom commanded. His voice was uncharacteristically shaky and, by the time he’d shoved sandwiches back into baggies and retreated, his face was a non-summery shade of pale. I handed him the big can of Raid we kept for just such circumstances, knowing that its super long spray wand would not keep Tom far enough away from bees—his greatest, and pretty much only, fear.
“Daddy got stung really bad when he was about your age while he was playing down by the water at his camp,” Tom told Helen after she’d watched him do his little extermination dance from a safe distance. “But those naughty bees won’t bother you any more, honey. Daddy got ’em!”
By the summer she turned four, Helen was Tom’s fearless little fishing side-kick and a brave big sister in training. “Look, Daddy, a snake!” she said, pointing matter-of-factly to a place on the dock where I spent hours each afternoon, plopped into a beach chair in my lamp shade of a bathing suit, reading and letting soon-to-be-born Becky kick me like a soccer ball. Had I ever seen a snake anywhere near my spot, I’m pretty sure Becky would have been a preemie.
“Don’t tell your Mom,” Tom said to his little comrade.
Then, somewhere along the way when I wasn’t paying attention, my daughters turned from gutsy little girls into bodacious women of the new millennium. “Better than boys,” I’d tell them, because they shooed snakes out of my path and changed their own tires, but still had all-day pajama days with me. All that plus, well, because they were girls. We were having such a discussion on a recent vacation, just the three of us sitting in a rustic cabana, staring out over bluer, warmer water and enjoying our favorite grown-up picnic cocktails, when Becky noticed something burrowing into the sand underneath where Tom was coming to eat his lunch.
“Hmm, looks like they’re ground hornets,” she said.
Sleep walking through my morning Facebook check, I noticed one of us had left the radio on somewhere. And, even though most days I find music distracting when I’m at my desk, I started singing along: “What if God were one of us…..”
Just my usual before work, writing-for-pay Facebook peek, I told myself. I’d be “in and out” in a few points and clicks and on to the productive part of my day. Then, mid-screen, something caught my eye and held it longer than any of the TGIF-type postings I was scrolling past in speed-read mode. A friend, so new her profile picture was still set on the generic girl icon,wrote: “Traveling first class now! LOL ” Still humming along about God sitting next to me on a bus, I had my usual reaction to ”wish you were here” updates like that: jealousy-tinged curiosity. “Who was this? And why did she need to tell me she was somewhere more exciting?” I’d have to find out, of course, before going about my business. That’s when her username hit me and stopped me cold. “Mum” it said, short and sweet, in hot-link blue.
I slumped back in my computer chair, then sat at attention. “Mum is on Facebook?!” I whispered to myself. “I don’t even remember seeing her friend request! And who could she possibly be traveling first class with? Not my dad. They always went coach or standby.” I leaned in closer to click her link for answers and, hopefully, a recent picture or two. Then I woke up.
“Woah,” I thought, staring up at the knotty pine above my bed and listening to the lake come alive. “I haven’t had a Mum dream in a long time.” At first, when I desperately wanted them, any dreams of her would be fleeting and bittersweet, leaving me feeling alone all over again. She’d be far away, out of focus, and I’d be running to catch up with her, tell her I loved her and say goodbye. I’d wake up still a lost teenage girl, mad at a God who’d taken my mother, my best friend, when I was just venturing out in the world. Eventually, as I learned to lose my anger and heal my grief, I slowly opened up to the possibility she was never really very far away. By the time I was 40, we were back to having mother-daughter chats and happier middle of the night visits. When she did check in with me, it was a fun, laid back “whassup?” sort of encounter.
“Hey there, just popped over to say bon voyage!” she chirped. She’d stopped by the condo I was about to rent in the Caribbean and was sitting on the lanai, perpetually tanned and relaxed.
“Mum, you’re here?” I asked. “How did you get to Bonaire before me? I’m not even there yet!”
“Well,” she said, squint-smiling out at the turquoise water. “When you can go anywhere you want anytime you want, you’ll be right here, too.”
Not long after that dream (and a dream vacation in Bonaire), Mum and I had another impromptu discussion about the logistics of our new relationship. “I’m so glad you still come to see me once in awhile now that I live up in Rangeley,” I told her. “Looks like having me three and a half hours farther north doesn’t make much difference between us. But I still really want to know about Heaven. What’s it like? Where exactly is it?” She didn’t answer in words, but sent me spiraling away, up out of the dream and back into my bed. And just before she laid me down surrounded by knotty pine and balsam breezes, she whisked me out over the lake and through the white birches, stopping to hover at the glider rocker where I sat most mornings having coffee and giving thanks for my new life.
“So not only does she have coffee and sit in the sun with me,” I marveled after the latest visit just before Mother’s Day, “she’s joined my social network! She’s on Facebook!” I hugged myself and stared up at the knotty pine for a long time, not wanting to come fully down to earth yet. When I finally did get up and about, the wispy veil between me and my dreams didn’t recede, but kept everything cast in a hazy realm of possibility. “Wouldn’t that be a cool?” I murmured. “That would add a whole new dimension to my networking.” I’d have Facebook “acquaintances” (those folks I sort of remember from around town and way back in high school); friends; close friends and family (who Facebook thinks you want to stay in step with every waking minute) and now, my family beyond. That new outer sphere in my online circle would hold a big chunk of family−assuming they all gained computer wisdom in the next life.
“I like an off-color joke, you know, but the ones that Jack and Gerie Spencer are sending…well, dear, they show pictures of orgies!” my step-mom, Prudy, exclaimed. It was back during dial-up days and I was helping her clean out her in-box after another long stay at Maine Medical. When I explained as best I could about email viruses−that Jack and Gerry didn’t really intend to send her orgy pictures−she heaved a big sigh. Living in Kezar Falls, she was tickled to keep up with her far away friends on a desktop my step-brother, John, hobbled together out of parts. But she was going to have to be less gregarious with her daily prayer, recipe and “Hallmark moment” subscriptions, I told her. She just didn’t have the bandwidth or storage capacity on her email server. “I understand, dear,” she said. “John told me those nice pictures would draw very slowly…something about all that ink coming down the phone line.”
Her password was “baldgranny” and we were blessed that she remembered it in between chemo rounds so she could log on and tell us how terrific it was to stay connected out in the pucker brush. Prudy did cross the bridge toward computer literacy, but never made it to broadband or past “clunking” with her mouse on a low-res screen. She’d be all over Facebook, though. And I’m pretty sure we’d have to convince Mark Zuckerberg to add a “Wonderful” button next to the “Like” one ’cause Prudy would want to clunk that like crazy!
What a new age that would be, I thought, if all of us could reconnect. Then, not only would I be allowed to chat with my daughters and many of their friends (having earned my status as one of the non-creepy online moms). I’d have a really special Internet Service Provider hooking me up to my moms and others beyond the wall. “Yup, I’m up to 209 regular Facebook friends,” I’d brag. “Plus, last I looked, about 12 spirit Facebook friends!”
Dad, I’m sure, would be sharing his biggest fish pictures ever. By now, he’d have blown way past his dog-eared Maine Atlas and even Google Earth in his quest for mapping all his “secret” spots. I’m also pretty sure my father-in-law, Lee, would be a lifetime-plus subscriber to ancestry.com, posting links to Clough databases far beyond his off-line ’80s research. Peering over his shoulder, a comfortable distance from actually having to touch a keyboard, my mother-in-law, Ruth, would be happy to see “all those pictures you can’t take with regular film anymore.” And Mum, well she’d have graduated from Internet for Dummies with honors. With speed and grace honed from years of sharing everything she ate, said and did with her folks in Chicago by way of an Underwood typewriter, she would be a “real whiz” by now. No corny joke, cutesy quote, or “you gotta see this” clip that made its way on her wall would go unshared with me, my sister, Jan, and half of Heaven and earth!
“Then I really wouldn’t get any work done,” I concluded, slowly returning to my usual, semi-rational state. Between waiting to see if Helen and Becky’s chat buttons flashed green, keeping up with Jan “poke, poke, poking” me every few seconds, and posting my own riveting Rooted In Rangeley updates, I’d be glued to Facebook. Just like the social media critics warn, I’d be “forever stuck in high school” with my virtual friends−stuck, right where my Mum and I left off, swapping silly girl talk filled with smiley faces and hearts, and a few YouTube shots of her dancing in the kitchen.
For the first time this year, I posted a Facebook picture of Mum on Mother’s Day. I wished I could have found one of her out on the lake wearing her huge straw hat from Zayre’s department store. (The one I remember had a gaudy orange scarf attached to it so it wouldn’t blow off, and Jan and I swore if she ever wore it anywhere near shore we would act like we didn’t know her.) Instead, I had to settle for scanning in the last good Polaroid of her. The image was pixelated, grainy, but her trademark grin had never faded as it smiled back from my timeline.
It was only up on my wall for a couple seconds before Jan commented: “Miss you, Mum. XO Talk soon!″
(Author’s Note: I post this today for my Mum, my forever best friend, who died suddenly on July 25th, 1974. She’s found some very special ways to come back to me since. To read more about it, see my Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet stories.)
“Know what?” I asked. Whatever our young neighbor’s secret, she’d shielded it from the ears of her little sister, Katie, who was in the bedroom coloring Rudolph’s nose with my daughter, Helen and her baby sister, Becky.
“I know there’s not really a Santa Claus and whenever you see one it’s just somebody’s dad in a red suit.” I stopped spooning out marshmallow fluff and turned to look at her. This was my first adult encounter with such an announcement and I didn’t know whether to offer condolences or arguments. But Amy wanted neither. “Just wanted to tell you,” she said. “Don’t worry I won’t tell those guys.” She motioned toward the bedroom like it was a different world.
“Shucks,” I thought. At nine years old, Amy had reached the fourth and final stage of believing in Santa. Sharing her discovery with an adult friend was apparently part of the acceptance process. I bet she told her teacher, the bus driver, the man who loaded groceries into her mom’s car and as many neighbors as possible on that same day. As far I know, Amy went back to coloring with her playmates—who remained somewhere between the second and third stages of Santa—as though the discussion never occurred.
Now that I’ve reached that blessed resting place between being a young mother and becoming a grandmother, it’s hard for me to recall the days when my kids really believed and I lied for the sake of Santa. But there was a time when I wanted him to be a real guy who parked his reindeer in my front yard and ate the sugar cookies I left on the coffee table. Who else would make my girls get all wide-eyed and breathless on Christmas Eve? What could possibly enchant them as much as lying there at 2 a.m., so sure that the sounds of their dad and me tromping by their bedrooms to haul and wrap presents must be Santa Claus? Having little Santa-enthralled cherubs had been part of my holiday picture since way before they were born. And, despite the hard work it was keeping up the fantasy, I somehow knew that, once this phase of my life was past, I’d wish I could watch it again like an old Bing Crosby movie.
During those years, I sometimes did catch myself studying my girls when they’d ask Santa for toys too big to squeeze down the chimney…and dolls found at only one place between here and the North Pole. How come, I wondered, nothing seemed implausible for Santa? At times like that, I’d have to reach into my subconscious for the fuzzy impressions of Christmases long, long ago—way back to the stage where anything could come true.
Stage one: We’re born into this world naked, helpless, and with an unconditional love for Santa Claus already rooted in our soul. He is the only stranger we’re allowed to hug and, the first time we’re placed in his lap, we bond instantly and instinctively. He’s as comfortable as our dad, yet the brightest, biggest dream we’ve managed to touch so far.
This pure, unfaltering passion lasts till the age of three or four, right about the time when we begin asking questions like, “Why does it hurt when I pinch myself?” and “Did Santa really see me make a face at my mom?” In our unending search for many different answers to all questions, we happen to come across Santa in Sears and….What’s this? It looks like he’s got black rubber stuck on top of his shoes instead of real boots…and a beard attached to his ears rather than his chin! Luckily, our little brains start shutting down to protect us and we don’t look as closely during the next several encounters. And luckily, our moms tell us about Santa’s Helpers. Knowing there are thousands of men with all sorts of footwear and fake padding willing to help out “The Real One” is quite a comfort while we’re in Stage Two.
“If you’re Santa’s Helper, how come you drove over here in a Jeep?” Becky’s friends asked during her kindergarten Christmas party. They were in Stage Two and Santa’s Helper that year was my dad, her grandpa, who loved to make up stories and laugh too loud just as much as he loved to dress all in red and be the center of attention. “Oh, well, the reindeer and I landed over at the airport. The Jeep is a loaner ’cause the road over here would have ruined Santa’s sleigh,” he said.
Ah, ’twas a blessed time, indeed! There was my little blonde angel who knew always telling the truth was important so grownups would be proud and trusting, blissfully sitting in her lying grandpa’s lap—sure as anything he was the real deal ’cause he just landed at the Skyhaven Airport with a sack of goodies for her and all her friends. “Well, Santa,” Becky said, “you do like your Christmas cookies, don’t you?” Totally oblivious, she giggled and poked his very Grandpa-like jelly belly.
That scene came flooding back to me the other day when I picked up the Rangeley Highlander and discovered that, up here, kids get to go to breakfast with Santa at Orgonon, the Wilhelm Reich museum. (For those of you not from around here, Rangeley was once ground zero for Wilhelm Reich’s unique research into harnessing environmental energy fields.) “Woah, now that would have been a fun Christmas with Grandpa!” I chuckled. I could see him lumbering in—his red suit all soaked, beard dripping, boots a bit scuffed and mittens slightly frayed—with his sack of toys glowing from tiny flashlights he’d hidden inside.
“Boy, it sure is exciting for Santa to come to Rangeley!” he’d holler to the tykes gathered round. “I was heading south, almost across the border from Canada, when my sleigh got sucked into some kind of a magic thunderhead! Old Wilhelm’s cloud buster out there gave me and the reindeer one heck of a ride! And you should’ve seen how Rudolph’s nose lit up when he passed through the orgone energy accumulator!”
Kids at that party probably would have gotten fixated at Stage Two and had a hard time progressing. But even they, sooner or later, would enter Stage Three: the years of Serious Wavering. Their hearts would still be into Santa Claus, but their brains would be catching up.
I do recall struggling in this stage on a winter’s night in 1963. “So, there’s probably a guy way up north with a big, long list,” I’d think to myself before I went to sleep. “But flying reindeer? And elves who can make Barbies just like the ones in the store?” And then I started worrying if maybe Santa heard me thinking like that. Just in case, I decided I’d better wait until next year to figure it all out.
1964 was the year my mom bought an honest to goodness Santa Claus Trap—a plastic red and green version of something a mountain man could’ve used to snare a bear. The contraption sat open in our fireplace during the days before Christmas until, lo and behold, we awoke Christmas morning to find it clamped onto a piece of….Santa’s pants??!! Mom was pretty bothered that he was riding around up there with a hole in his britches, but I wasn’t. I knew right away the stuff caught in the trap matched the red velvet dress she’d just finished sewing for me. But I didn’t want to spoil her fun, so I lingered awhile longer at Stage Three.
By 1965, I’d faced up to the truth about Santa. My maturity was rewarded with a stack of presents half the size of Christmases past. I was about the same age my young friend Amy was when she informed me she knew the guy in the red suit was her dad all along. Translated, that meant she wished she would’ve kept her thoughts to herself for one more year.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! Believe and be blessed.