Kineo, our ancient beagle boy, passed on to new adventures a few days ago. He died on my birthday.
Your dog dying on your birthday sounds like the saddest blues song ever. And it was. But there were gifts in it, too. Between my tears, squeezed out from heartache, I am able to acknowledge the timing, the lessons about beginnings that eventually must turn to endings, and back to new beginnings. I am accepting Kineo’s gift.
Kineo was the first and last thing I “did” each morning and every night. “Thank you for being my dog again today, and for being the best dog ever,” I’d say, wrapping him in a velvety hug. Then I’d regale him with an ever growing litany of noble titles before going to get my coffee or going off to bed. You’re welcome, he’d snuffle, his big brown eyes pouring the depths of his love right back at me. And he’d keep on keeping on—for days, weeks, years beyond what a seasoned beagle owner in her right mind (or any dog owner) could reasonably expect. He was two months shy of turning sixteen.
It almost got to be a joke, how he’d keep needing his annual shots, his celebratory cans of Ol’ Roy gravy dinner, and another five-pounder box of biscuits. I’d mark the calendar for his birthdays, then his half-birthday and, finally, his three-quarters birthday just before Mother’s Day. I’d do the dog-to-human years calculations thinking nobody must have told him he was pushing a hundred and twelve. Until there was no more fooling Mother Nature.
In the end, Kineo gave me the gift of one more boat ride, of watching his ears flap softly in the breeze as his nose tried to hoover out every last early summer scent coming off the lake. He devoted all of his days to making the best of mine, of ours. He shared the wonder of living every moment close to the earth, far from worry. And the grace of going peacefully, gratefully, when the time was right. He came to us a dark, stocky little puppy, ready to live up to his rugged Maine mountain name, and left a wizened, lumpy old hound happy to just waddle around after us and sleep in the sun.
On the afternoon of my birthday, Kineo listened mostly with his heart as I smiled through my tears, kissed his old grey head, and whispered one more time. “Thank you for being my dog again today, and the best dog ever. My Lord Bemis camp beagle, ruler of the afghan realm, the far rug regions, the tall pillow plateaus, the deep, dark blanket bayous, the vast, uncharted forest floors, and all the known couch counties. For being my sultan of the Subaru, titan of the Toyota, baron of the biscuits, guardian of the garden, and prince of the porch piddles. For living in regal beagle splendor all of your days, until this last day, Mumma’s birthday, the twenty-seventh day of May in your sixteenth year Atta Doggonie.”
With all the strides made lately toward ecological awareness and responsibility, how come green cellophane Easter “grass” still shows up on the store shelves? Isn’t it a bit ironic that McDonald’s has been forced to develop an environmentally sound alternative to Styrofoam while employees at Bunny Turf, Inc. are still shredding up heaps of neon green strips with a half-life of 200 years?
Back when I had to deal with the stuff as a necessary evil of young motherhood, I told myself I’d like it better if it was somehow recycled—re-purposed from some equally annoying product. Instead of making all those strips from scratch, I always thought the Bunny Turf people should maybe reuse the see-through parts of the Publishers Clearinghouse envelopes I threw away by the truckload each year. Add a little green dye, chop and re-bag it, and presto…one bothersome by-product replaces another! But by June, still finding the glossy clumps rooted in my carpet and underneath my couch cushions, I’d see the flaws in that thought process. No commercially recycled product could ever come close enough to the real thing, I realized, since there was no way of recharging each teensy fake blade with a thousand volts of static electricity. And without that characteristic cling lingering long after the Cadbury eggs have disappeared, the product just wouldn’t be genuine Easter grass.
Of course I didn’t always hate the stuff. I once welcomed its emerald plasticity as a sign of the season the same way I embraced cotton candy on opening day of the fair, Twinkies returning to my lunch box, and those bright yellow and orange corn syrup kernels that came out of hiding each Halloween. I even liked the feel of it, stuffed all springy and bright in my basket the night before Easter, full of promises even better than anything that was bursting forth in my back yard. By morning, this special nest would cushion my stash of chocolatey eggs, little pink and blue marshmallow chicks, and whatever else I could grab before my taller, faster sister plucked it out of hiding.
I bought my daughters their first bags of grass with the same childish exuberance. How precious they were going to be, I thought, prancing around in their little footed jammies looking for what the Easter bunny left and laying it reverently in their very own clump of virgin turf! But somewhere between then and the fifth year I had to rip the long green plastic shreds out of the bowels of my vacuum cleaner, I became less enamored. “I am never buying this crap ever again!” I vowed. “It’s like tinsel on steroids!” As soon as the girls’ Easter haul was eaten and I had re-purposed their baskets, I’d scrape as much of the stubborn tendrils into the trash as possible and pray that my Hoover Wind Tunnel could manage the stragglers. I actually did succeed in removing it from my premises long enough to imagine that, if I put out really big solid chocolate bunnies that year, the girls wouldn’t notice their baskets were bare on the bottom.
“Happy Easter!” one of the Grammies announced the next day, holding out a new basket for each girl. She had been to the dollar store and loaded up on jelly beans, plastic eggs she’d stuffed with spare change, and enough Easter grass for the new millennium. That’s when I gave in, stopped allowing my Easter grass grudge to dampen my holiday gaiety, and finally accepted a few elemental truths: 1) I would not have to buy more Easter grass; but 2) I could also never hope to remove it from my home because 3) the Grammies would always bring more. They had a direct line to the original source, it seemed, plucking from what they began hoarding circa 1958. (I know, because one year in Becky’s allotted clump I found a retro foil Hersey’s wrapper from my favorite candy when I was her age.) Before long, I became pioneer mom for my own “green” movement, stockpiling my ancestral ball and—except for what I lost once in a batch of dirty socks—cramming it all back into a dusty Hannaford bag in the closet. Then, when the girls finally admitted they believed a giant rabbit hopped into their living room with candy only because of the candy part, I dumped the mother lode, bag and all, into the trash and watched Waste Management haul it away.
But it seemed like just a brief moment in time before I wanted it back—that foolish, ancient clump of plastic grass and all the memories that went with it. “I’m so glad you had Easter grass!” I said to the Walgreens clerk the day before Easter some years back. “I like the green, but it’s good you had pink and yellow because I bought my girls these matching pinwheels, too!”
“That’s nice,” she said. “How old are your girls?”
“Twenty-two and 26,” I answered.
Old enough to appreciate how perfect the grass cradled the “big girl” treats their dad decided to hide instead of chocolates. He thought it might be really fun to do one more Easter egg hunt with the girls before we moved to Rangeley. And do it with liquor store nips. He was right.
I have plenty of time, they tell me, before I’ll have to start garnering my own grandma load of grass. Meanwhile, I might just surprise them with a new Easter tradition and load up a couple State of Maine-shaped Easter baskets I saw advertised in Down East magazine. I figure I can load a ton of candy in a big basket like that, stretching Twizzlers all the way from Fort Kent to Kennebunk, and nesting a couple Reese’s eggs down in Eastport. Only thing is, I’ll have to line it all with brown grass to be regionally correct this time of year…and remind them to never assume what’s hiding up around Rangeley is a Milk Dud or a chocolate-covered raisin!
I was in the Walmart the other day when I heard an exchange that warmed my heart like only eavesdropping in Walmart could.
“So, for Val’time’s Day, you want candy or flowahs?” a guy asked his sweetie. “You ain’t gettin’ both.”
“Chocolates!” she answered emphatically. “But none of them dahk kind…too bittah. You can save the damn flowahs for when I croak!”
Something told me he wasn’t going to spring for a card to complete his shrink-wrapped valentine. Even so, I wanted what she was getting. Hearing the squeak of cellophane as he stashed it alongside his Bud 30-rack stirred something primal from deep within and long, long ago. Way back—before Hallmarks, roses, romance, and a husband—I longed for a big, brassy display of affection like that. A huge box of Luv U just for me! Then, even if the other girls got double decker, ten-pounder chocolates, I’d have the little teddy hanging off my backpack to prove that, for one special day back in February, I had a valentine.
He waited till she was a safe distance away in search of Pringles, then pondered a display of neon pink, heart-shaped boxes like a man on a mission. Deciding she really was worth something extra special, he grabbed a five-pounder milk chocolate assortment with a tiny white “Luv U” teddy bear taped to the top—a reminder of his affection long after the candy ran out.
“Woah! Where did that come from?” I wondered. Spend a little time among the rows of plastic-flowered fuchsia hearts, and suddenly I was back in junior high craving chocolate nougats and a teddy bear trinket? Head down, I hurried my cart past the giant, extra-postage-required singing cards—averting my eyes to the cupid print boxer shorts and fire engine red nighties—nervous that, by the time I got home, I’d start having a hankering for Monkees reruns and my old lava lamp, too. Luckily, I managed to shake it off, making it back up the mountain to celebrate Valentine’s Day without a cellophane wrapped heart in sight. I had to wonder, though, what part of me could revert back to my lovelorn adolescence so fast and hard that I could almost feel the candy caramels getting stuck in my braces? How much could I actually blame on the mega marketing machine beating inside the Walmart, and how much did I need to admit that, deep down, I still longed for overly sweet, kitsch-coated Valentine validation?
I suspect it started back in elementary school, in the days before teachers had to mandate equal treatment during Valentine’s Day class parties. I’d peer into the paper sack taped to the side of my desk, thrilled when it held almost as many cards as the flirty girls with perfect hair got. On good years, when there’d even be candy in the bottom of my sack, I figured out the little hearts stamped “BE MINE” or “KISS ME” tasted way better than the “U R SWELL” ones.
But I’ve always preferred all things chocolate, a passion lovingly passed down from my first favorite Valentine, my dad. The only heart health he knew was how good it felt to hug and slip each other a Snickers at the same time. In the days before high-fructose or low-glycemic anything, our father-daughter time was sweetened with Skybars, and family outings were fueled by orange slices—not the tree-ripened juicy ones, but the jellied candy kind—my dad’s idea of a power snack. It was my dad who gave me my first Whitman’s Sampler, a testament of his unconditional love and a test of my true feminine will power. How long after I ate the coconut mounds, the cherry cordials, and the other prime pieces could I let the box sit in my room before I’d cave and polish off those lingering dark ones filled with molasses and other things only Grandma really liked? Not long at all, I discovered and, by February 16th, I was using the empty box to store old photos and other keepsakes. I’m pretty sure that was the year I began associating Kodak moments—those happy times surrounded by love and family—with the haunting smell of recently devoured chocolate.
“Must be a girl thing,” says Tom, my husband of 44 years, whenever he sees me enraptured by Lindor truffles and such. Aside from the occasional sack of bull’s eyes he picks up from Mallard Mart, Tom saves his sweet tooth for blueberry pie. “This is the nicest thing you could ever do for me,” he reminds me each time I bake him one and he savors every slice. He could care less about chocolate, unless he’s playing middle man or needs a few pieces for bargaining chips. “If you really love me, just bring me a couple chocolates,” I tell him this time of year. And every year, he looks at me long and hard to see if I’m just saying no with my lips, while my very soul is shouting “Yes, please! Hand over a whole tray of Ferraro Rochers or don’t even bother!”
Yup, it’s a girl thing, all right, all tangled up in hormones, history, and borderline hysteria. And like all girl things, my man observes from a safe distance, teetering between being an enabler and waging tough love to try to snap me out of it. “Hey, don’t you really wanna save some of that for later?” he wanted to know the last time he saw my choco-holic tendencies get out of control. It was our first day of vacation in Hawaii and I was half way through a box of chocolate covered coconut and macadamia mounds.
“No,” I insisted silently, my mouth too busy and my brain too lost in luscious ooey, gooey-ness to speak. Couldn’t he see I was in paradise, for crying out loud—savoring every moment? Besides, the chocolates were a gift, waiting for me in a welcome basket the minute I opened the door to the condo. It was only natural that the pretty box with the palm trees and volcanoes caught my eye before the papayas and grapefruit at the bottom of the basket. But, knowing me all too well, he recognized the behavior. It was the same pattern he’d seen at Christmas when our daughter, Helen, made me rum balls with Godiva brownie mix and enough rum to make Captain Morgan lose his sea legs. “Yum, what a nice thing to give her Mumma,” I sighed, helping myself to just one more until, finally, the question became less about Helen’s love and more about how much did I love myself. And, if I really did, could I stop shoveling in rum balls?
“Brought you something,” Tom announced, returning home from his last grocery run to town. I perked up immediately. It was getting close to Valentine’s Day, after all. And, although I’d been fairly adamant about not wanting “a whole ton of chocolates,” I knew he cherished me like no other. He smiled sweetly, and I could hear the faint rustle of cellophane as he reached into his coat pocket and deposited two Lindor truffles into my hand. “Oooh…the peanut butter filled ones,” I said, “My favorite!”
He’d barely gotten his coat off before I called after him. “Got any more?” I asked, mouth full of half-melted heaven. “I’ll make you a pie!”
So, it’s the middle of January. Do you know where your New Year’s resolution is?
According to the experts who study these sorts of things, if I’m like most women my resolution went out the window a few days ago. It’s not at the gym anymore, not on the bathroom scale, not in my cupboard next to the Hershey bars I’m supposed to save for summertime s’mores. Phew…good thing I’m not like most women! My resolution never left because it was never here to begin with—not on New Year’s Day, anyways. I never made one. Or at least I never, as they say in the Bahamas, “put mouth on it.”
And, let’s be real. Once again, this isn’t like most years. It’s another year when it’s normal to set my sights on the most rudimentary of triumphs, for being happy I’m “able to sit up and take nourishment,” as my Nana used to say, and “still throwing a shadow.” Pretty sure I’m in good company not making any promises to myself for a while.
I used to make plenty of New Year’s resolutions. Loud assertive ones. I’d wake up January 1st feeling the traditional tidings of discontent—mildly disgusted and moderately depressed—ready to throw my bad habits to the curb with the Christmas tree. Most years I’d vow to break the food-filled hand to mouth reflex I’d acquired over the holidays. I’d hop out of bed, into my sneakers and sweats, and throw my body into gear before my brain realized what was happening. For a couple weeks, I’d even manage to combine abstinence with exertion. But then I’d hit the “Yeah, right!” wall, too hungry and tired to mark any more milestones. The bold new leaves I turned over would quickly lose their brilliance and I’d decide to re-root myself in complacency.
Don’t get me wrong, I can still find plenty of room for improvement. And I do love the raw challenge of a brand new calendar just waiting for me to log my pounds lost, miles metered, or whatever weekly results are inching me toward a lofty goal. But I now believe in taking a quieter, slower approach. “Keep ’em guessin'” is my new motto.
“Hmmm…what’s different about her?” folks may be wondering, if I’m lucky, this time of year. “Is she losing weight? Maybe she’s just trying a new hairstyle or she’s doing yoga again.” I maintain the suspense and keep on plugging away in stealth mode until sometime mid-year when, if I’m lucky, I can admit to some sort of victory.
Those of you who know me can attest that, while slow is my style, quiet is definitely not. My true nature is to vocalize my issues and regularly broadcast my successes. I instinctively want to proclaim my resolve to my friends, neighbors, the bank teller, my hair dresser and whoever happens to be with me in line at the IGA. External validation does drive me. It inflates my ego and boosts my self-confidence. But, if it backfires, it can burst my bubble and send me into a downward spiral faster than a bald tire slamming through frost heaves on Route 17. In my old-aged wisdom, I now trade the possible agony of public defeat for the inner thrill of silent victory.
The last time I made the mistake of boasting about the “new me” was in 2000. Not only was it a new year, it was a new century, and I got caught up in ushering in its challenges with my office mates. One coworker in particular, who was competing in some sort of Iron Woman competition, seemed to seek me out as a captive audience for her training and self-denial sagas. On the fourth consecutive day of her announcing how much she could bench press and how little she could eat, I got competitive, too. “Well, I just bought a Torso Track,” I blurted out. “I’m up to 50 reps on it a day and I do Abs of Steel!” (For those of you who didn’t get suckered into the Suzanne Sommers infomercial, Torso Track was an abdominal crunch machine you knelt on. You then gripped onto rolling handle bars and slowly inched yourself forward into push-up position. If you were lucky, you got ripped, six-pack abs. If not, you got back trauma.)
“So…how’s it going?” Iron Woman wanted to know each time she’d stop me in the cafeteria and start eyeing my midsection. Ashamed to admit that my right wrist was the only thing that got ripped before the Torso Track began gathering dust, I’d ask her what kind of lettuce she was eating that day to quickly change the subject. Lesson learned: When tempted to blab about my bold new beginnings, or whatever bad habit I’m bringing to a screeching halt, I bite my tongue. Public disclosure might feel right, but that rush of self-importance will be over in an instant. On the other hand, not having anything to show for my resolve by February can haunt me for the rest of the year.
So…no more New Year’s resolutions for me. I now make “concentrated efforts.” And, if I begin doubting that my small, behind the scenes achievements are actually adding up, I remember my old penny jar. Actually, it wasn’t really a jar, but a quart-sized mug with my name and my sorority logo on it that I kept atop my dresser in memory of more decadent days gone by. Clink…clink…clink…it went from holding beer to collecting loose change and, before too long, I’d accrued $22.49, a ball bearing and some fishing hooks. It was enough for take-out Chinese food and for the pre-Coinstar bank teller to wish she worked at a branch without a coin rolling machine. Of course, I see my life as grander than a giant beer mug. But the notion of suddenly brimming over with measurable results from discreet, everyday sacrifices really appeals to me this time of year.
Since it’s no longer on my dresser, I’ve resolved to find a Rangeley replacement for that old mug. With more catch-all containers than I could cart up here during the Big Move to Rangeley, I gave it to Salvation Army. I’ve got my sights set on finding an old blueberry bucket or syrup jug or something else suitable for chucking change into. Meanwhile, I hope another sorority sister named Joy who shares my philosophy has inherited my mug. And I sure hope she lives closer to a Coinstar machine and take-out Chinese than I do.
You know those Hallmark Christmas scenes so snowy-white perfect you stare at the picture longer than you read the inside of the card? Where the snow blankets the cutesy log cabin, lays a flawlessly glistening path for the storybook critters lingering in and around the puckerbrush, and sparkles off a trim little balsam that somehow got all decked out at the end of the dock?
That’s how I figured it must be upta camp this time of year. Down in the flatlands, I’d sing along with Bing just knowing Christmas in Rangeley was white. Dreamy creamy white. With just enough frost on top of the fluff to glitter like a happy holiday wish from a friend who cared enough to send the very best.
Then I moved here year-round and changed my tune.
The year was 2010, well past what used to be closing up camp and heading home time. This was home, and I was doing my best to track winter’s arrival at my new latitude with photos and witty observation. “Lookin’ kinda grey with a touch of gloomy out there,” I’d say. “You’d think we’d have fresh powder by now this close to Saddleback.” It was pouring buckets. For days on end. And by mid-December, I said to heck with a white Christmas and started dreaming of a dry Christmas.
The sign at the builder’s supply said “Welcome to Rain-geley,” which I took as a sign that the weird meteorological pattern was a fluke. By next year, I bet we’d all be talking about it like “the white Christmas that wasn’t” and get back to enjoying real holiday weather inside our little snow globe. Well that right there was the start of my learning curve, my uncharted climb toward the cold, hard truth. Turns out that, in Rangeley, typical never describes winter weather. And the only pattern is that there isnone. What you see is what you get. Until, of course, you try to dress or otherwise plan for it.
But twelve years of Christmas later, I have learned first-hand where the seasonal boundary in the local saying “down the mountain” starts. It’s on Route 17, a couple miles off the Height of Land, where the Subaru thermostat starts registering something balmier than 28 degrees as it navigates south onto bare, dry pavement again. I’d always known, of course, that these lakes and mountains generate their own weather pattern that outsmarts most AccuWeather technology. It took awhile after my Big Move to Rangeley, however, to realize how soon after Thanksgiving I’d find myself living just over the arctic side of the Great Divide.
And the Big Lake, I’ve come to find out, has its own set of wintery rules not covered in any physical science class I ever took. It doesn’t just “freeze over” sometime in the middle of the first cold spell like I used to picture in my Hallmark fantasies. “Well, the lake must be frozen over,” I’d declare from the obscurity of my living room in southern New Hampshire. Thirty-two degrees…snap…time to freeze over….I imagined the lake just laying there still, waiting for spring when I was ready to return and see it moving again. I now understand that, for my beloved body of water, changing from liquid to solid is a dynamic, fickle process not governed by holidays or thermometers.
“Look!” Tom demanded on one of our first Rangeley December mornings after we’d been blanketed in snow for a couple of weeks but could still hear crashing waves when we ventured outside. I was in my PJs, without my glasses and my first cup of coffee, so he could have been pointing out anything—from the neighborhood moose in my front yard to Bono at my breakfast bar. (Although the moose was more likely and I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, I secretly hoped for the Bono scenario.) “The lake finally froze last night!” Tom said as I squinted in wonder at the smooth sheet of ice that had miraculously appeared sometime in the middle of the night when neither of us was watching. Snowshoeing across to the island would still be a month away, but the lake was definitely frozen solid.
A couple mornings later, Tom woke me up with a new weather report and a different tone of excitement. “I really need your help,” he announced grimly. “We need to move everything off the basement floor. It’s flooded.” I wasn’t sure how dire our emergency was, but even without my glasses I could see there was no more snow coating the trees or piled up on the ground. And I was pretty sure that needing to put on waterproof pants and serious rain boots without ever leaving the house was not the start of a particularly good day.
As I outfitted myself for flood duty, I guessed where Mark Twain was when he quipped, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” In Rangeley, in December, he wouldn’t have been joking. In a flash, I’d gone from hunkering down in the snow next to my frozen solid lake, to crouching next to my cellar steps, preparing to help salvage my possessions from the four inches of rain and melted snow that had surged through the foundation. I was peering at my husband hunkered down there, cussing and sighing and relaying orders, careful not to rap his six-foot high head on the five-foot low ceiling as he sloshed through the moving boxes we’d left down there until “sometime this winter.” They didn’t hold irreplaceable stuff, luckily, but tons of annoying little nicky-nacks that were too useful to throw away, but not treasured enough to go into safe storage upstairs. Plus CDs—hundreds of CDs and videos we were supposed to sort through “whenever.” As their cardboard containers turned to mush in the rising water, our priorities got shifted, and our day was suddenly repurposed. But, before we could schlep everything up the stairs to dry it off, Tom first had to tackle the most important piece of inventory stored there: our brand new sump pump. Installing it had also been on his “sometime” list since the old one was removed and we turned our creepy dirt cellar into a spiffy storage space with new concrete floors that “never showed any sign of moisture.”
“I knew I should have put that damn pump in when the cabin was rebuilt,” Tom said. I silently agreed. And I made a note to myself that, whenever Mother Nature is involved, “should have’s” need to take on heightened urgency—especially when you live 20 miles from the building supply store selling the extra parts you need for whatever it is you should have installed in the summer. The same store with the “Welcome to Rain-geley” sign out front.
“That’s probably why nature is called a mother,” I mused as Tom drove off to get those extra parts and I rummaged around for rag towels. “Like any mother, she knows you ignore ‘should have’ impulses and act like you’re in command of your own timetable.” You can try to blow her off, but she always gets the last word. Kneeling on my dining room floor, swabbing down picture frames and sponging out CD cases, I felt like a child who didn’t take her earth mother seriously and was now being punished with a puddled-up, pumpless basement.
That was years ago. And, fortunately, misadventures like that are short-lived in these parts—where I must pour my energy back into what’s actually hitting me in the face at any given moment. Could be anything from rain to sleet to snow to graupel and back again. Graupel, by the way, is a new word I added to my vocabulary somewhere along the learning curve. According to Webster’s it’s “small particles of snow with a fragile crust of ice softer than hail.” And it’s been in my yard more than once this time of year. Not right now, though. Right now, as of this writing, I see in my yard a trace coating of white that appears to be snow-like. It’s blanketing the path down to where the lake’s stopped lapping at the shore and gone really, really still. Couldn’t tell you whether it would sparkle off a lit-up tree out the dock because leaving your dock in for ice-in and ice-out is a teaching moment Tom chooses to avoid. And we gave up stringing lights on outside trees years ago—after we figured out lights UL-rated for outdoor use don’t take squirrels into account.
Right now, the sump pump is working when needed and so, supposedly, is the snow blower. And my White Christmas CD survived the flood to keep me entertained while I open those perfect holiday cards.
Note: The following is an update to Portraits of Thanksgiving, published in November 2010.
Back in my teens and early twenties, I thought posing for the family Thanksgiving photo was kind of annoying. Just about the time I’d be digging into my carefully allocated favorite foods—while declining any not-so-favorites still circling past me in the hopes I’d free up some precious plate space—the request would be made. “Look up…over here…and smile everybody!” I’d oblige, mid-mouthful, smiling just enough to not mess up my spearing and shoveling momentum. Even when I became a hostess rather than a guest, I’d pause only for a half-seated pose, saying “cheese” then “Who wants more gravy?” mid-route back to the kitchen.
“What’s the big deal?” I wondered silently. “We all know what we look like. Besides, I already have a shoe box full of these different-year-same-dining room-table-type shots.” And then, I found the old Polaroid.
Sometime in early motherhood, when the little girl things I’d taken for granted became vitally important pieces of a legacy I needed to preserve for my own girls, the dusty shoe box turned into a treasured archive. And digging way down to the bottom, we found a real gem—one of my first Thanksgivings captured in black and white.
The year was 1958. Nine of us are seated around my Nana’s table: myself, my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, my sister, my mother, and my grandparents. We’re all in various stages of spooning and serving and planning out second helpings when the camera freezes us for a happy, hectic instant. I am two-and-a-half, perched on a step stool beside my Nana in a frilly dress I still dimly remember. My mother, seated on my other side, has just turned 30. She’s beaming a wide, relaxed smile while her arm is poised like a safety spring to hold me, her youngest, from toppling over and taking the holiday festivities down with me. Nana, looking over her shoulder with a hasty grin, seems to be saying something vintage Nana like: “Hurry up and take the picture before everything gets cold!” The only evidence of my Dad in the portrait is the burst of his flash bulb in the upper corner of the mirror hanging over the table. Below, three generations of heads turning toward the photographer’s light for a few immortal seconds, are reflected in the mirror, too.
Now much older and a potential Nana myself, I’ve stockpiled a hefty share of special Thanksgiving prayers. For family and food, love and well-being. And always before saying them I think back to that old Polaroid print, knowing that it’s in the scanning of the grey setting that my here and now becomes vivid. Because all the adults—the grandparents and parents posing at that Thanksgiving table—are now long gone. After the flash bulb burst and my Dad sat back down, we all went back to our steaming plates, blissfully unaware that most in our precious gathering would, one by one, be leaving the table way too soon. Especially my Mum, who looked up from her holiday feast thinking she was posing for just another snapshot. How could she know she’d already lived two-thirds of her short life?
Forever freeze framed in my memory, the actual photo from 1958 is stashed in my attic archives, somewhere amid the decade-old Big Move to Rangeley larger boxes of unsorted knicky-knacky stuff I’m still saving for a someday project. Someday, I’ll take it out of the shoe box and preserve it like it really deserves, framed for all posterity amid the prints of my daughters’ birthdays, holidays, vacations and everything in between. Someday, sometime mid-February, when I’m finally ready to take up scrap booking to get myself through another Rangeley winter. Meanwhile, I’ll keep focusing on the newer pictures playing on perpetual repeat in my head. Set in a storybook of my own making, it stars me and my beloveds during another year of challenge and loss, of beauty, hope and abundance, of my wildest dreams unfolding before me. This Thanksgiving, as I pause, smile, and really look at my family around the table, I will celebrate being there with them, and how blessed I am that the people I can be close to again are the same like-minded souls I want to be close to…forever. This year, I’ll give special thanks for the medical miracles that touched my tiny corner of Maine. For the days we each got vaccinated with huge grins and waiting winter-white arms. And, especially, for the day I walked away from Maine Medical Center and my angels in scrubs with a brand new hip and a heart full of hope, flipping the page on my fear that the next stop was a wheelchair. Those memories shine like a billboard now, fading out the images of what could have been with the light of newfound freedom. And they pave the way for new ones, like recommencing cousins reunions where we update the 60-year-old Thanksgiving picture and toast to grey hair, grandkids and longevity.
I’ll gladly be sitting still for this year’s picture, aware that it IS a big deal to be another year older around the same old table. And I’ll still never lose sight of my antique Thanksgiving Polaroid. It’s a necessary backdrop, a reminder of my essence and my impermanence, a gentle warning that, in contrast, my here and now is too vibrant for me to dwell on portraits of my life gone by. Spirit willing, it lets me picture myself well into my 80’s surrounded in living color by my family and friends, focused on the blessings right in front of me.
Who needs Halloween this year? Not me! I’ve been wearing a mask and eating candy for months now. And I definitely don’t need to watch any of those special October freak fest movies. I have more than enough reasons for recoiling in horror and wanting to run somewhere and hide just watching the nightly news.
But long before the pandemic and all the nasty, spooky stuff going on out there, I never required a holiday or anything haunted to scare the bejesus out of myself.
“You never saw Alien?” someone asked the other day. Nope. Not at the movies, not on the tube, or on the Disney World ride. Never have. Never will. When it came out in the late 70s, I was still trying to unsee the guy who got his eyes pecked out on The Birds from when I was seven years old. I’d hear everyone talking about how this alien creature “just comes busting out” of some guy’s chest and I was all set. Plus it was back when I was starting to contemplate pregnancy and childbirth. And that was all the busting out I was gonna be able to handle.
Alien and other classic creature features must pale in comparison to the high-tech horror scenes streaming into living rooms these days. I can still only imagine. Maybe I’m some sort of alien myself for avoiding the flicks, while most other folks tune in at every opportunity, choosing to make themselves sweat, shake, gasp, and fear for their lives. I guess I just don’t find cringing on my couch in gut-wrenching terror a particularly good night’s entertainment. Besides, although I spend the bulk of my time living an idyllic lakeside existence, I still suffer through my share of moments filled with dread or apprehension and, by nighttime, I’m ready to settle in with a couple mindless sitcoms.
The adrenaline rush, I suppose, is why people want to watch today’s version of Leatherface buzzing up piles of human kindling with his chainsaw. They get a cheap high when witnessing someone’s dismemberment and their adrenal glands respond by pumping out high-octane juice. But since adrenaline’s real purpose is to boost physical strength—allowing a victim to flee from or fight off an attacker—I can’t help but wonder how it gets channeled through couch potatoes who routinely OD their circuits with terror. If I did choose to watch repeated zombie, creepy crawly, or bloody massacre scenes, wouldn’t I need to put the show on pause, rush out on my porch to scream my lungs out, and come back in for another dose? Wouldn’t I get used to tolerating higher levels of terror, seeking more and more harder core scenes to give me that extra surge of secretions I’d be craving?
No thanks. I’ll be content with hypothesizing about the effects of prolonged make-believe terror. Good thing, because given my baggage and the everyday real life little shocks to my system I manage to pile on, if I watched more than a few minutes of that stuff, I’d end up looking like lakeside Chucky myself! I’m still recovering from all the times in my formative years when televisions were still a novelty and my fun-loving family made me the entertainment: “I told her the UFOs were making the rounds in the neighborhood and our house was next. That got her going!” I never even got a vacation, just a new twist: “Right before dark, I hid behind the outhouse and scratched on it like a big, ol’ bear. She was a couple feet off the ground when she came outta there!” By the time I was 20, my nickname was Fidget. And I checked under the bed alot.
So, all things considered. I’ve had a steady enough stream of adrenaline coursing through me, thank you very much. A lifetime supply, I figure, administered in various doses by all sorts of jitters and jolts. Here are just a few:
Motherhood. Raising two wonderful and remarkably well-adjusted daughters has brought me way more joy than trepidation. But let’s face it. From the moment the maternity nurse handed over ownership of my own new life forms—and on through the gauntlet of gruesome possibilities known as the teenage years—I’ve had some fitful nights and more than a few nail biters. Now that they’re grown women, I can breathe a bit easier. Except, of course, when Helen, who worked at the Portsmouth Music Hall, told me she had been perched on a ladder somewhere near the proscenium dome getting ready for a production. Or when Becky, an Outward Bound instructor based in Moab, Utah, reported that she’d be “entering Dark Canyon” on such and such a day, or “down in Desolation Canyon” on another.
Blinking hard and saying: “Sorry, officer, I understand.” Hasn’t happened much, but once or twice is enough.
Commuting down Route 128 near Boston. I only subjected myself for short spurts back when I was making a name for myself along the tech corridor, but the flashbacks still give me cold sweats.
Being audited by the IRS. Before that, the word “fine” meant I was OK and all was right with my world. Not anymore, and certainly not in the context of a cryptic federal document.
Snakes! The hardest part of living in the woods is that, until you get really close, all sticks look like snakes. And vice versa.
Watching a pair of loveseats fly out of our trailer on the Maine Turnpike. They were wedged in there with all the logistical expertise that allowed Tom to successfully cart loads up here for more than 20 years. They were a matching set, carefully swathed in bubble wrap to protect their burgundy leather upholstery. Real leather, we were proud to say, to replace a gold tweed recliner and other ancient chairs we weren’t bringing back into our new living room. And they were heavy, built to last…or so we thought until a freakish wind shear reached down like the hand of God and levitated them up and out of our trailer just south of Portland. Thanks to adrenaline-induced superhuman strength, Tom was able to sprint into the center lane and haul the pair of them back over to the side of the turnpike before the next round of semis barreled past. The safety patrol guy that stopped to help said our leather furniture wasn’t the scariest thing he’d ever seen in the middle of the turnpike, but wouldn’t elaborate. When our heart rates returned to somewhere within the range of normal, I told Tom that Flying Loveseats, if nothing else, would make a great name for a punk rock band. Because weird, twisted humor is my go-to, my drug of choice for calming my nerves.
Hearing a long-eared owl claiming its nightly kill at the end of our driveway. Before we figured out this Rangeley relative of a screech-owl wasn’t a little old lady being ax murdered, we spent some chilling moments out on the porch in our skivvies wondering what it wanted from us. Now there’s a haunting sound that would give any trick-or-treaters brave enough to come out my way a kick butt dose of natural adrenaline!
Happy Halloween! Stay safe. May your treats be abundant and your laughter louder than your screams.
If ever there was a time to call a moratorium on April Fools’ Day, this would be it. With the pandemic and everything else going on in the world between last April and now, I just don’t need more shock and awe even if it’s supposed to be all in good fun. Besides, what would the jokes be about this year? Cancelled vaccine appointments? Lost stimulus checks? Scary fake rumors about Saddleback and fishing regs? Definitely not funny!
So, once again, when April Fools’ Day came around, I did unto others as I would have them do unto me. Nothing. No gags, no practical jokes, no tee-heeing as I watched friends and family make buffoons of each other.
I did break protocol a bit this year, though, just for a sanity check. I never used to flip my calendar until a week or so into the month. But standing in my kitchen the other day taking a long, mournful look at the snow squalls blanketing my yard, I couldn’t help but sneak a peek at the new month’s calendar page. “Ha! Real funny!” I snorted, verifying the date under the spring green landscape the calendar publisher thought would be accurate. “Maybe I should hang my Christmas stuff back up, put on some carols, and just let myself go full-out crazy.” Then I wondered…if I did go totally nuts in my little snowbound cabin in Rangeley, would anyone know? Tom might, but I’d have to be severely symptomatic. Beyond that, I probably wouldn’t get a phone call or even a silly email because, for years, I’d been begging to be left the heck alone. If I didn’t lend any credence whatsoever to first-day-of-April customs, I hoped those who did would bypass me in their celebrations. “Wish granted,” I sighed. As I let the calendar fall back to March, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of loneliness knowing that my pre-retirement days of commuting to a cubicle—where I’d enjoy the camaraderie of being suckered into some silly office prank—were over.
Apparently, some Medieval hoaxers felt the need to set aside a special occasion for ridiculing other villagers, so they proclaimed April 1 as “All Fools Day.” How thoughtful! And how noble that everyone in modern society from school children to scientists still sanctions a day for poking fun at each other! Could it be that those who perpetuate such rituals are fed up with Christmas compassion, are sick of Valentine sweetness and are dreading Mothers’ Day devotion so they reserve a day in between to cut loose with a little bad behavior? I’ll bet the worst of them—knowing that, come April 15, they’ll have forked over large reserves of hard-earned cash to the IRS—especially look forward to the day when they can lighten their own anguish by evoking momentary shock and discomfort on others.
Yup, I bowed out of the foolish festivities and called a truce years ago. After decades of allowing family members to entertain themselves at my expense, I begged them to let me off the hook. “How about from now on April 1st just slips by me uneventfully?” I asked. “Spare me further trauma.” Seems like they listened. They decided my longevity and sanity were worth a bit more than their glee at scaring me silly or watching me make an ass out of myself “all in good fun.” Besides, those who love me enough to play pranks on me have realized I don’t need any help from them to feel foolish. I manage to do that all by myself year-round.
Now, when I say “foolish”, I don’t mean I spend most of my days feeling like I’m walking around in slippers curled up at the toes and a floppy hat with bells on it. I’m referring to the occasional need to look around to see if anyone noticed me doing something ridiculous or, at worst, the desire to leap into a big hole if only one would open up right next to me. My stunts couldn’t hold together a Three Stooges script. But they do supply enough self-induced embarrassment over the course of a year to, I guess, spare me that extra special dose come April 1st.
I’ve made an August fool out of myself a couple times, for example, on account of keys. I wound up standing on the steaming pavement with curdled milk and sour kids in my shopping cart peering at my car keys through electronically sealed glass. And, even though I was in my 20’s, I’m probably still getting extra numskull credit for the time I locked myself out while sunbathing on the second-floor roof of my apartment house. The rest of the house, you see, had been converted into doctor’s offices, and the only soul who could get me into my third-floor apartment before sundown was a nurse working downstairs. I had to wait, overlooking Edgerly’s Funeral Home and Friendly’s restaurant half dressed, until she came out to her car at lunch. To this day, I’m still grateful she didn’t decide to brown bag it that day!
So, if I do something foolish but no one is around to see or hear it, have I really made a fool of myself? Nope, not in my book. But having witnesses who would otherwise be going about their daily business means I’m downright dopey. That was certainly the case when, as a young mother, I lost patience with a game my daughter Helen used to play with her little sister. She’d grab Becky by the hood of her snowsuit and, holding her at a 90-degree angle in the shopping cart (a common thread in my misadventures), emit a series of banshee wails in her ear until she screamed back. Having enough of it one day, I suddenly stopped shopping, whisked Helen toward me by the collar, and did a 30-second simulation of her howls and snarls into her left ear: “EEEEoooo.. .arf, arf. . .owoooo. . !” She was startled, but not nearly as stunned as her kindergarten teacher who saw my entire performance.
Another thing I’ve come to wonder is if I can blame major blunders on malfunctions other than my own. Or perhaps idiotic occurrences are mostly brought on by equipment failure between my ears? If you’re unsure of the difference—how I determine where the actual blame lies for certain snafus—let me offer a couple illustrations. I’ll begin with defective clothing, one of the most degrading malfunctions.
A family member who shall remain nameless once left her half slip behind on a downtown sidewalk. It just lost all elasticity and slithered to her ankles. Not her fault, especially since she was very slim. And not too terribly humiliating since she just stepped out of it without ever breaking stride. Nobody even noticed how this young woman deposited her undergarment on Main Street. She never really lost face and was able to blame the malfunction on the fashion industry.
I wasn’t so lucky the time at a cookout I tried to implicate poor manufacturing instead of myself. Squeezable mustard bottles had just come on the market and I managed to spray several bystanders and my host’s patio ceiling in an attempt to squirt some on my hotdog. When I couldn’t make any come out, I kept squeezing harder until the plastic nozzle with the arrow indicating “open” blew right off the top. “Foolish thing!” I grumbled. Everyone was sympathetic, though, because they knew the foolish thing wasn’t inside the bottle but behind it.
Whatever the causes, after so many episodes of being the poster girl of goofiness, I’m appreciating my April Fools’ Day abstinence. No more tee-heeing, muffled ineffectively behind perpetrators’ palms. No belly-busting bursts of giggling or fingers pointed in my direction as I hang my flushed face in disgrace. And, so what if I do something ridiculous all on my own? There was, after all, more than beautiful scenery beckoning me to a life of relative seclusion in a remote part of Rangeley!
Ten winters after putting down Rangeley roots—perennial roots deep in the arctic strata formerly known as our summer waterfront—we put down tracks. Serious tracks. Boldly going where we hadn’t dared to snowshoe, ski, or ice shuffle before. Faster than a speeding lawnmower. More powerful than the Funtown kiddie train. Almost able to leap aboard in a single bound. And while we might not be shreddin’ it hahd, as Bob Marley would say, we are dicin’ it up pretty good.
“Bout time!” That’s the general response we got from the “locals” this fall when we talked of buying a sled—after ‘fessing up that, no, we never owned a snow machine and, yes, we live on the slow end of the Big Lake. All winter. With nothing but miles of “white gold” between our front door to ITS 84 and beyond. For the past decade.
Usually I’m pretty honed in on anniversaries. From the mundane to the monumental, I’ll be the first one to tell you how long ago something happened, what day of the week it was, who was there, and what they were wearing. Like if Rain Man were fixated on calendar days rather than never missing an episode of Judge Wapner, that’d be me.
As it turned out, though, buying a sled during our tenth winter around the Rangeley sun was more coincidental than ceremonial. More reactive than proactive. Blame it on some kind of decade in a cabin dementia, but my instinctive, proactive time elapse surveillance never kicked in. If it had, our conversation might have been something like “Wow, ten’s a big number. Let’s celebrate with that Ski-Doo we’ve always wanted.” Instead, we just sort of woke up one day in October and, with the reverse of what a bear must feel right before hibernation, saw there was a new third-digit year coming up on the calendar and said “Ya know, a sled would be pretty darn special.” Even more special, most days, than our snowshoes and grippers. And that’s how we knew it was finally time to spice our snow daze up a notch with some horsepower and “helmet therapy.”
Our brand spankin’ Ski-Doo Skandic 600 “wide track two-up” arrived well before the first snow fall, during that twilight time of waiting and wondering also known as sneaking up on another Rangeley winter. Seeing the sled parked in the yard in all its just out of the showroom shininess added a different dimension of unknowns to the season. Would it really snow enough to ride that thing? Or, like the year we bought the new snow blower, had we triggered an inverse weather pattern and insured a winter drought? And what, exactly, were we gonna do with this gas-propelled, snow+machine piece of property except go get yet another registration stickah and reshuffle some shed space for it?
Silly us. We forgot that the only sure way to make Old Man Winter start piling on blankets and blankets of snow is to doubt, even for a day, the inevitability of his arrival up here. In these parts, idle speculation about winter—or any season—is just that. Idle. It’s counter productive right when we need all the squirrel energy we can muster to spring into action, get ourselves set up.
So, almost as fast as the yard turned from brown to white, we got busy. Never having piloted a snow mobile, Tom did some test runs and gave me, the designated back seat passenger, a “just in case” lesson on the controls. We dress rehearsed using our most expensive fashion accessories to date—our state-of-the-art helmets. How to hermetically seal our noggins while adjusting, snapping, sliding, and otherwise tweaking each advanced feature—on-the-fly—according to our ever-evolving safety, comfort and visibility requirements. How to gracefully remove the new-age brain bucket without removing large patches of hair along with it and then dropping it on the kitchen counter like a greased bowling ball. Then we graduated to figuring out how to pull on our new snazzy boots without pulling a neck muscle and before pulling on our sub-zero gauntlet gloves. Finally, I was ready to do a “hands on” demo: How to get all layered up, hop on the back of a two-up, and actually stay on.
Or so I thought. But the real lesson I learned was this: When prepping for your maiden snowmobile voyage, don’t rely on a pair of 40-year-old snow bibs you’ve had since back in your almost-maiden youth. You’ll forget that you used to be able to zip ’em up ’cause you had nothing on underneath except a pair of control top pantyhose, not rolls of wine blubber and uber thick fleece! And you’ll feel like the famous scene from Gone With the Wind where Mammy tries to get Scarlett back in her skinny clothes, minus the bed post and plus at least 10 more waistline inches!
So my first ride kinda blurred past me while, instead of wild and free, I felt like Michelin Mamma, praying the few centimeters of zipper I was able to close over my paunch didn’t let go and send a shower of shrapnel into Tom’s back. “No more snow bunny waist for you, Miss Joy Joy!” I said as I waddled back inside to find me some bigger girl pants, glad to have Amazon Prime and be searching for something less cinched, but not quite Mammy sized—yet.
A few days later, we were finally geared up, gassed up and two-up, ready to hit the trail hard, to roar into the great white open. Well, maybe not roar. What we ended up with was more like a steady purr. Because the next teaching moment came as soon as we hit the trail for more than a test run. It pertained to my spirit of adventure. The same spirit that, back in my pre-Rangeley driving days, made me the proud owner of a Mustang convertible named Joyride, the same one that keeps me wanting to ride the fastest, hairiest roller coasters till I can’t hobble on and off them anymore. Turns out, that spirit dies a quick death when exposed to snow-covered terrain. And my need for speed? On the back of a sled, that’s met and exceeded in first gear. Anything above 25 miles per hour feels like I’m riding the end car on Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point. In the middle of winter. Without high tech safety restraints. Yelling things not nearly as endearing as the squeals my daughters call my “roller coaster laugh.” But luckily, my pilot seemed to agree. A couple daring sprints to see “what was under the hood,” and he didn’t need me thumping on his back or silent screaming into my helmet to convince him to slow down.
So much for calling our new sled the Red Rocket! After maintaining about the same cruising speed as a Zamboni, the name just didn’t fit. That, plus when we told our daughter we had a Red Rocket, she made the same face she makes when we ask her to explain a Cards Against Humanity phrase. Said something about that term being synonymous with male dog anatomy. So now we have a Red Rover. As in “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Tom and Joy right over!” Across the lake, around Toothaker, down the Bemis track, and back home. Rambling around, blowing the cabin dust off, enjoying another popular Rangeley pastime. And, yes, getting good exercise!
Before this winter, I agreed with Bob Marley when he said snowmobiling didn’t count as outdoor exercise because “all you need to ride is an ass and a throttle thumb.” Now I beg to differ. Especially in the back seat, you also need vice-like grip strength—in your hands and your legs. Specifically in your adductors, those inner thigh muscles you don’t feel until you ride a horse or haul out your Suzane Somers ThighMaster from the 1980s. Did Suzane ever try muckling onto a vinyl seat while thumping over pressure ridges and scaling snow bankings? I think not. Because, if she had, she would have been a Ski-Doo fitness guru instead.
And talk about an ab workout! I might not be sporting a six pack, but I definitely think I’ll be in better swimsuit shape than your average Jane Sixpack, thanks to my Red Rover workouts. We thought that buying the “deluxe” after-market back seat rest for our sled model would be all we needed to have me riding in style and comfort. We were wrong. Until Tom retrofitted it, I spent most of my ride in a half crunch position I hadn’t achieved since I retired my Abs of Steel video. And all the time I was doing so, I was wondering why the engineers at Ski-Doo didn’t take some safety and design pointers from their cohorts working on car seats. If they had, seeing crash test dummies getting all stove up on the “deluxe” after-market back seat of a Ski-Doo Skandic 600 would have sent them back to the drawing board! Sure, streamlined aerodynamics is important on a two-up sled. But how streamlined is it if you end up needing to duct tape your old college “sitting up in bed” pillow with the armrests and five pounds of foam support to the back of your sled?
Luckily, we didn’t need to go that far. With a little Yankee ingenuity and some more help from Amazon, Tom had me sittin’ pretty, enjoying Rangeley’s winter splendor like never before, looking forward to many more years out and about on our anniversary gift to ourselves and our unique lifestyle. It’s not the stuff that jewelry commercials are made of—the ones that make you believe if you don’t by some sort of diamond studded “still married to my best friend” bling to commemorate your love, you’re doing something wrong. But I’m pretty sure, one time in February when we were avoiding a snow drift, our sled tracks made a big, heart-shaped loop on the lake. And sometime along in there, I got inspired to write a song. A reggae song set in the frozen north, about breaking our own path and moving to our own quirky beat.
Slow, Slow, Slow Ridahs Sung to the tune of Buffalo Soldier
Slow, slow, slow ridahs, Won’t go fastah. We’re just the slow, slow, slow ridahs Old faht Sunday drivahs. Moved up from the Flatlands With no real sled plans. Bought our first Ski-Doo Gear that’s brand new. Ridin’ duo On days above zero. Joined the trail club For a stickah and a raffle stub. Cruisn’ real slow Where there’s good snow. Traded in our bicycles Feelin’ like icicles! Toward Bald Mountain Trail map scoutin’. Havin’ no fear Keepin’ it in first gear. Toolin’ round Bemis Maybe the ITS. Slapped by pucker Motherf*****r! Still we look slick Straddlin’ the Skandic. “Snomos” wild and free On our four-stroke utility. Gawkin’ to and fro Through a helmet window. Is that an ice bump Or a buried stump? But, oh what a cool sight Our shadows on the white! Great view of Tom’s head His neck’s real red! Out on the Big Lake Watchin’ out for snow snakes. Holdin’ on so tight Can’t feel my frost bite.
Singin’ braaap braaap braaap ba braaap braaap Braaap braaap braaap ba braaap ba braaap braaap!
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.