Valentines I have known

By falling in love with my high school sweetheart, I pretty much took myself out of the running for other Valentines fresh out of the gate.

But I did play the field just enough to know when my prince had arrived. Oh I’d felt the old heart strings flutter a few times before Tom came along. They might not have beaten down the doors to Rite Aid clamoring to buy me cards and chocolates, but my previous Valentines gave me some poignant memories of young love, of love ne’er spoken and love that could wait forever by the phone on Saturday night.                                   .

First there was Ferdinand, a little guy with a big name and a heart to match. We shared our dreams and secrets and our Hostess cupcakes. We’d swing together, giggling like a couple of kids, and then he’d ask if he could kiss me. I’d agree, shyly at first, but then more insistently. The place was the McClelland School playground. We were in first grade and in love…until Ferdinand got a baseball.

During pre-adolescence, I bartered for romance, hoping to counteract boys’ biological repulsion for girls with material possessions. When the cutest boy in the class said he wished he could have a neat pencil like mine—clear on the end and filled with polished pebbles from the Boston Museum of Science—I told him he could, on one condition. He’d have to tell me he liked me. A deal, he said. So, I took off the eraser and poured the stones into his palm. He shoved them in his pocket, stuck out his tongue and ran. Even with an empty pencil and a hollow promise, I never gave up trying, and neither did most of the other girls in my class. (I’d tell you his name, but he’s a respected citizen in my old hometown and probably wouldn’t want it known that he spent all his third, fourth and fifth grade recesses being chased around the jungle gym by his pack of admirers.)

My first “steady” was Steve: Blond hair, blue eyes, 5-foot-6, 190 pounds. When I was 13, “steady” only meant you’d let the guy give you his I.D. bracelet till it turned your wrist green and let him kiss you maybe once or twice if the opportunity arose (but you didn’t really care if it did or not). The relationship was, more or less, one of convenience—any warm body would do as long as you didn’t get left standing by the bleachers solo at the junior high dances.

My first real unchaperoned date was with Mark #1. It was a spontaneous thing. We both discovered we had orthodontist appointments on the same day a couple of hours apart so, what the heck, maybe we could catch lunch at the House of Pancakes while we were in the big city. My parents were hesitant…a bus ride, a boy…they weren’t too sure, but said yes. They had nothing to worry about, though. How amorous could two 14-year-olds get walking through downtown Springfield, Mass. with their braces tightened to 100 pounds PSI?

After Mark #1 came the “church camp” years. I think the United Congregationalists in my then-hometown in Massachusetts got together and decided if they wanted to keep kids away from drugs and wild rock concerts, they’d better offer up an exciting social alternative. They devised church camps where, for a nominal fee, you could spend a week at a retreat center in New Hampshire, discovering yourself and pondering God, nature and who might try to hold your hand at campfire that night. Parents loved it because it was run by ministers. We teens loved it because how else could we have gotten our parents’ blessing to watch the stars on Vesper Hill with a very special church friend we’d just met?

Trouble was, though, I always fell for the guys who lived on the other side of the state and it didn’t take too many Greyhound trips before the thrill would be gone. Like Dave, whom I was attracted to because he had hair long enough to put in a ponytail and his parents liked Jethro Tull music. Being with Dave was exciting for awhile, but not worth a month’s allowance round-trip.

Rich was by far my hottest church romance. He even lived in the same city and attended the same Sunday night fellowship. I never knew they were called biceps back then, but Rich had ’em and I was so head over heels I’d stay after school to watch him writhe around on the mats during wrestling meets. Rich kissed me twice—in January, 1972, and again in June. (I aimed for quality not quantity.)

I went to the junior prom with another Mark—two proms, I should say—mine and his at a different high school near Boston. I’d met Mark #2 a couple summers earlier (you guessed it) at church camp. He was great—my first real match-up with tall, dark and handsome. Plus,  he had a terrific personality and a wonderful sense of humor to top off the whole package. We started out as the best of friends that any two 16-year-olds of opposite sexes could be—content to walk and talk together for hours. Come prom time, though, our thoughts turned to romance. I’d dreamed about such a night with such a guy! When he asked me to go, I rendered my mother tone deaf in one ear with my exuberant shriek. But, as it turned out, that was to be my greatest emotional surge over Mark #2. I should have learned with the first Mark the folly of attempting to shift from friendship to true love. The minute he showed up with my corsage, he stopped talking to me and started sweating and laughing nervously. We danced like robots. It was a shame, really. Put a tux on him and that outgoing, witty, hunk of a guy turned into Mr. Plastic Prom Date.

In hindsight, though, Mark #2 performed perfectly that night. He convinced all the popular girls I had a cute, mysterious boyfriend from far away. He drove me and our double-date friends to the prom in my mom’s Chevelle—pretty cool back in the days when limo riding was reserved for funerals. But even if I, or my girlfriend, Cathy, or her date had our licenses, I don’t think any of us could have concentrated on driving anyway. Cathy, you see, wasn’t having much fun either, having met her true love after asking Tom to the prom. And I…well I was already smitten with Tom before Cathy asked him and after I’d said yes to Mark #2. So I spent most of the ride peering in the rear view mirror hoping Cathy wouldn’t have a change of heart and muckle onto my Tom in the back seat.

Fast forward a couple days that seemed like weeks. Tom called saying Cathy had broken up with him and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. I had a really good suggestion, but kept it quiet while we got to know each other better. We talked for an hour and a half—mostly about his camp on Great East and my summers on Moosehead and Rangeley. His heart’s desire, he told me, would be to somehow, someday find a way to have his own place on a big, wild lake in Maine.

What’s not to love?

Mitten mania

It’s January. Do you have any idea where your Christmas mittens are?

It used to be easy to know exactly where mine were. They were right under my Christmas tree. Then they were hanging off my coat sleeves for as long as the little bungee grippers clipping them on did their job. After that, I wound up at least one hand shy of a full pair, suffering from severe mitten amnesia.

Many winters ago, it was customary for my sister and me to pick one present to open on Christmas Eve. For reasons that weren’t apparent back then, my mother tried vigorously to sway our hands toward Grandma Haley’s gift.

“Gee, that humongous red and gold box over in the corner sure looks tempting,” I’d declare.

“Yes,” Mum would pipe in, “but look at these packages your Grandma sent all the way from Wisconsin. There’s one for each of you.”

“Yeah, but I like this one that’s making the rattling noises,” my sister would say, shaking a box that sounded like it had a couple hundred non-assembled parts.

“Well, just because these don’t make noise doesn’t mean they aren’t nice,” Mum argued.

We should have been more skeptical. We should have known no fun would come from two identical boxes too thin to hold anything of recreational value and too fat to hold money or a Beatles Rubber Soul album. Instead, we let Mum persuade us. It took us a couple years to catch on to the fact that Grandma’s thin, silent boxes always held mittens. They were handmade, of  course, from multicolored yarn back before kaleidoscopic garments were in fashion.

“Oh, they’ll go with everything,” Mum would exclaim.

Except for the thumbs of the mittens, where the tremendous yardage of lime green always congregated, she was right. So we had no excuse whatsoever not to wear them to church on Christmas Eve. Then we’d always be sure to thank Grandma when we called her later that night. She was so tickled she began sending a new line of multicolored knitwear: neon slippers. These slippers were like booties for big kids—with giant pom-poms on the tops. At least we didn’t have to wear those to church!

When I became a mother myself, I understood why Mum was so anxious for us to tear open those mittens. It was well into cold weather and probably a couple weeks after the first snow and we’d already left a pair on the floor for the dog to demolish, dropped a mitten or two somewhere between the library and the bank, and deposited one in front of the school bus tire. We needed new mittens to wear during Christmas vacation, at least until one of them got slashed by a skate blade or permanently bonded to an icicle.

I  learned that having mittens (and matching hats if you’re really lucky) where you and your kids need them from November till March is a feat that could keep the world’s top strategic planners on their toes. Before long, outfitting my own girls in winter hand wear became my primary purpose in life and turned me into a real mitten maniac. Come the first cold snap, I’d pick up a pair every time I hit the department store: a waterproof pair, a really cheap pair, a frilly pair, an extra pair (times two different sizes)—plus a couple of those super stretchy gloves even I could wear if little Becky didn’t leave them out on the wood pile. Even so, I’d still rely on my supply being augmented by close-by Grandmas who never exceeded two colors per pair in their yarn selection.

Despite my best efforts, though, having any given pair in the right place at the right time still eluded me. Half way through the winter, Helen would be up to her elbows in the school’s lost and found box. She’d spend time roaming the neighborhood with a mitten clutched in one hand like a missing person photo, asking everyone for clues to the other’s whereabouts. And poor little Becky would make many trips between the car, the house and the kindergarten crying, “I don’t know, Mama. I had the red pair yesterday!”

By the time Helen was in middle school, I’d become wise enough to insist that she inventory her mitten/glove options carefully before marching in the Christmas parade with the chorus. She gathered up the frilly ones, the skiing/snowball fighting ones, and the stretchable ones that would keep her warm for all of a quarter block down Main Street. She’d end up choosing the practical, all-weather ones, and then leve them in her pockets so her purplish fingers could turn the pages of her caroling book. I was the only mother ready to run into the parade route with an extra pair…if only I could have found one.

What I wouldn’t give for a pair of Grandma Haley’s mittens right now…and an adult-sized set of those bungee coat sleeve grippers! I didn’t get any Christmas hand wear this year. Didn’t deserve any, I figure, because by now, I’d be missing at least half of that pair, too. I’d have left it in the lady’s room at the Red Onion, or in my cart in the IGA parking lot. Or my best pair may be even farther flung had I made it down to the Rumford car wash. I’d be halfway back up the mountain before my naked hands would alert me: Where did I lose my driving gloves? Oh, probably atop the coin-slot control box—that way too perfectly sized resting spot for fishing quarters out of my pockets…and leaving my gloves orphaned. If, by some rare stroke of luck, they hadn’t fallen into one of those black holes yet, a worse form of mitten memory loss would surely have kicked in and sucked them right into oblivion. I’d lapse into the old “I put them right in my lap/in my pocket to keep track of ’em” illusion and wind up endlessly retracing my entire loop between here and town, praying that just once my mitten dementia hadn’t gotten the best of me. Yup, those psychedelic Grandma Haley mittens would have saved the day. They’d be right where I left them, shining like beacons half-way down my snowshoe trail or, I’d bet, even in the post office parking lot after the plow swiped them into the snow bank.

Christmas mittens or not, I’m in total denial. After years of swearing “the other one will turn up somewhere,” I now have an odd-ball mound of mismatched knitwear in my closet that’s packed deeper than the best trail on Saddleback. If I dig way down, I figure I might be able to match up a multicolored pair that still goes with everything.

Joy overflowing

While I’m never what you’d call a morning person, most days I do rise and shine with a bit more levity and luster than I did after the holidays. Nope, I wasn’t hung over (but good guess) and I didn’t get that holiday flu some friends caught. But my stomach was knotted in dread over what lay across the hall in the bathroom. I grabbed my glasses off the dresser on the way in—a sure sign I was taking an unpleasant detour from my morning routine. (Having to see details in the bathroom is never good in my book).

By the time my bare feet hit the cold floor, I was talking myself up. “I’m not alone. Everywhere all over the world, nearly everybody is taking this walk with me.” I paused, trying to feel the chi of all those souls moving with me in unified purpose. I got nothin’…just cold feet and a knowing that the only noble course was to stand tall, suck it up and seek the truth. I needed to move my feet off the floor and onto the scale and not chicken out.

The next steps in the routine were all too familiar. Dust the thing off. Square it up till it’s optimally aligned with the base of the toilet and the angle of the morning sun under the window. Tap the stupid thing with my toe to zero it out, resist the urge to muckle onto the wall for “help” and climb aboard. Next, watch helplessly as the little LED display shudders and goes blank as though trying to recalculate Newton’s law of gravity. If necessary, move big toes out of the way that are hiding the inevitable and…wait for it, wait for it…there’s my number!

Aw, jeez, what was I thinking?” I groaned. How was it that my dismay sounded much the same as those blissful sighs I’d emitted, long and low, as I lingered over my sack of Lindor truffles just a few days ago? “Awwww, man, these are just to die for!” I’d let their lucious peanut butter chocolatey-ness ooze into my every awareness until all that mattered was that I was a very, very good girl who deserved this once a year treat. Each wave of texture and flavor was so amazing, I could kid myself that Santa or some other stroke of good girl serenditpity had put them in my Christmas stocking. Truth was, they’d been placed there by dutiful Daughter Number One to whom I’d given a very short and very explicit stocking stuffer list. “Lindor Truffles,” I ordered, “and they have to be the peanut butter ones.” I got what I asked for and—despite the silent inner knowing that my groans of pleasure would soon have a different ring to them as they resonated off the bathroom walls—I dove in over and over.

Once again, in the harsh first light of the new year, I realized the truffles and the pie and the “special” coffee and the gravy-topped mashed tater towers and all the other treats I swore were “to die for” brought only cruel nanoseconds of euphoria that killed hours and hours of everyday dietary diligence. “Oh, I’ll be back to teeny carrots and protein cereal soon enough,” I told myself between mouthfuls. And—surprise, surprise—my prediction was so accurate, it was spooky.

“Yeah, I saw it coming,” I admitted, shuffling from the bathroom in defeat. I could have throttled back. I could have refrained from snickering when I read the pre-holiday advice columns. “Distract yourself with party conversation,” one instructed. “It will help you stay three feet away from the buffet table most of the time and enjoy what the holidays are really all about, which is reconnecting with family.” Oh well, so I hadn’t made it more than three inches away from the nearest candy dish or Chex mix bowl since the middle of November. But I did reconnect with family between mouthfuls. Besides, it could be worse. It could always be worse.

On the spectrum of shame dictated by my bathroom scale, this year I landed just this side of the danger zone. As I waited for my number to reveal itself, my own personal metering system flashed once more in my head. What range would I fall into?
Zone 1: Whoops, looks like I need to remember that one serving of wine only half fills that big, bulbous glass.
Zone 2: No wonder I’ve been favoring those “relaxed” jeans.
Zone 3: I need to throw out this friggin’ fancy digital scale and get an old fashioned one that actually works.
Zone 4: Oh, crap, serves you right, you lazy, spineless, worthless waste of blubber filled skin.

Luckily, I ended up in between zones 1 and 2. It wasn’t a ka…chunk moment, but it wasn’t a hugging my naked self one either. Ka…chunk is the sound the real serious doctor’s office scale makes when the nurse, after sizing me up and sliding the top metal arrow all the way to the right, gives up and shoves the lower fifty-pounder over one notch. Ka…chunk! “Hmmm, so this is the woman whose husband makes homemade wine,” I feel her saying at that point. “Guess she better rethink those empty calories!”

Nope, I didn’t let myself go that far off track. My weight gain was closer to a sack of sugar  than a sack of dog food or, thank goodness, one of those sacks the Blue Seal Feeds guy has to strong arm out to my car for me. So, I guess I did an OK job keeping myself balanced between sinfulness and celebration, at least enough so I won’t need to be melting off my extra truffles and treats way past ice out. That’s because, like most other disciplines of living out in the woods, not allowing myself to “work my way up in tonnage” springs just as much from frugality as it does from needing to stay hearty and healthy. Sure I want to eat right to maintain the best possible half-used-up body I can. But I’m also motivated to not bust out of my jeans and onto the next size. When I moved to the outskirts of Rangeley, Maine, you see, I cleared my closet of ka…chunk clothing. All my pleated pants and paunch pocketed shorts are now history. I’m kinda out of options, considering I have a distaste for shopping and anything mall-like that’s stronger than anything chocolate coated or rum soaked. Plus, relying on online catalog delivery out here could leave me virtually pantless till spring. So, I’m stuck without much choice but to keep moving, eat right, and stay this side of chubby. Had it been a ka…chunk year, that would have meant stretching my daily walks halfway the next county and back and leaving an extra pair of glasses in the bathroom. But this year, as long as I keep my scale and my walking boots dusted off, I figure I’ll be back to my ideal weight just in time to demand some Valentine candies.

Four stages of Santa

“I know, ya know,” Amy whispered hoarsely.

“Know what?” I asked. Whatever our young neighbor’s secret, she’d shielded it from the ears of her little sister, Katie, who was in the bedroom coloring Rudolph’s nose with my daughter, Helen and her baby sister, Becky.

“I know there’s not really a Santa Claus and whenever you see one it’s just somebody’s dad in a red suit.” I stopped spooning out marshmallow fluff and turned to look at her. This was my first adult encounter with such an announcement and I didn’t know whether to offer condolences or arguments. But Amy wanted neither. “Just wanted to tell you,” she said. “Don’t worry I won’t tell those guys.” She motioned toward the bedroom like it was a different world.

“Shucks,” I thought. At nine years old, Amy had reached the fourth and final stage of believing in Santa. Sharing her discovery with an adult friend was apparently part of the acceptance process. I bet she told her teacher, the bus driver, the man who loaded groceries into her mom’s car and as many neighbors as possible on that same day. As far I know, Amy went back to coloring with her playmates—who remained somewhere between the second and third stages of Santa—as though the discussion never occurred.

Now that I’ve reached that blessed resting place between being a young mother and becoming a grandmother, it’s hard for me to recall the days when my kids really believed and I lied for the sake of Santa. But there was a time when I wanted him to be a real guy who parked his reindeer in my front yard and ate the sugar cookies I left on the coffee table. Who else would make my girls get all wide-eyed and breathless on Christmas Eve? What could possibly enchant them as much as lying there at 2 a.m., so sure that the sounds of their dad and me tromping by their bedrooms to haul and wrap presents must be Santa Claus? Having little Santa-enthralled cherubs had been part of my holiday picture since way before they were born. And, despite the hard work it was keeping up the fantasy, I somehow knew that, once this phase of my life was past, I’d wish I could watch it again like an old Bing Crosby movie.

During those years, I sometimes did catch myself studying my girls when they’d ask Santa for toys too big to squeeze down the chimney…and dolls found at only one place between here and the North Pole. How come, I wondered, nothing seemed implausible for Santa? At times like that, I’d have to reach into my subconscious for the fuzzy impressions of Christmases long, long ago—way back to the stage where anything could come true.

Stage one: We’re born into this world naked, helpless, and with an unconditional love for Santa Claus already rooted in our soul. He is the only stranger we’re allowed to hug and, the first time we’re placed in his lap, we bond instantly and instinctively. He’s as comfortable as our dad, yet the brightest, biggest dream we’ve managed to touch so far.

This pure, unfaltering passion lasts till the age of three or four, right about the time when we begin asking questions like, “Why does it hurt when I pinch myself?” and “Did Santa really see me make a face at my mom?” In our unending search for many different answers to all questions, we happen to come across Santa in Sears and….What’s this? It looks like he’s got black rubber stuck on top of his shoes instead of real boots…and a beard attached to his ears rather than his chin! Luckily, our little brains start shutting down to protect us and we don’t look as closely during the next several encounters. And luckily, our moms tell us about Santa’s Helpers. Knowing there are thousands of men with all sorts of footwear and fake padding willing to help out “The Real One” is quite a comfort while we’re in Stage Two.

“If you’re Santa’s Helper, how come you drove over here in a Jeep?” Becky’s friends asked during her kindergarten Christmas party. They were in Stage Two and Santa’s Helper that year was my dad, her grandpa, who loved to make up stories and laugh too loud just as much as he loved to dress all in red and be the center of attention. “Oh, well, the reindeer and I landed over at the airport. The Jeep is a loaner ’cause the road over here would have ruined Santa’s sleigh,” he said.

Ah, ’twas a blessed time, indeed! There was my little blonde angel who knew always telling the truth was important so grownups would be proud and trusting, blissfully sitting in her lying grandpa’s lap—sure as anything he was the real deal ’cause he just landed at the Skyhaven Airport with a sack of goodies for her and all her friends. “Well, Santa,” Becky said, “you do like your Christmas cookies, don’t you?” Totally oblivious, she giggled and poked his very Grandpa-like jelly belly.

That scene came flooding back to me the other day when I picked up the Rangeley Highlander and discovered that, up here, kids get to go to breakfast with Santa at  Orgonon, the Wilhelm Reich museum. (For those of you not from around here, Rangeley was once ground zero for Wilhelm Reich’s unique research into harnessing environmental energy fields.) “Woah, now that would have been a fun Christmas with Grandpa!” I chuckled. I could see him lumbering in—his red suit all soaked, beard dripping, boots a bit scuffed and mittens slightly frayed—with his sack of toys glowing from tiny flashlights he’d hidden inside.

“Boy, it sure is exciting for Santa to come to Rangeley!” he’d holler to the tykes gathered round. “I was heading south, almost across the border from Canada, when my sleigh got sucked into some kind of a magic thunderhead! Old Wilhelm’s cloud buster out there gave me and the reindeer one heck of a ride! And you should’ve seen how Rudolph’s nose lit up when he passed through the orgone energy accumulator!”

Kids at that party probably would have gotten fixated at Stage Two and had a hard time progressing. But even they, sooner or later, would enter Stage Three: the years of Serious Wavering. Their hearts would still be into Santa Claus, but their brains would be catching up.

I do recall struggling in this stage on a winter’s night in 1963. “So, there’s probably a guy way up north with a big, long list,” I’d think to myself before I went to sleep. “But flying reindeer? And elves who can make Barbies just like the ones in the store?” And then I started worrying if maybe Santa heard me thinking like that. Just in case, I decided I’d better wait until next year to figure it all out.

1964 was the year my mom bought an honest to goodness Santa Claus Trap—a plastic red and green version of something a mountain man could’ve used to snare a bear. The contraption sat open in our fireplace during the days before Christmas until, lo and behold, we awoke Christmas morning to find it clamped onto a piece of….Santa’s pants??!! Mom was pretty bothered that he was riding around up there with a hole in his britches, but I wasn’t. I knew right away the stuff caught in the trap matched the red velvet dress she’d just finished sewing for me. But I didn’t want to spoil her fun, so I lingered awhile longer at Stage Three.

By 1965, I’d faced up to the truth about Santa. My maturity was rewarded with a stack of presents half the size of Christmases past. I was about the same age my young friend Amy was when she informed me she knew the guy in the red suit was her dad all along. Translated, that meant she wished she would’ve kept her thoughts to herself for one more year.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! Believe and be blessed.

Settling back in

I wasn’t in my usual hurry to put up my Christmas decorations. Most years, I’d be eager to add some sparkle to my little brown cabin in the now-brown woods, to say farewell to November and let DecemBear make my knotty pine a bit nicer before winter closed in around me. This year, though, I didn’t feel the same post-Thanksgiving, pre-holiday-party push. I’d just come back from “away,” and my little house on the lake didn’t need any extra cheer whatsoever to welcome me home.

“I’m baaaaack!” I called as I burst through the door a couple days after Thanksgiving. No one was inside, and Tom was still schlepping our luggage out of the Subaru. But, as usual, the house answered. It hugged me.

How does a house hug? Well, it’s a subtle and very subjective thing. I can only speak from what I’ve felt here, in this one home, but I imagine house hugs are like human hugs—each one good but different—minus the squeezing part. By the time I made it back up the mountain, down the Bemis track, up the winding camp trail and down my driveway, surrounding myself with my favorite stuff again felt pretty darn good.

I do love to travel, to explore new places, meet new people, and revisit old favorites. Especially in the colder months, I take any opportunity I can to “get out and around.” And, if I’m really lucky, I end up where I can exchange my snowshoes for Tevas. Although I didn’t get that far south this trip, I did enjoy a 70-degree November beach day in NH with my sister-in-law. Then I headed cross-country to meet up with Tom and my girls and spend Thanksgiving with the rest of our western family in Couer d’Alene, Idaho. The food was awesome. The east-west family reunion was even better. (And yes, Jon’s Big Green Egg did produce one hell of a tasty Quirky Turkey.) I was gone for a little over two weeks, but it felt longer. And when I finally came across the threshold again, I knew I’d traveled about as far away from Rangeley as possible in the continental U.S.

“Wow, by the time I get back home, I’ll need to hang up DecemBear!” I said to Helen. We were in the Las Vegas airport, waiting to change planes for the last leg of our outbound trip. The airport was abuzz with LEDs, electronic melodies and the jingle-jangle of slot machines folks had to throw their money into before and after they hit the Strip. I wondered what their deal was, imagining they needed way more holiday glitz than the kiddie advent calendar I’d hang on my cellar door and the string of lights around my three-stooled bar by the wood stove.

“Maybe we really are crazy,” I said to Tom as we finally turned onto our road. (It’s a common joke between us, one that somehow gets repeated just at that point in the journey when most folks, even those from around here, start to question how level-headed we are to have put so many miles of dirt road between us and town.) But then the beagles began stirring with anticipation in the back seat and we could all feel our special spot drawing us down the home stretch. One last turn, the soft crunch of tires on early snow, and…phew…there was our cabin in the headlights, waiting just as we’d left it. (After more than 20 years of coming back up here, the phew feeling never really stops. Even though we don’t drive away from October through April anymore, the relief at seeing the place still standing, surviving wind and fire and other acts of God and man, is hard-wired.)

Did my house smell this nice when I left? I didn’t think so as I opened the door to remnants of Rangeley Balsam room spray still clinging in the air, mingling with the vanilla potpourri in the L.L Bean kettle atop my wood stove. “It’s my own Bemis spa treatment,” I declared back in October when I dumped aromatherapy drops into the old blue kettle of water that would keep me warm, soothe my dry skin and rejuvenate my senses.) And I swore my knotty pine woodwork had mellowed since before I left. These walls felt homey compared to what I’d surveyed and said needed a boost—maybe some new paintings or a couple more cute moose and loon nicknacks for a splash of visual variety during the long months ahead.

“If this is crazy, I’ll take it any day,” I declared to no one in particular the next morning. I was sitting in my own chair, drinking my own coffee, admiring my very own slice of beautiful, wild lake. What great memories I’d made spending premium quality family time in two beautiful homes on both ends of the country! But after five different beds, four climate changes, three hotel rooms, two airports and one major case of jet lag, I was content to kick back and let the quiet of being back off the beaten track settle over me. I was grateful to be entering my second December of year-round Rangeley living, and to have the fresh perspective of traveling away now and again. And I sure was glad to be on the far side of saying: “To heck with all that home for the holidays crap, let’s go to Vegas.” Yup, with Black Friday avoided and December ushered in, all was calm and bright in my world as far as I could see…and would remain so, as long as I moved a tiny Christmas bear around a door hanging.

“Oh, jeez, DecemBear…!” I remembered. Guzzling the rest of my coffee, I sprang from the glider rocker to go hunt down the little critter.

Quirky turkey

Turkey Day. If it was up to me, Thanksgiving would be nicknamed for the towering pillar of mashed potatoes with a giblet gravy moat I erect at the center of my plate. I know Helen would agree. And her sister, Becky, would rename the day in honor of the huge trough of green bean casserole she dives into first. Tom, on the other hand, would be more focused on the pie smorgasbord he’d be having for dessert than the protein course. But I guess saying “Happy Mashed Tater Day” or “How was your Plentiful Pie Day?” doesn’t have the right ring to it. People, understandably, pay more homage to the turkey than any big-as-a- boat crock of green beans or other side dishes.

It’s not surprising that Thanksgiving is synonymous with the bountiful, succulent bird at the center of our holiday table. After all, it’s been a Native American symbol of abundance and generosity since way before the Pilgrims invited themselves over for dinner. Besides, we’d be gathered together with our plates half empty if the king of poultry didn’t show up for the party.

“What are your plans for Thanksgiving this year?” folks ask. What they really want to know, especially if they’re women, is: Do I have to cook a turkey and all the trimmings or have I been invited to sit admiringly at the other end of the table while someone else stands behind the iconic platter of Butterball? “Meeting up with the girls out at Tom’s brother Jon’s in Idaho this year,” I report back—which is, apparently, interesting and unexpected enough to stop the conversation right then and there. What folks might not know (besides my preference for mashed taters and giblets) is that I already have a pretty amazing turkey feast under my belt this year.

“Wow…what a nice fat gobbler,” Tom remarked when our friend Keith’s son, Fletcher, first showed off the turkey he was raising in his back yard.

“Thanks,” Fletcher said. “We call him MC.”

“MC?” Tom pondered the name. Fletcher was too young and too down to earth to be an MC Hammer fan. He couldn’t help but wonder if the kid was getting so attached to the bird that he didn’t remember why he was making it so fat.

“It stands for Main Course,” Fletcher said as he threw out more feed.

MC grew to a whopping 35 pounds last month when, covered in bacon, oven basted and then grilled, he fulfilled his name at Keith’s annual Rangeley Beast Feast barbecue. “Best turkey I ever had!” I raved, forgoing the mashed taters and gravy in favor of another slice. “Good ol’ MC is setting the bar pretty high for Thanksgiving from now on.”

But I’ll bet Jon and his wife, Nancy, with their Big Green Egg outdoor cooker/smoker, are fixing to out-do MC this year. They’ll plop a turkey in the giant ceramic egg first thing in the morning and presto…out will come mouth-watering perfection. Heck, once they combine Helen’s chef training and Becky’s flair with open-flame cuisine with their Big Green Egg prowress—while the rest of us sprinkle on spices and wine-infused cooking tips—the Idaho turkey is bound to be a culinary creation rivaling all Beast Feasts far and wide.

I’m figuring they may even shatter Yankee magazine’s assertion from back in my just-married years that Great New England Cook William Blackburn was king of the Thanksgiving barbecue. Blackburn, whose specialty was whole beasts on the
barbecue, loved to cook outdoors because “there’s something primordial about
it” and the process involves a lot of “show” for his guests.

I still remember the article, picturing the flamboyant chef in his fire-retardant apron, ready to demonstrate to the ladies at Better Homes and Gardens the real origins of flame broiling. He was going to take them back—way back before long-handled forks, red and white tablecloths, and covering over the grill in September—by preparing his favorite main dish…Turseduckencornail. (For those of you familiar with my Christmas Turducken of last year’s “A Moving Feast” fame, this creation adds three more birds to the turkey-duck-chicken composite.)

“Gather together the following,” the Yankee article instructs, “a quail, a Cornish game hen, a chicken, a duck, a goose and a turkey. Make a large batch of your favorite stuffing. Or, if you have several favorites, make them all!” After that intro, I suspected I was in for a taste adventure a little bit more complicated than mixing up the Stove Top stuffing and waiting for the little pop-up turkey timer to surface. Reading further, I wondered if I should start heading for Tom’s hunting gear instead of the grocery store.

“To make a Turseduckencornail, you must debone each of the birds without cutting any of the skin.” The chef explains this process, advising that I start with the quail to gain knife skills experience for the bigger birds. He’s already way out of my realm, though. I have trouble separating drumsticks from thigh bones, primarily because the entire contents of my knife drawer can barely saw through an onion.

For years I’ve wondered if any single, brave cook successfully completed Chef Blackburn’s instructions, emerging from the kitchen with a quail inside of a Cornish hen inside of a chicken inside of a duck inside of a goose inside of a turkey. Was this sextuplet of a bird fitting to serve as the main course and, if so, did the host or hostess have any fingers left with which to serve and plate?

According to the article, you actually begin the whole stuffing hierarchy by placing a hard boiled egg inside the quail. After properly fastening the Turseduckencornail, you put it over the fire for “about 9 hours.” If you have any trouble turning the bird midway, don’t force it, advises Blackburn.  (Believe me, I wouldn’t. To me, a spatula is a precision instrument!)

To serve, you cut the Turseduckencornail lengthwise. “If done perfectly,” Blackburn notes,
“you’ll slice the hard boiled egg into halves.”  Then you slice it again crossway, giving each
guest a portion of all the meats. Serves 20.” (Yeah, the Flintstones and the Rubbles, with plenty of leftovers…)

Seriously, I would love to have the perseverance and precision necessary to make Turseduckencornail—not to mention one of those knives that simultaneously cuts paper, tin cans and old shoes. I imagine the resulting flavors are well worth the effort and the giblet gravy must be sinful. But the last time I experimented with anything bigger than a burger on the barbecue, I ended up with “Chernobyl Chicken.” I can only imagine my results with 40 pounds (and 20 hours worth of deboned poultry) perched atop the grill. “Honey, I don’t know how to tell you this but I burned the Turseduckencornail…”

So, with MC still tickling my taste buds and Chef Blackburn’s over abundance of  poultry tucked in my “not in this lifetime” memory banks, I’ll thankfully watch my brother and sister-in-law put the turkey inside the outdoor egg while I’m inside mashing the taters.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! (For last year’s message, see “Portraits of Thanksgiving.”)

Nice day for a Halloween wedding

A good kind of weird. In a few words if, heaven forbid, I had to be succinct in describing my side of the family, that’s what I’d say. Compared to my husband’s calm composure, anyone with blood ties to my side of the family circle is definitely just a little off center.

“Weird?” my Nana would say when we’d make fun of her. “I’m not sure I like that word. But I guess I’d rather be a nice kind of weird rather than a strange kind of weird.” And then she’d go off to wrap an empty box for Christmas or stand in another room and chuckle at herself. Her good kind of weirdness loudly expressed itself in my dad (AKA “Mac”), the poster child for boisterous, non-politically correct behavior. Then, by the time his DNA met up with my mom’s love for slapstick and spoonerisms (Once apon a time, in a coreign fountry, there lived a very geautiful birl; her name was Rindercella…), the twisted die had been cast for my sister and me.

We grew up thinking humorlessness was a fate worse than death, taking lessons from our patriarch of practical jokes on how to rationalize our irreverent behavior. It was OK if people looked at us askance, as long as they laughed afterward. “Wow…she’s not much fun!” Mac would point out about someone he thought must be “a stick in the mud.” We’d be in church or some other socially constrained place, and he’d zero in on the one or two staid, self-possessed individuals he felt sorry for because they didn’t bust a gut routinely in the course of their day.

Funerals, weddings and similar gatherings where people were supposed to act or speak a certain way really sparked Mac’s desire to be different. “Look at all those people lining up to say exactly what everybody expects them to say,” he’d observe while waiting in a wedding receiving line. “You watch, I’m gonna go up, shake the mother of the bride’s hand and say ‘Too bad your daughter looks like a line backer.’ And without even blinking, she’ll say ‘Oh, thank you…yes, thank you for coming.'” Part of me cringed. But a bigger part of me wanted him to do it so I could watch.

Funerals weren’t sacred for us either. “When my time comes, don’t play this awful sad music,” he’d whisper in the church pew as the grieving procession filed by. “Play The Entertainer! And don’t put me in an open casket where people have to walk past me and say ‘Oh, he looks good’…’cause I won’t look good. I’ll look dead!”

Mac’s time came way too soon. When it did, we were too caught off guard to play The Entertainer at his service. (I’m pretty sure he noticed because, ever since, he’s been blaring that song from every ice cream truck far and wide that’s passed me on its way to sell Good Humor bars.) Slowly, my sister, Jan, and I came to cope without him in the only way we knew how—stifling our sorrow with sarcasm and silliness. It helped a tiny bit, retelling all his old jokes, mimicking his mannerisms. But it was a sad substitute for Mac and how much we missed him bursting into a room, dressed in his trademark red and black hunting shirt, suspenders and khakis, peering over the top of his drugstore glasses and blurting out wise cracks.

Jan and I were six months into our laughing-crying-laughing grieving process when Dr. Smith—old family friend and physician straight out of a Norman Rockewell painting—invited us to his Halloween party. Of course we’d go, we said, despite our mood swings, but what would we wear? After 20 years of gathering in his barn, we had so many special Halloween memories, like the time our parents dressed up as doctor and nurse. Mum was the doctor, complete with chest hair peeking out of her scrub top and Mac was the nurse, wearing a white cap and uniform and the biggest pair of panty hose possible. Since then, we’d shown up at Dr. Smith’s as everything from the Great Pumpkin to Bullwinkle and were now recycling some of those costumes on our own girls. We had bags of silly clothes we could have thrown on just to get in the spirit but, that year, nothing felt quite right.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Jan asked over the phone a couple days before the party. She had the half hesitant, half bubbling over tone I’d come to translate as twisted sister relief. She was about to say and/or do something that only I, her oldest surviving quirky relative, would understand. “Yep,” I admitted, “I think I know what we can be this year for Halloween.”

Our red and black checkered shirts, suspenders and khakis must have looked pretty believable, especially on Jan, who was the spitting image of Mac as she burst into Dr. Smith’s barn, blurting out wise cracks and peering over her drugstore glasses. So what if nothing like that had ever been done before, even on the strangest holiday of the year, Mac would have loved it! He would have gotten a big kick out of the look on everyone’s faces, particularly on poor Edna Smith who looked like she’d seen a ghost. She almost fainted, I think, just before she broke out laughing.

Fast forward 15 years. It’s Halloween weekend and Tom and I are heading down the mountain to go to a wedding. “Well, we know this won’t be the oddest thing I’ve done for Halloween,” I remark. Tom nods with the wisdom of someone who married into my family antics long ago. He might not be able to instigate at the same level, but he plays along the best that he can. Plus he did, of course, have something to do with us having daughters who inherited an unorthodox appreciation  for life’s lighter moments. We were  attending with Helen—our first-born, named after my Mum—who wears her whackiness like a badge of honor. (She wanted her Aunt Jan to make her a duct tape dress for the prom and, when that didn’t work out, made up for it by wearing a four-foot Goofy hat around Disney World on her senior class trip.) Even dressed up as pirates dripping with booty, we still didn’t out do the bride—Jan’s daughter, Rachael—who sashayed down the aisle in brazen scullery maiden garb to meet her swash buckling new husband, Dave.

I couldn’t help but get sentimental, remembering all those mother-daughter moments my sister and I had shared with our girls—how we’d all giggled together in church and blurted out inappropriate comments at inappropriate times. And the summer Rachael came to camp and won the Rangeley Fuzzy Bunny championship seemed like it was just yesterday. (The title went to the girl who could cram the most marshmallows in her mouth and still say “Fuzzy Bunny.” To this day, she holds the record at 14, and loves to brag about it.)

“You look wonderful,” I told her after the ceremony. “Thank you, Auntie Joy,” she said. “I figured I’d feel ridiculous in a white frilly dress, so I might as well get really ridiculous and have fun with it.” Jan, mother of the bride, was glowing. It wasn’t Rachael’s first time getting married, she pointed out, but this time she’d found a real treasure of a guy who loved her and her good kind of weirdness.

“And she made me promise to bring Grandpa Mac to the wedding,” Jan said, giving a little love pat near her heart where a sprinkling of Mac’s ashes hung from a locket. Yup, he was still with us, all right. We could feel him there as we looked proudly at our Halloween bride and Lady Gaga got the wedding party started. Born this way, I was born this way….I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way!

Seventh month itch

I made the ultimate maternal sacrifice last month. Even though my baby girl is almost 24, I proved that my instincts to do whatever it takes to keep her from pain and suffering still run deep. I gave her my Bug Baffler shirt. Yup, you read right…in June, from my cabin in the Maine woods, I didn’t just lend her my Bug Baffler shirt. I gave it to her to take clear across the country.

For those of you odd ducks out there who happen to be reading a blog about Rangeley but have somehow escaped knowing what a Bug Baffler is—it’s a unique fashion accessory born of dire necessity in these parts. It’s a hat attached to a shirt that seals your upper torso in fine netting. In theory, it keeps mosquitoes,  black flies and the like from finding their way onto your skin surfaces, allowing you to venture outdoors this time of year without getting eaten alive, losing your sanity, or both. For total coverage, you can buy the pants portion, too. But I never met anyone who had to go that far, not around here, anyway. If it’s hot enough to wear shorts and the skeeters are still out but you can’t find a stiff wind to blow them off or a reason to hop back into your DEET-soaked jeans, chances are you don’t live in Rangeley.

“The mosquitoes on my next rafting course are going to be worse than EVER,” Becky told me as she was heading back to Utah from her visit home.

“Worse than here?” I asked in awe.

“Oh, yeah. Clouds of ‘em…swarms!” Her co-instructor friend had just reported back from guiding on the Green River. She was able to dial the call, Becky said, but just barely. Her hands were covered in bites and she had a ring of ‘em along the narrow gap where her pants didn’t quite meet her shirt when she squatted or stretched.

We all listened but didn’t want to believe, trying hard not to squirm in our seats. Even Jerry, her brother-in-law, born in the land where the mosquito is the state bird, had never heard such tales. And even though I was starting to look like a poster promoting measles vaccinations, suddenly my itchy patches weren’t nearly as irritating. How could I whine about a smattering of bug bites when Becky was soon going to be engulfed?

Days earlier, I’d come across my Bug Baffler again, sitting on a shelf in my closet, heaped alongside my bike shorts, my yard work pants and all those other articles of clothing I knew I should actually wear more than once a year. “I wondered if I still had this old
thing!” I said, surprised its netting hadn’t unraveled in all the years I’d refused to put it on. Oh, I could have worn it, should have worn it, but vanity and that strange blend of blind optimism that takes root after decades of Rangeley bug seasons had left me covered mostly in useless cotton.

I’d come across the old bug net shirt back in May, too, when I was shuffling my sweaters and flannel-lined jeans behind my shorts and tee shirts—blindly optimistic I’d be able to swap seasons soon. Coming into my second spring of year-round Rangeley living, the practical part of me was glad to have unearthed my bug netting. But the louder, dumber side of me was still resisting. “Seems like the bugs won’t be too bad this year,” I said, stashing the Bug Baffler back in the corner.  “I’ll be fine without this.” (If, Heaven forbid,
I was ever jostling down the short cut road enroute to the emergency room, bleeding profusely, I imagine I would have told myself I was fine in pretty much the same tone I was using to chat with myself in my closet.)

I was fine, too, relatively speaking, even though my bug forecast was about as accurate as my snowfall prediction.  By the end of May, I was dousing myself in repellant, wearing my Bugs Off bandana around my neck to cover my new necklace of welts, and swearing and swatting like I had a personality disorder. I stayed outside, though, wavering between defiance and near defeat. “I live on a lake in Maine!” I’d mutter. “I’m supposed to be sitting here on my dock in the evening having a wine cooler in the summertime!” I kept on reminding myself as May progressed into June, refusing to retreat inside, till I was nearly convinced the bugs weren’t that bad. But, as June wore on, I had to admit that the drinking jar of homemade wine cooler I carried down to the dock had become way heavier with wine than with spritzer. I was numbing myself into submission–and I was getting itchier by the day.

“I give up! I’m going to start wearing my Bug Baffler,” I announced one late June night. My ears had started to burn under a new swarm of no-see-ums, even though Tom had put out so many tiki torches and smoldering coils our waterfront looked like Survivor
and smelled like a Grateful Dead concert. And I think I was still getting mosquito bitten, too, but it was hard to be sure with my battery-operated Off clip-on buzzing louder than skeeters on steroids. “The bug net will be doubly good for me,” I said, heading for my closet. “No bugs, and less chugging because I’ll have a zipper in front of my mouth. So what if I have to admire the sunset over the lake through a haze of green mesh? This is my new life and, at times, it requires adaptive clothing.”

On my way back outside, Bug Baffler in hand, I went past the bedroom where my sweet, fair skinned baby girl was packing to go back to a wilderness dark with mosquitoes. Instinctively, I shook the dust off and handed my survival shirt over. Better her than me, I realized, and better on the banks of the Green River than Mooselook, Maine. Out there it would give her steady hands and a sane mind as she guided a group of Outward Bound teens safely through Mosquito Misery Canyon—a grander gesture, I figured, than keeping me covered in my drinking chair.

“I’m glad I found that old Bug Baffler in time for Becky’s visit,” I told Tom as we sat on the dock the other night, swatting and sipping. Hopefully, she knew somehow we were talking about her as she navigated her way through the canyon. But, hopefully, her ears weren’t burning as bad as ours.

Real Rangeley bathing suit support

It’s that time of year when we Rangeley women might want to anticipate the need for appropriate swimwear. Somewhere, sometime between now and Labor Day, we will supposedly have a few 80-degree days. And, if we’re really lucky, we might actually be able to intentionally take a dip in the lake rather than floating above it hoping whatever splashes on us doesn’t soak through our waiting-for-summer windbreakers.

Being ready to take that epic plunge, I’ve discovered, takes serious planning and more support than we’re likely to find in available retail. It takes more than figuring the suit you left up at camp as a “spare” is still going to work for you like it did back in the ’80s when it was your best suit ever.

Even the top outdoor outlets with their active women’s straps-that-stay-put suits don’t really measure up for water sportwear in these parts. We need coverage that withstands flying off a float tube or water skiis at 30 miles per hour. We need super resilient Lycra that doesn’t snag when we crab crawl along the rocks enroute to our sandier beach access areas. Requiring function above fashion, we definitely need straps that hold in what God gave us whether we’re breast stroking away from the deer flies, bending half out of the boat to net a salmon, or just wanting to hang out on the dock without really  hanging out. With the right design specs, we could fashion our own line of Mooselook maillots and Toothaker tankinis. The tankini should have a small side pocket sewn inside near the hip, I figure. Those of us who multitask when we take a dip could use it as an optional soap holder, demonstrating why our swimwear is aptly called a bathing suit. And, if we got really daring, we might even dream up a couple Bemis bikinis. For those of us blessed with the right curves and thermal adaptability, they’d be offered in a deep Rangeley green and perhaps a bold South Arm sunset pattern to camouflage our goose bumps.

Until then, I’m grateful for Land’s End and how their promise to be “true to size” did, in fact, hold true for me. A couple years ago I let their bathing suit ‘bot—a simulated version of my measurements and other physical characteristics—select my perfect tankini.  Shopping with this perky little cartoon girl model of me was way better than braving the mall dressing room or ordering off the web purely on faith. She showed me enough to know that what I’d try on in my bedroom after ripping into the Land’s End package might actually be a suit I’d come out of the bedroom in and end up wearing in public. She was right…I love my latest suit! But even though it’s withstanding scraping along the dock and hours of churning, stretching and snapping, I know it will become my nostalgic “spare” suit before too long. And before it does, I have a couple program enhancements in mind for my mail order ‘bot.

I’d like to work with the online catalogue engineers to design a super customized Bathing Suit Buddy. Real-time customer support at its finest, she’d pop up to ensure my suit shopping would not leave me crushed and despondent with my virtual shopping cart empty. She’d automatically be programmed to know that I’d been exposed to the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. By default, she’d realize I’d seen the women’s magazines that show “Suits to Suit Your Shape (where the woman illustrating “thick waist” measures about 25 inches at her thickest part). Her data base would not contain fashion designers’ stats for “average.” She’d boot up with real world honest-to-goodness average-bodied women shapes and sizes at her fingertips. And, not only would my Bathing Suit Buddy have a believable build–showing me at first glance that she’d made some effort to stay fit and trim and had achieved moderate success—she’d also have a soft soothing voice.

“Hello! I’m your Bathing Suit Buddy,” she’ll pop up and announce as I sit peering over thumbnails of the latest online selections. She’ll walk me through the process, convincing me I’m not a heap of useless skin, showing that halters are more my style, proving that “boy short” bottoms are built for boys. By the time I click on “add this to my cart,” I’ll be confident, enthusiastically waiting for my Land’s End package to arrive, and hoping summer in Rangeley arrives before it goes out of style.

“Do camp suits ever really go out of style?” I found myself wondering recently when I came across my last mall-purchased suit. It brought back memories of dressing room mirrors stolen from the fun house at the Fryeburg Fair, where I had no one (expect for my own destructive inner selves) to accompany me through the brave world of trying on swimwear. One tiny voice kept mumbling about how I’d done my best with diet and exercise to prepare for that year’s search. “The Abs of Steel video, the good old ‘Never eat unless you’re hungry’ motto, the stairs instead of the elevator…you’ve done your part…” I’d mutter. But then the other tiny voice would insist I’d obviously failed.  “Abs of Steel, what a joke!” it would taunt as I struggled with sheath after sheath of unforgivable spandex. “Next winter, why don’t you try sitting in your typing chair for 12 hours a day instead of just eight? Then you can graduate to the suits with the little skirts on them!”

By the time I emerged from the dressing room, I must have looked emotionally flogged.

“No luck today?” the sales clerk asked.

“No, not unless you’d call it luck to have one of the “mature” styles fit like I’d been thrown into an ice cream cone dispenser.”

I did manage to squeeze into a few of the flimsier styles that made me look like a painted summer squash. And then there were those “cookie cutter” suits—one-piece suits with a big piece missing in the area I personally liked to hide with a one-piece. I tried a couple on and my reflection reminded me of the Pillsbury Dough Woman after an attack by a giant cookie cutter.

“I’m an average size 10 woman!” I remember protesting to my husband half-way through my swimsuit search that year. “If I feel like a squished out marshmallow in most of the suits available, what are fuller figured women left with? How do they feel?”

“Umm…like larger squished out marshmallows,” he stated with all the empathy of someone who tore the legs off his Levis when he needed swimwear.

Fortunately, for me and my silent majority of women who weren’t blessed with mannequin perfection, there was a trend on the market that offered a solution. “Slim  suits,” they called ’em, even though they came in all sizes. (Ever heard of a chubby size 6?) Anyway, if you could  get past the way the manufacturer dangled a tape measure off the price tag, you’d end up with a multitude of styles and colors to choose from.

I didn’t rise to the challenge of measuring myself with and without the slim suit. I just scurried into the dressing room and let the hangers fly. “Please, please, please,” one tiny voice pleaded. I prayed the neon stripes on the front of the suit would go diagonal, like the picture on the tag, without any dips, bulges or zig zags to spoil the effect.

“Any luck this time?” the clerk asked when I  re-emerged.

“Yes, thank you. I found a real pretty one.” But my other tiny voice was still shopping.

“Course it looks pretty. It’s the consistency of an ace bandage!” I hid the dangling tape measure and made my way to the cash register.

Until it got retired to my camp closet sometime in the ’90s, that was my best suit ever. I guess I should just leave it there as my spare, just in case the Land’s End one finally gives up the good fight.

Dining with Dad

When she was just beginning to link objects with labels and functions, one of my girls picked a spatula up off the kitchen counter and declared it a “Dada cooker.” Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with the role of father in the modern kitchen.

Traditionally, men were not linked to any food prep functions. When they did take utensils in hand, it was to “carve” the roast—a ceremonial ritual dating back to when the head of the household had brought the meat to the table an hour earlier from yonder woods or field. Plus, fathers have also always been pretty deft with barbecue implements, a ritual which dates back even earlier to primordial families who never bothered to specify “rare” or “well done.”

In taking their culinary tools closer and closer to the kitchen stove, men seem to have developed extraordinary skill with the common spatula. Originally, I believe that
dexterity was born of necessity and fine-tuned during all-male fishing trips when there was nothing between them, their hunger and the supper still flopping around in the sink, but an iron skillet and plenty of bacon grease.

“Daddy’s cooking supper?” my sister and I would ask on the occasions my mother could not be home to feed us.

“Yes. I told him to heat up some corn chowder.”

When the time came, we watched in silent amazement tinged with trepidation. Had it been our Mum at the stove, we would have questioned the use of cast iron cookery, and said “yuck” when the Worcester Sauce was added. But, when Daddy did it, we kept still. Even if we had to watch him eat most of the chowder himself and load up on crackers afterwards, paternal cooking was an exciting shift from the ordinary.

It’s no wonder my daughters readily associated the spatula with their dad. Especially on camp weekends, he became so proficient in the short order cooking department the frying pan barely cooled between Saturday morning and Sunday evening. And, like most  dads, he never told them “You just ate,” or “You should have some fruit instead.” He was more than willing to take command of any operation resulting in food, especially grilled cheese sandwich construction for his little fishing buddies on a Saturday afternoon.

Dads don’t generally waste as much energy as moms worrying about the four food groups, either. To them, food is fuel. And the object is to tank up—preferably without forks and, ideally, without plates—so you can return to what you were doing when hunger struck.

“We made sandwiches with Dad for lunch,” I remember Helen announcing as I’d return home from running errands when she and her sister were small.

I could tell. A knife still stood buried in the peanut butter jar in the middle of the table kitchen table. Surrounding it were all the signs of a motherless feeding frenzy—paper towels, crumbs and huge hunks of cast off crusts.

“Did you have anything to drink?” I’d ask. (I’d learned that dads making dinner got so intent on the dietary bulk of the meal that they’d usually forget the liquid part.)

“Oh, yes,” said Helen. “Red Kool Aid. But we spilled some and Dad wiped it all up so the floors wouldn’t be sticky.”

I could tell. My oak Lazy Susan was glued to the table top and I could see a mound of pink stained paper towels heaped into the wastebasket. “Don’t say anything to your Mom,” he must have instructed as he unraveled a long, billowing expanse off the towel holder at the other side of the room. The sponge next to the sink, however, was dry as a bone.

I always figured this behavior dated back to the time when a guy’s bandana had to suffice for a cleaning cloth and his water was rationed from a canteen. Or, maybe it was the natural result of too many boyhood confrontations with a mom who didn’t understand there was no time to tidy up your trail when the Injuns were after you. Most likely, it stems from a little bit of both. I do know that, somewhere along the line, dads came to rely on “dry” cleaning to cope with spills and splatters.

I had to remind myself that this very same cavalier kitchen attitude had been adding spice and excitement to father-child relationships, mine included, since the first time a woman walked away from her hearth for any amount of time. I’d bite my tongue, wet the sponge, and remember my dad’s special corn chowder out of a can. And I’d especially think of Grandpa.

It was a rare and festive occasion when my grandma would drive off alone to go shopping, and my grandpa would let us take full advantage. (For those of you who read about her in Letting Myself Stay, I’m not talking about my mild-mannered Nana who’d offer us dessert all the time because she thought we were company and she’d probably just served us a meal but couldn’t really remember. This was my other, omnipresent grandma, who once told me she liked to dust. She policed her cookie supply and seemed to think the earth would spin off its axis if you ate more than two a day or, Heaven forbid, consumed your food groups in the wrong order.)

“Is she gone yet?” my grandpa would wonder with boyish impatience as my sister and I watched the big, blue Ford back down the driveway. We’d wait until she was safely on her way and then race into the kitchen straight for the cookie jar.

“Don’t tell your grandmother!” Grandpa always reminded us with a devilish smile as he scooped most of the crumbs into a napkin and double-checked us for Oreo moustaches.

Happy Father’s Day, everyone! May you dine with your dad in your heart and at your table.