A licking time bomb

If by some Christmas miracle the ghost of my Nana could have visited Kineo, she would have gently cradled his head, met his big brown eyes with her own, and said: “If it ain’t your hip, it’s your ass or your elbow.”

Even though he’s not a little, old Scottish lady but an old beagle, Kineo would have agreed. Maybe not about the hip part because, last we could tell, his hips were fine. But his ass end and elbow? Not so good. And one eye was pretty sore, too.

He wasn’t supposed to be a Christmas catastrophe. He was supposed to be all healed up from his minor “elective” surgeries. He was supposed to snap right back just in time for his mommy and daddy to drop him off at doggy daycare and celebrate their 40th anniversary in the balmy Bahamas without worrying about his beagle boo-boos. But, of course, he hadn’t really elected to be operated on. He never said “Oh, sure, as long as I need to have a cyst taken off my elbow and a skin tag off my eyelid, you might as well go ahead and take my testicles, too, while I’m under.” We said that on his behalf—and then forged merrily ahead with our best laid plans.

The pre-op vets concurred. Kineo was a Stugged Wonder. Well, actually Stugged (Sturdy+Rugged=Stugged) Wonder was our nickname, but they saw how he got it. “Wow, he’s so strong and healthy for an eleven and a half year old dog!” said the Maine Woods Mobile vet, who previously only saw him for an average of ten minutes a year to administer vaccinations. Unlike his older brother Toby (may he rest in perpetual peace ‘neath the rabbit tracks in the back yard), Kineo was not plagued by assorted issues. Unlike Toby, the only PetMD search Kineo had ever prompted was “Why does my dog insist on eating dirt?” Yup, naming him after a stugged Maine mountain had been a good call. And we were super proud (and kinda cocky) that we could rely on quick trips to the Oquossoc Fire Station once in a great while when the backwoods vet swung through to meet his health needs.

‘Twas a few days before Christmas when Kineo finally set feet inside a real animal clinic in Farmington. “Wow, he’s in really great shape for an old dog,” the vet remarked. “He should do fine.” He wagged his tail and sniffed, totally unaware that this first-time visit was gonna be a doozie. Why risk anesthesia just to neuter the old boy, we always said.  But now that Kineo was a candidate for one-stop surgery, might as well “fix” the potential plumbing issues that plagued old Toby and, while we were at it, make him a better playmate for his doggy girlfriends, we figured. So we signed all the consent forms to “get ‘im done” and left to do some last-minute gift shopping.

“Mommy bought you a can of Ol’ Roy filet mignon flavor dog food for Christmas!” I told Kineo when he walked gingerly out of recovery later that day. He wagged his tail, unfazed and not too much worse for wear after his stem-to-stern overhaul. “Do we need to put one of those cone head collars on him?” I asked almost as an afterthought as we were leaving the clinic.

“Is he a licker?” the vet wondered.

“You mean like Baileys or Kahlua?” I thought to myself. “No he’s a good boy,” I said. “We’ll keep an eye on him.” We lifted him into the Subaru and went on our way back up the mountain, leaving the $12 plastic cone (that the vet had in ample supply for a very good reason) an hour a half away in Farmington.

It took a few days for the anesthesia to wear off and Kineo’s instincts to kick in. Apparently, he didn’t agree with the post-op instructions to let the stitches dissolve gradually as he healed. He preferred to try to self-heal—to tug out those silly little suture knots and lick his wounds to his heart’s content. By then, of course, keeping an eye on him meant never closing our eyes at the same time for more than a second, night or day. And keeping both ears open, too.

“Heard him going after himself again at about 3 a.m.,” Tom said wearily when I found him curled up on the sofa with the dog’s head in a gentle but firm vice grip for the third morning in a row. “The little bugger got a pretty good head start on reopening his incisions before I got to him.” From parenting newborns to providing hospice care and everything in between, we were keen to all manner of threatening night time sounds. But, until then, chronic dog lapping had not been one of them.

That’s when our answer to the perfunctory “How was your Christmas?” line of questioning changed from relating our travel and festive dinner plans to quietly smirking and saying our holiday was different this year. We didn’t think folks wanted or needed the whole ugly truth: We spent Christmas peering at our dog’s shriveled sack and zippered elbow, fretting about foul discharge and how to keep his head pointed up and away till we could talk to the vet. And, being resourceful Rangeley woods dwellers, we became very, very inventive. We adapted YouTube videos about homemade cone collars to make use of materials already on hand. For the first prototype, Tom cut a cone shape out of a giant laminated poster I’d kept from my cranio-sacral therapy training and affixed it with Velcro strips and duct tape. But that didn’t stop our Beldar Conehead beagle. He became a 3-D illustration of the human spinal column and how a canine can twist his vertebra like a Slinky. Prototype # 2 featured an airplane neck pillow, a rolled up towel, a backwards tee-shirt and tons more duct tape. It kept Kineo from reaching his elbow but was no match for his Houdini hound contortions toward his crotch.

How the heck Dr. Jeff the Rocky Mountain Vet could go to Mexico and all over creation to spay and neuter hundreds of dogs and let them walk out of the free clinics unfettered by any head gear became a subject of fascination for me. Maybe Animal Planet just didn’t want to show all the “bad” dogs who ended up festering in the jungle. Or maybe I had a particularly tenacious licker on my hands. Regardless, there I was, a few days after Christmas, snapping a photo of oozing dog junk stitches to send to the vet in Farmington for further instructions. (And making a note to myself to delete that image from my Christmas in Rangeley 2017 photo album as soon as possible!)

“Anyone coming through Farmington today who could pick up a cone collar and antibiotics from my vet on their way up?” I posted on the Where Can I Find It In Rangeley Facebook page. Less than a minute later, I got a yes from a beagle lover and my new best friend, Amy Cooper. And just in time, too. While Tom went to town to meet her, I was “keeping an eye” on Kineo as he lounged by the wood stove. I was doing OK—not eating or going to the bathroom or anything besides staring at his intact sutures. Until the nanosecond in which I left the room to grab my glass of water, and came back to the dreaded sound of serious, hard core slurping.

Tom came home to find me one-arming Kineo’s head on my lap, while my other hand pinched his bleeding elbow boo-boo into a desperate version of a backwoods butterfly closure. We clamped him into the “cone of shame,” pumped him with penicillin, and heaved a huge sigh of relief. He had no choice now but to hunker down and heal up.26172266_1787177327968668_3443104351945885544_o

“Spending New Years Eve with this ol’ dubber, (my parents’ 11 and a half year old beagle) keeping him from incessantly noming on his nads,” Helen posted on Facebook. The caption prompted plenty of comments on how she could liven up her baby sitting stint with festive cone decorations, including shoving plastic olives on a long stick into his cone and making him into a “beagle-tini.”

“Hah! He’s a liquor after all,” I commented with a smiley face.

We were in the Bahamas celebrating our anniversary,  just far enough away from our chaotic Christmas to see the humor.

“Awwww…what a good boy!” we said.

 

 

 

 

The signature of summer in Rangeley

“Write something that captures this,” Tom urged, taking a deep cleansing breath and waving his palms skyward. It was that turning point last year in May when we were pretty sure winter was gone, when the breeze lifting the last of the snow melt through the balsams held just a hint of balmy. As soon as the glacial sink hole burying our fire pit receded, we’d dragged our Adirondack chairs back into their sacred circle to sit in joyful contemplation.

Putting the this of it all into words was no small task. Ever since I became Rooted In Rangeley year-round I’d been trying. And still, there I was, seven spring thaws later, with the loons and the sparrows and even the squirrels doing a better job than I at voicing the essence, the wonder, the intricate promise of summer taking hold again here.

Tom’s coaxing was soon seconded by a request from the Rangeley Highlander. Did I have something to contribute to the annual Summer Guide, something that folks coming back up (and those already here and waiting) could relate to about sharing the greatness of our outdoors? Any quintessential reflections on “what is it about this place that makes it so special?” No, not yet I didn’t, at least nothing worthy of sitting on the coffee/picnic table and next to every cash register in town till September. It is a really good question—one I’ve answered in moments of blinding truth and in quiet reflection—but always to myself.

What, exactly, is the this-ness of summer returning to Rangeley—the advent we celebrate with chipper greetings, broadening smiles and wide open doors? How would I explain to someone from say, Tallahassee, who’d never experienced such a thing, what it does for us?

Summer in Rangeley is a kaleidoscope of vivid, elusory moments bursting with new potential. It’s a season of song and color—of fire and water and sun and wind and all the basic elements that enchant my inner child and bring my grown-up mind full-circle. It heightens my senses and stretches my patience, keeps me poised to drop everything and just get out there but mindful that, when I do, I must stay and soak it all in. And, now that I’m “upta camp” year-round, summer in Rangeley is teaching me to take my cues more from nature than the calendar.

“Well hello there, Mr. Chippie!” I hollered. “Is it warm enough to come out and play?” The “winter that wasn’t” had turned into a spring that bounced back and forth between full bloom and frosty, and I was on my way down to the lake to see if ice-out in April was too good to be true. Mr. Chippie looked up and stopped filling his chipmunk cheeks just long enough for the stiff breeze to flatten his fur, then turned tail and scampered back to his hidey hole under the porch. “Guess not,” I said, and returned to half hibernation mode myself.

“That’s OK, though,” I told myself, taking heart from the two daffodils that stood in bright defiance among last year’s leaves. “I’ve got fleece. Got firewood. And I’ve got the best spot in the world to watch and wait.”

When the subtle shift began, I felt it first. Then smelled. A warmer, gentler breeze tickled my face with just enough summer in it that, had I whiskers, they surely  would’ve twitched. The balsam-laden, wood smoke-infused scent with undertones of sawdust and boat gas I’ve always found more tantalizing than perfume or potpourri filled my nose. “Aaah,” I sighed. “This is what I’m talking about.” With each deep breath, the recesses of my brain that registered contentment since back before aroma therapy was ever a thing fired on all cylinders. Then a loon call drifted across the water and I knew once again why I have no need for fancy spas and soothing music.

The view, especially this time of year, doesn’t suck either. The look of Rangeley in the summer is the stuff that sells calendars and lends stock footage for “great State of Maine” TV shows. It even seals real estate deals, ours included. “If you buy the land right down there, this will be your neighborhood,” Shelton Noyes said with great flourish when he cinched his “slice of paradise” sales pitch by bringing us up to the Height of Land. It was this time of year 29 years ago, and I remember squinting hard at the huge panorama of lake and mountains to find the little spot of shoreline we’d just fallen in love with. A few summers later, I knew exactly where my little cabin sat. “See that strip of sand right there?” I’d tell first-time visitors as we drove by. “You can’t really see it from way up here, but just down from that beach, hidden in the trees, is our place.”

After the slow, bumpy haul up Route 17, our overlooks do make a lasting impression.  “Breathtaking!” everyone says. A few can’t fathom why there’s no Dunkin Donuts or Walgreens as far as the eye can see. For them, the beauty is overshadowed by isolation, by the limits of being a dot on such a vast landscape. They might never come back, not even in the summer. But the rest of us who can’t get the picture out of our minds—we come back. We come seeking our own pinpoint of land, our little strip of rock-strewn sand or mossy clearing, and find a way to pin ourselves here for good. We build our nests—for a few weeks or forever—where we can appreciate the real wonder that lies beneath the bird’s eye view shown in the tourist books.

Down in thick of it in my microcosm on the Big Lake, I celebrated with more joy than ever as this summer started “greenin’ up nice.” Right on cue on Memorial Day weekend, and right in time for my 60th birthday, the ferns unfurled, the trilliums blossomed, and the yard birds decided they hadn’t flown north too early after all. I wasn’t sure what 60 was supposed to feel like. But watching the hummingbirds return to the feeder I’d dusted off and refilled just in the nick of time, I felt myself hovering, too, vibrating with anticipation. I couldn’t take my eyes off the flowers Tom was planting either. The geraniums in the window box were the brightest red I’d ever seen. And the petunias hanging in the basket off the shed glowed like a hot pink homing beacon.

“Bring it on!” I demanded. I  was more than ready to extract all the summer sweetness  nature saw fit to dish out. S’mores so yummy I wouldn’t notice the black flies eating me while I feasted on ooey gooey goodness. The clear, calm mornings when the lake sparkles prettier than anything the jewelry commercials said I was supposed to want for Mother’s Day or my birthday. Boat rides into the bright blues of July and August when it feels like, if I just keep going, I’ll find where the water meets the sky. The “quick dips” I call swimming and how they make me glad I’ve left the flannel sheets on the bed. Lupines, lupines everywhere. The rain that ends in rainbows and gives the sunsets character. Sharing a glass of wine and a fine meal in a landmark restaurant so rich with history it flavors the food. Gathering with friends and neighbors who don’t just have “a cabin to go to” but a strong, resilient community. Appreciating how we’ve also come to have the same light in our eyes and spring in our step because we know for sure that it just doesn’t get much better than summer in Rangeley. And, God and Mother Nature willing, we’ll be right here to welcome it again and again.


 

 

Having my moments

Somewhere between the shrimp cassoulet, the lobster mac ‘n cheese, and the “perfect pairing” wine, it  happened. I had a moment. I stopped, looked up from the mounds of “I can have turkey any day” stuff I’d loaded onto my plate, and saw Helen and Tom—really saw them—sitting there with me. And I was overcome, enraptured. It only lasted a second, of course, as moments like that do. But the feeling of how completely thunderstruck I was lingered.

We’d been planning our Old Port Thanksgiving for weeks. With Helen working retail in Boston, it would be fun to meet halfway and have a special holiday dinner in Portland. We’d spend Christmas together at home in Rangeley, we decided. But for Thanksgiving, we’d be doin’ it up down country.

“Got reservations at the Portland Harbor Hotel!” I messaged Helen. “Here’s a link to the menu. If we start fasting and prioritizing our food groups now, we might be able to do that five-course buffet  justice!”

When Thanksgiving arrived, sunny and unseasonably warm, I eagerly donned a dressy V-neck and a pair of swanky but stretchy black pants. I was feeling festive already, with my favorite pendant unburied from my  everyday fleeces to bejewel my bare throat. I even made it into the city without a speck of muddy car crust on the back of my slacks disclosing my point of origin! By the time I cozied into the ambiance at the historic hotel, I was pumped for the food, the memories, and the magic. I was primed for my Thanksgiving moment.

It didn’t happen, not like I imagined when I made the reservation, memorized the menu, and picked out my holiday clothes. And when it did, it wasn’t really a Thanksgiving moment, but more a moment of thanks giving and receiving, of gratitude for living out my own sweetest dreams.

“More of the same, thank you Spirit,” I said back in January. “Let’s keep it comin’.” Another year of finding balance in all things. Of rediscovering who I am, what I came here to be, and the crazy, wonderful people who help keep my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds along the way. Of being prosperous and healthy enough to travel, to splurge now and again, to wander without fear. Of having the supreme good fortune to always come home to simple abundance, to Rangeley. Of proving my mother right that, despite my doubts, most days I do live up to my name. That’s what I’d hoped for, what I intended for myself, what I’d sought and found. How it came to pass was not always pretty, and certainly not as I would have planned, but it was all good. And how blessed I was to have come full circle and then some! The grace, the gift of being exactly where I wanted to be hit me in one glorious second, mid-forkful, on Thanksgiving.

“I’m thankful to be here with you guys,” I blubbered, “and for all we’ve done this year as a family. This is wonderful.” In my head, voicing my gratitude sounded like a beautiful halleluiah chorus. What actually came out of my mouth, however, was a second-glass-of-wine sentimental slur my daughters call “the Mom voice.”

“Awww, me, too,” Helen replied. We all smiled, nodded, and shared a look like we had the best kept secret—better than any wine talkin’ could express. Right then and right there, together, was perfect.

Now that Christmas is coming and another New Year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what made my  moment of thanksgiving perfect. What is the difference between a real heart swelling moment of grace and those holiday moments I imagine having because I’m in the right place with my special someones eating perfectly roasted foods in my once-a-year outfit?  Here’s what I believe.

While the visions I stage in my mind might be picture perfect, the genuine ones don’t care if my camera is ready. They don’t come on cue because the calendar, a costume, or even a rite of passage says it’s time. The truly perfect moments sneak up when I stop trying so hard. They catch me with my mouth full, tinsel in my hair, and my traveling pants all wrinkled. They leave me awestruck, wondering what just happened, wanting more. Of course, the rational, calculating side of me wants to rewind and repeat, to figure out a formula for guaranteeing I keep getting those real moments of grace. But that’s also the side that thinks I should be in a Currier and Ives print this time of year, or staging my version of It’s a Wonderful Life. If she had her way, she’d altogether spoil my chances for serendipity, for divine surprises. I gotta put her in the back seat, so to speak, and let my intuition drive. I do know I need to plan, give myself a course of action. Because I definitely can’t get what I don’t put out there, don’t even dare to ask for. But I also know I can’t make room for those “everything coming true” moments unless I’m willing to let my best laid plans fly out the window and go on faith. Then, when I’m moving forward in “focused surrender”—when synchronicity can take over structure—amazing stuff happens.

“Our anniversary’s coming up soon. How do you want to celebrate?” Tom asked awhile back as we sat together in our favorite spot this time of year. The furniture store called it a loveseat, but we call it the only couch that could fit facing the woodstove in our remodeled Rangeley living room. A bunch of anniversary moments flashed through my mind as I pondered my answer. Like the time we went to The Keys for our 25th and I rented a silver, Mustang convertible as a special surprise. I had it all planned, saw exactly how everything would go down. My husband would see the car sitting in the airport lot, gleaming in the Florida sun. Somewhere in a nearby palm tree, a bird would sing its little lungs out as I wished him a happy anniversary and admitted that yes, I had up-scaled our usual “crap box” car rental. As it turned out, we didn’t get the video footage I had playing in my head. But we did get a spot on the Boston news channel as two of the stranded travelers trying to make it out of Logan during the post-Christmas blizzard. Besides, it was too dark by the time we finally found the Mustang in the parking lot half a day late—and we were too busy trying to figure out how to cram our luggage in it without throwing out Tom’s back.

Then there was the time just before our Big Move to Rangeley we’d planned to spend a romantic anniversary “at home” in our cabin. We’d sit in our cute little living room, watching the snow flakes flutter past the white birches. Nice, right? Well, we got up here just in time for the toothache Tom had been nursing for a week to erupt into a golf ball sized abscess. When I turned the Subaru around and headed back down the mountain, I knew we wouldn’t be the “spend your holidays in Rangeley” brochure couple that year. It was all good, though. We’d have our moments. They’d come out of nowhere, maybe as we were cruising down the Overseas Highway with the warm breeze whipping through our hair and Even Better Than the Real Thing blasting on the radio. Or maybe we’d be holding hands and drinking homemade wine, hanging out with the beagles in our Rangeley flannels.

“Should we travel, stay home, maybe get a dinner reservation in town?” Tom asked. I gazed away from the fire with a smile and we shared a look like we had the best kept secret.

“We’ll see,” I said.

A day for Dada cookers, homemade Hallmarks, and lakeside legends

Today is Father’s Day and the first day of summer, or so says the calendar. Our Rangeley weather, on the other hand, just isn’t buying it. With every downpour, it says “Go hug Dad. Don’t wait to tell him how special he is. ‘Cause the whole summer thing catching up with the calendar so you can celebrate without Gore-Tex and goulashes? Yeah….you’re gonna wait for that.”

Oh we saw the sunshine, remember? We let it lure us outside to flock to the Lupine Festival, line up at the Pine Tree Frosty and launch onto the lakes and ponds. But that was yesterday.

Today reminds me of the days I’d wash soggy PB&J sandwiches down with tepid Tang and hope I’d catch a fish before the rain found its way inside my slicker. I’d buck it up to be with Dad. And if he were still here, I’d be sitting in a boat cushion puddle next to him until he out-fished me and we could call it “a good day.” Instead, I’m watching the rain rile up the lake from my warm, dry seat by the window. I’m happy that my best Father’s Days are still rooted in Rangeley, that more love and laughter with Tom and our daughters is yet to come—certain as the promise of finally, full-blown summer. I’m glad we passed down our fathers’ out-on-the-lake legacy to Helen and Becky, and I know the girls agree. Plus, I’m pretty sure they’re tickled that their dad doesn’t make them wash PB&Js down with Tang like their Grandpa did—and that he uses a watch and the position of the sun, weather permitting, rather than a running trout tally to tell him the day is complete.

“When the girls call, tell them I love them and I’m having a good Father’s Day,” Tom said this afternoon. He was headed up to Aziscohos to fish in the rain for a couple days with other guy friends who’d join in as soon as their cookouts and other dad celebrations were finished. As usual, he’d be out of cell phone range because, even if he carried one, there’d be no transmission towers for miles.

“They know,” I said. They couldn’t come “up” today to wet a line in person. But even though Helen is back in Boston and Becky is camping in California, I’m pretty sure a good part of each of them is right next to their Dad, sitting in their little girl rain slickers, waiting to reel in and squeal with delight.


For more about “Dada cookers,” homemade Hallmark moments and man-of-the-house heroics, see:

Daddy’s grown-up girl
Dads of daughters
From Daddy’s little girl
Dining with Dad

Mooselook State of Mind

“What did you call that lake you live on way up there?” my friends Edie and Lewis kept asking. We were in Florida where they’d gone to escape winter on Long Island for a bit, and where I’d eagerly found them as soon as the invitation was issued.

“Moose-LOOK-megun-TIC,” I said, enunciating like they were second graders learning a foreign word. “It’s Abnaki Native American for moose feeding place. Fourth largest lake in Maine and, actually, the fourth longest place name in the US.”

I couldn’t see behind their sunglasses, but suspected that my little factoids were not helping them form a vision of my special spot on the globe any more than Google Earth had that morning.

“See that small strip of sand across from that big island? I live right about there,” I said, wiggling my pointer finger around the iconic Height of Land picture Lewis Googled on his laptop. But the postcard panorama didn’t satisfy his curiosity. He wanted a bird’s eye view, wanted to punch in my exact coordinates or, at least, my nearby intersections.

“You can type in my street address, but it’s really not a GPS sort of street address,” I tried to explain as he zoomed in and out over green-roofed openings in the trees along the lake, any one of which could have been my cabin. “Nearest town, where I pick up my mail, is Oquossoc. Stands for place of trout. You’ll just have to come visit and see for yourself! But if you come before June, you’ll probably want to bring skis or snowshoes…”

End of conversation. Talk of snow was just too much to bear with our toes in the sand and the warm breeze softly dissipating memories of the polar vortex of 2015. For the moment, it was enough to sit quietly with the knowledge that they were almost as far from their tribal sounding strip of frozen water frontage as I was from mine. And then Lewis started playing New York State of Mind on his ukulele, changing up the words in honor of my failed map quest and his floundering concept of where I called home. Something about being out on the dock fishing and drinking beer.

“…only time I care about is dinner time,” he sang, “cause I’m in a Mooselook-moe-gawntic state of mind!”

For the moment, it was enough to laugh and let him make up lyrics. And then I returned to the Big Lake in mid-March—to the winter that was way worse than the Farmer’s Almanac prediction too ominous to wrap my brain around in November—and the words became my very own.

Mooselook State of Mind (Waiting for spring 2015 version)
Sung to the tune of
New York State of Mind by Billy Joel

Sometimes I go take a break.
Need to leave the lake and the wind and snow.
Hop a flight to a thawed out beach or to Chicago.
But I’m back by the wood stove with what’s left of the homemade wine.
I’m in a Mooselook state of mind.

I’ve strolled on the golden sands in the far off lands where the steel drums play.
Been lost in food options beyond the IGA.
Now I’m eatin’ hot oatmeal in my longies ’cause I’m freezing my behind.
I’m in a Mooselook state of mind.

It was so easy livin’ without socks!
Out of touch with the dump hours and the moose.
But now I’m hoping just to see my dock
A bit more sun. Ice breakin’ loose.

When it comes time for the April thaw, winter’s last hurrah, I’ll be Elmer Fudd.
I won’t care if my old wool hat falls in soupy mud.
I won’t rush for the sunscreen, I’ll be too disinclined.
I’m in a Mooselook state of mind.
I’m just prayin’ for bare arms and jeans that aren’t fleece-lined.
Cause I’m in a….I’m in a Mooselook state of mind!


Editor’s note: Any readers prompted to make snarky comments about me not fully appreciating the four-seasons lifestyle I knew I was getting into when I made the Big Move to Rangeley, please know that there will be a summer reprise. Come July, I’ll be singing a different tune when, God willing, the glorious balmy days beside the lake that we all live for last long enough for me to remember the words.


For more “Songs of Joy and Tomfoolery,” see:

Extreme gift wrapping

I didn’t inherit any aptitude for gift wrapping. Whatever chromosomal matter it is that makes most women capable of tucking, taping and adorning paper-covered boxes so they look fresh out of Macy’s—instead of frigged up beyond all recognition—bypassed me completely. Those genes definitely skipped a generation. And by the time they resurfaced in my daughters’ DNA pool, they were a bit special.

Oh, the girls started out just fine, teaching themselves to perfectly fold corners and criss-cross ribbon as soon as manual dexterity would allow. But somewhere along the way, sibling rivalry mixed with a legacy of twisting holiday traditions, and the Decade of Packing Wars began in earnest.

The presents themselves didn’t really matter. But, oh boy, what was on the outside did! Keeping the containers hermetically sealed from the recipient as long as possible was the real prize. Because, when it came right down to it, whatever trinket could be bought with high school allowance money and still be left intact after the prying and ferreting necessary to unearth it was more trinket than treasure. Yup, it was the thought that counted. And whichever sister started thinking like a structural engineer right after Halloween usually claimed victory at Christmas.

If I remember correctly, Helen started it all, as big sisters often do. Inspired by Photoshop and a printer that could finally keep up with her imagination, she turned a Becky selfie into custom wrapping paper. Unfortunately for Becky, the picture was not the stuff of which party cakes or personalized coffee mugs are made. It was taken after a skiing fall, when a hard face plant onto the icy slope left her with a rather large headlight scab and the dazed look of potential road kill. Thanks to Helen, what should have been for Becky’s eyes only ended up immortalized in a collage under the tree that year, and the first shot of the Decade of Packing Wars was fired.

Becky retaliated in style, and soon both girls were lobbing gift grenades back and forth with such force that the “normal” gifts got lost in a fallout of paper, scissors and rock-hard sealants. It’s all sort of a blur now, but here are a few of my recollections.

  • Nothing says “I care” like a huge glistening ball o’ duck tape
    These days, it comes in every color of the rainbow and in enough holiday patterns to be festive in and of itself. It’s even the featured art form at our annual Rangeley Building Supply kids’ Christmas craft expo. But back when Becky first let loose with yards of duck tape to encase her sister’s present, she was a trend setter, for sure. Relying on the good, ole silvery kind as her media, her mastery grew while her sister’s hopes of extracting her gift dwindled. Those little craft expo kids should have seen the Origami splendor Becky could bestow when she wanted to magically hide a dinky $4 surprise in $14 worth of duck tape!
  • Some dis-assembly required (AKA: “Dad can you grab the screw driver(s)?”)
    The wrapping paper was innocuous enough. But the box underneath was not. Once Helen ripped away Santa in his sleigh, she saw the real barrier to whatever special sister gift was to be hers that year. It must have been another Becky retaliation year, because she went at it with guns blazing, and her Dad’s power drill smokin’. She’d always been an avid student of what was going on in Tom’s workshop, and it certainly showed when Helen uncovered the wooden box that her sister had so meticulously hand crafted just for her. ‘Twas not a nice wooden music box or jewelry box that could be flipped open to find little velvet-covered compartments and a pretty pair of earrings. It was a plain plywood box, unadorned except for the screws drilled into every inch of its cover. And it made noise—jingling and jangling each time Helen shook it! Intrigued, and no stranger to a tool box herself, she asked Tom to go get her a screw driver. “Better bring a Phillips head and a flat one!” she called after him. Half an hour and a sore wrist later, she popped the lid off the box—to reveal that it was filled with another pound of screws…and a note from Becky instructing that her present was hiding under her bed.
  • Open with caution…and a chisel
    Helen was pleased to have found a nice piece of tapestry she knew would make a perfect decorative accent for her sister’s dorm room. But could she fold it lovingly and put it in a gift bag? Never! This was a double-retaliation year, and she just happened to have Plaster of Paris. She was considerate enough to put the fancy cloth in protective plastic—and give her sister a chisel to chip away at the layers and layers in which it was encased. ‘Twas not an under the tree present, but an outside on the back deck present. Good thing we were blessed with unseasonably mild weather that year as we watched Becky hack away out there, covering everything in a flurry of white Christmas plaster.
  • Frozen in the front yard
    And then came the year when there was just enough snow for Becky’s present from Helen. An early thaw had Helen worried, but a few inches fell by Christmas Eve, and she was overjoyed to bury her sister’s special surprise in the front yard. We lived on a busy road back then, and passersby must have been curious about why we had a snow obelisk with a Jolly Roger flag stuck atop it out next to our well pump. Good thing Becky hadn’t spied it yet. That would have spoiled the fun she had stopping traffic as she dug for her little trinket with the plastic shovel and the treasure map her big sister left under the tree for her, all specially wrapped, pointing the way to the front yard.
  • All I want for Christmas is a skin graft
    In hindsight, Becky should have called a truce already. But how could she know that this would be the year that, in the course of her costume design business, her sister would gain access to materials that could shape-shift at the slightest variation of temperature and touch? And how were Tom and I to know that instead of just playing Santa—delivering Helen’s special gift (tee hee) to Becky while visiting her in The Keys—that we were actually pawns in the final Packing Wars skirmish? What we casually carried through airport security looked, to us, like a small green and red package tied with a festive bow. What it ended up being, however, once in Becky’s possession was a dirty bomb that should have put TSA on high alert. ‘Neath the wrapping paper was a plain plastic cylinder inside which, immersed in a mysterious goo, was an envelope containing a gift certificate.
    “We should go roller skating next time you come home,” Helen said that summer. The thought was nice, buying a gift certificate to the local roller skating rink so she and her sister could act like little kids again for an afternoon.  But the afterthought, the one that took hold around Halloween about how to showcase her sentiments—not so nice. To this day, Helen claims the mysterious goo was supposed to dry to a semi-hard foam that would harmlessly encapsulate her gift till Becky pulled it from its shell. It wasn’t really meant to stay in the gelatinous, Super Gluey state that came bubbling out all over Becky’s hands when she pried the plastic apart. It wasn’t supposed to stick Becky’s fingers together and then stick the envelope to her stuck-together fingers on the night before she had to help run a SCUBA dive boat, wasn’t meant to not come unstuck when we doused Becky with nail polish remover, then Jim Beam, and any other solvents we could find in our luggage.

The sisters never did go roller skating, partly because the gift certificate didn’t withstand the trauma. And partly because Becky called Helen a friggin’ biotch for thinking it was somehow funny to make her rip the top layer of skin off her fingers and then immerse them continuously in salty sea water. But they did call a truce. They made up, like nice sisters do, both able to laugh about it a few Christmases later. We were all in the Bahamas for the holidays and Becky had just taught her sister to SCUBA dive. “Right about Halloween, when I knew Helen was going to come visit, I started dreaming of hiding her present underwater,” Becky told me.”Like under a rock next to a moray eel at about 30 feet.” But payback, she decided, from a SCUBA diving, costume designing big sister—who still had a digital photo of her making a goofy scab face—would really be a bitch.

Merry Christmas everyone. Play nice!


For more Christmas postings, see:
Welcome DecemBear!
A Rain-geley white Christmas
Yankee swappin’
A moving feast
Four stages of Santa 
A friend called Coco

Betty Barfbag and other comforting traditions

What does slinking around with an air sickness bag face puppet have in common with torching toy boats in the backyard? In my family, the same thing as turkey, mashed tater towers, and a cranberry sauce cylinder straight from the can. Each is a Thanksgiving memory—a tradition of the highest order.

If you haven’t guessed by now, traditions in my family go a bit beyond your Norman Rockwell portrait of a holiday gathering. Everybody can gorge themselves on pie and watch football, right? So we kick it up a notch. If our after-dinner entertainment can keep us laughing all year and just this side of safe and sane, well then that’s a custom we figure is worth repeating!

“Good thing Betty is back in Boulder this Thanksgiving,” I said the other day. I’d done my annual “who’s going where and who might come all the way up here” calculations, and couldn’t help mentioning her. “Poor Betty’s traveled a lot over the holidays and it’s time for her to stay put.” Tom and I laughed knowingly. Someday, somehow, we’ll be engrossed in our festivities when…oh jeez…her dopey face will just pop out of nowhere and suddenly Betty’s baaaaack!

“Mom, you can’t go talking about her on Facebook and stuff,” Becky said earlier this year. “My friends want to know who Betty is and it’s too hard to explain.”

She’s right. Betty is even harder to explain than Mr. Mac Bear on the Stairs (a memorial statue to my dad, her grandpa, who’s only moved twice in the last 18 years), and my Grandma Prudy angel that hung in the kitchen for years till the girls pointed out all she was “watching over” was the dogs’ food bowls.

“Somehow I knew you weren’t talking about an actual person,” a visitor said. She asked about the challenges of consolidating homes for my Big Move to Rangeley, and I told her that finding Grandpa Mac a “good view” from the second landing was right up there with getting all my furniture to fit.

And Betty, well, she’s a whole ‘nother level of anthropomorphic aberration. She’s the weird aunt who’s funny till you realize you’re stuck with her at your house again. She’s a stowaway who’s slipped past TSA checkpoints all over the US and the Caribbean, tagging along wherever she can catch her next ride. She’s a talking head drawn on a Southwest Airlines barf bag.

“Please watch your step while entering and exiting the moving walkways,” she said, right after Becky brought her to life. We were en-route back from the Bahamas and, if I remember correctly, Becky used the multi-pack of colored markers she always seemed to have in her purse to distract herself from the bratty kid in the next seat. “Please watch your step…” she repeated in an airport security monotone, her horsey-toothed jaws flapping up and down, her too-blue eyes glaring from her pasty paper face. By the time we landed, I’d dubbed her Betty Barfbag and I was transfixed. I gained a new travel companion and a new level of enchantment with my teenage daughter. Not only did she have the seed of thought necessary to look into her seat pocket and want to animate a barf sack, she had the drive to execute her vision and give it a voice!Betty (1)

“Of course you’re going to take Betty back to the Bahamas with you,” I said a year later. “She was sort of born there.” Watching Becky pack for her three-month SCUBA internship, I was doing the obligatory “Mom inventory” of stating all the obvious things she’d need.

“You’re going to make a thing outta this aren’t you?” Becky challenged, peering down at the Sharpie creation I’d laid on her bed next to her flip flops. “Leave it to you to even save it!”

“Don’t call me a this or an it,” I made Betty plead as I passed Becky a bottle of sunscreen with my other hand. “My name is Betty. And I’m here to remind you to take your vitamins, call your mother when you can, and please watch your step while entering and exiting the moving walkways…”

So yes, I made a very big thing out of Betty. How could I not? And I’m pretty sure my daughter knew that I would as, moments later while her back was turned, I crammed Betty into the side pocket of her luggage. If not, she certainly was convinced a few days later when she found her little travel mate folded up next to her deodorant. Like it or not, Betty was now a family thing. Over the next several years, she’d be stuffed and stowed and carted back and forth from Becky’s luggage to mine and back again while Becky learned to suck it up with a smile and accept responsibility for what she’d spawned. I couldn’t even draw a straight line, never mind paint life onto a barf bag! It was Becky, after all, who had lit the torch the moment she’d reached into that Southwest seat pocket. I’d just taken hold of what she’d started and run as long and as far as I could keep the spark alive.

Betty Barfbag, I’m proud to say, has been our bon voyage ambassador for ten years now. She’s been shuttled back and forth from Maine to Colorado to the islands and all stops in between so many times she’s taken on a salty, musty, left-too-long-in-a-drawer smell to prove it. She’s survived attic mice, near misses with washing machines, countless drop kicks and detours—and even the biblical Boulder flood of 2013.

IMG_0765 (1)
Aloha! Hawaii is paradise, and Maine is a nice place to visit, but I need to head back to Boulder soon.

“We need to stuff her way down in there, far enough so she’s not going to find her till a few days after she starts to unpack,” I whispered to Helen a couple Thanksgivings ago. Becky had flown into Boston from her new teaching job in the Bahamas for a quick visit—just long enough to attend her friend’s wedding, eat egg rolls and lo mein with us under an indoor pagoda on Route 1, and take Betty back with her again. It was time. Betty had spent a long stint with me in Maine, by way of the Florida Keys or Grand Cayman, or whatever recent rendezvous I’d had with Becky and been stupid enough to leave my luggage unattended.

“She’s gonna be pissed when she digs her back outta there,” Helen giggled. Getting Betty stowed incognito was almost as hairy as driving through Logan holiday traffic. But we pulled it off, and soon she was headed back where she really belonged.

“She’ll wish she could have kept an eye on that luggage, even when she went to the bathroom,” I said. “But she won’t be nearly as pissed as she’d be if she lost the burning boat races this year.”

“Yup! That’s what we’d be doing right now,” Helen remarked. “You’d be helping Aunt Marie put away the turkey and get the pies ready, and we’d be out back by the pond setting fire to our homemade boats. What a tradition!”

For sure. How that got started is almost as hard to explain as a talking barf sack, but it came about as most time honored childhood customs do. The older, teenage cousins were trying to hide from the younger cousins and, in the course of getting as far away from the “little kids” table as possible, came up with a bad ass idea. Walking around the small pond on the country “farm” where we gathered for Thanksgiving was boring. Building tiny boats of paper and cardboard was better. Setting fire to their flotilla and seeing which floating ball of flames could sail the farthest before sinking was a downright blast.

“Pond races!” they’d holler, and the grownups would trundle out to supervise their playing with matches, one minute cheering the inventiveness of our offspring, the next twittering about how the custom wouldn’t translate too well to the ER doctor, should we require his services.

“Remember the pirate ship I built with the little crow’s nest and the Jolly Roger flag?” Helen said wistfully. “That was my favorite.”

Sure I remembered. The vessel was almost as fire retardant as it was seaworthy—a festive beacon of toothpick masts that probably would have won her the race if she hadn’t singed half her eyebrows off shoving it into the water.

“Good times,” I said, wondering when we’d all gather again to revive the tradition. Hopefully before any of the cousins had kids of their own and had to explain how flaming boat races got woven into our family heritage. Meanwhile, we’ve got Betty Barfbag to keep us in the spirit. And, except for the time I almost took a header sprinting over Becky’s luggage with her, she’ll probably keep us safer while we celebrate.


Daddy’s grown-up girl

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.

Happy Father’s Day!

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For more Father’s Day stories, see:

Dads of daughters
From Daddy’s little girl
Dining with Dad

For more “Rooted In Moosehead, too” stories, see:

Mother’s Day anniversaries

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.

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For more Mother’s Day messages, see:

 

Terms of endearment (and other gibberish)

Twas nearly 40 Valentine’s Days ago when Tom first called me his little boogma. I was so thrilled to be anyone’s boogma, especially his, that I loved the sound of it. I didn’t even stop to think how he might have come up with such a label but, instead, took it as another sign from the universe that he was my soul mate. I had a brand new word that no other guy was saying to no other girl—one he had concocted on a whim because nothing else fit! In my mind and heart, he was already a part of my family.

Wikipedia calls this neologism—making up a word that only holds meaning for the person who first utters it, and for those who later come to understand its usage. Medical references claim it’s psychotic, probably the result of brain damage or mental imbalance. I call it good old family dialogue and say the medical exerts are full of snash. Our special dictionary is colorful, historic, and only slightly insane. And I’ll proudly add pages to it as long as I can continue to hold a thought and morph it into an expression. Following is an abridged chronology.

dockanoon (circa 1931)
“Please don’t make me go in the attic, Mommy! The dockanoon lives there!”
One of the earliest made up words in family history, this came from my Dad (Mac) when he was about three years old. Late one afternoon, he got a little adventuresome and toddled up to the attic and there it was way up under the eaves, a menacing monster waiting to prey on little boys who ventured out on their own. Much later, he figured out it was a actually a dress form his mother (my Nana) used for sewing, silhouetted by the sun setting through the attic window. He never dropped the word, though, and made sure to pass it down to me and my sister as soon as we became afraid of the dark, too.

oopergawsis (circa 1958)
“Be careful of the oopergawsis when you jump on Daddy’s lap.”
We were just old enough to get rambunctious and still young enough to be scared stiff by dockanoons and other monsters when Mac coined this one. Much later, he’d explain we hadn’t yet learned how boys were different than girls, and the proper terms for their private parts. We hadn’t even had a chance to make up our own naughty names. So, in order to protect himself without getting too graphic, he tried to convince us that an “invisible” monster sat on his lap and was easily disturbed. My sister saw through that story, though. The first time we visited the zoo, she took one look at the male water buffalo, pointed, and exclaimed to everyone within earshot: “Mommy, look at the huge oopergawsis on that one!”

snash (circa 1965)
“I know that you stole all those cookies, so don’t give me any of your snash!”
My cousins and I inspired this word when we were spending the weekend with Nana, our original neologist. We were mischievous preteens, pushing her boundaries and figuring she was too off her rocker to be wise to our antics. We burst out laughing the minute she said it, and snash went down in family folklore as Nana’s gibberish word. Very fitting for someone so easily flustered who wrapped up empty boxes and gave them to us at Christmas. She could remember coming over on the boat from Scotland, but couldn’t remember lunch, so she compensated with Nana-speak. Or so I thought, until I finally looked up snash while researching this post. There it was, right in the Urban Dictionary, common Scottish slang for “verbal insolence.” I stand corrected, Nana! Guess you brought a bit of ancient dialect over on the boat with you and your dockanoon.

gutchies (circa 1974)
“Guess I gotta do laundry so I’ll have some clean gutchies.”
The first time I heard Tom say this in college, I thought it was odd that he nicknamed his undershorts. Then I remembered my own rich history, and was kind of jealous. Why hadn’t I come up with that? It was long before anybody called ’em tighty whities, when only grandpas wore boxers, and I could have been a trend setter. Tom claimed it was his brother’s term, not his. And all these years I believed him, until I finally consulted the Urban Dictionary and learned the truth. It’s a for-real word, supposedly originating in Pennsylvania. Generally not depicting the spiffy, new briefs modeled by Michael Jordan in the Hanes commercials, it can refer to women’s panties, too. Not the Victoria’s Secret variety, mind you, the 12-pack Walmart kind. Who knew?

wlak (circa 2000)
“Jasper’s a good dog, so he deserves a long wlak.”
Some of my most memorable neologisms, including this one, come from not thinking as fast as my mouth is moving. I was attempting to verbally spell out W-A-L-K so our beagle didn’t bust a gasket hearing me utter the actual word. Well, I did better than that by making sure he could never decipher my alphabetic code! Two beagles later, we are still taking the dog(s) out for a wlak.

stugged (2009)
“The table legs were rickety, so Tom reinforced them and now they are stugged.”
I didn’t realize it till later, but when I came out with this one, I was actually following the footsteps of Lewis Carroll and other literary greats in creating a portmanteau—lumping two words together to form a new one. At the time, I thought I was simply admiring Tom’s handiwork. He made a table sturdy + rugged = stugged. Now I use it to describe everything from a well-built backpack to my legs after a long snowshoe.

slub (2012)
“What kind of a slub leaves her wet bathing suit in a lump on the lanai for the rest of the day while she sits and drinks rum punch?”
I won’t confess how many of my portmanteaus I have set free while enjoying a cocktail on vacation. Suffice to say, though, the combination seems to create a fertile environment for some of my most memorable self-expressions. Slug + slob = slub. Somehow, I seem to be more comfortable being a tropical slub than a Rangeley slub. Even with a homemade wine cooler in my drinkin’ jar down by lake, change of latitude, minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, minus rum does not seem to create the same result. Go figure.

Fredded Shosted Wheat / Shark, Puddle and Fly (ongoing)
“Before you open the new box of Cheerios, I want you to finish the Fredded Shosted Wheat.”
“We used to leave our car at the Shark, Puddle and Fly. Now we take the bus to Logan.”
I blame proficiency in this sort of word art on my mother’s love of spoonerisms.
Before Wikipedia defined them as “errors in speech or deliberate plays on words in which corresponding consonants, or vowels are switched,” I knew them as cheap fun around the dinner table. She retold the story of Rindercella and her prandsome hince so often I think it must have triggered the spoonerism synapses in my cerebral cortex. I now carry on her legacy with pride and panache.

camp frau (Present)
“In the middle of winter, when she hasn’t been into Rangeley or down the mountain for awhile, Joy begins to feel like a camp frau.”
This is my own adaptation of house frau, a term I heard my mother-in-law use when talking about living in Germany in her younger years. The house fraus in her neighborhood were stuck in a rut by choice, it seemed, Germany’s version of Donna Reed or June Cleaver without their modern appliances or naturally sunny dispositions. They wanted to be housewives, to have no aspirations greater than polishing silverware and making sauerkraut. The tone she used when she spoke told me my mother-in-law wasn’t one of them, and made me pray to never become her son’s house frau. Sometimes, though, when the days get short, the snow piles up, and I wonder if I’d be a better woman if I swept up around the wood stove one more time, I do feel like a camp frau. But then I remember: Due to temporary circumstances and wanting to live the good life in God’s country, I am a cabin-bound woman, not a camp frau. I am a lucky little boogma.

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For other Valentine’s Day posts, see: