A 9/11 prayer


For my friend Edie Lutnick, and for all of us, here is how I am remembering:

Today, I will put my hand on my heart and know the loss and healing that connects us all.
Today, I will pause in silence and hear your comforting words and the harmony of the world’s finest voices rising above the haunting echoes.
Today, I will see the people around me—truly see each coworker and friend—the color of their eyes, the way they smile or can’t smile, the familiarity of each beautiful face as it adds a new focus to my day for one special moment.
Today, I will hold my family close and feel your hugs and the strength and softness we share in memory of those we can hold only in our hearts.
Today, I will speak of this anniversary—mostly in present tense —of those who mark it moment by moment, day by day. I will tell the stories behind the statistics—of the sisters, mothers, sons, husbands, daughters, wives, brothers and fathers who honor those taken on this day by over and over taking the small, courageous steps that bring them through another year—whole and strong enough to hear their loved one’s name read aloud one more time.
Today, I will breathe deeply, lift my face to the sky and let the wind and sun remind me that I never walk alone.
Today, and always, I will remember.

(Originally published on September 11, 2008 and given to each family member attending the Cantor Fitzgerald memorial service.)


For my related “Rooted In Rangeley” posts, see:

For more about Edie and how she continues to help turn tragedy into hope, see:

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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

Posted in Family and friends, Seasonal celebrations and observations | Tagged | Leave a comment

Beware the packin’ kraken!


Kraken (kra-khun): Noun — A legendary sea monster that, when provoked, is believed to have devoured helpless voyagers.

Just when I think it’s safe to get back on a plane, to venture away from mud season in Rangeley, I hear its primal bellowing. What begins as a low, guttural vibration soon erupts into a full-on war cry. “Whaaa….ugmph….AARRGGGGH!”

Did I make that beastly sound just trying to lift my own luggage? Did I bring the devil of unwieldy travel logistics out of hibernation to, once again, haunt me for packing way more than I needed?

“It’s just vacation stuff,” I mumble. “And ah…eeergh, it feels like I’m going for a year!”

Each time I go through this me-versus-my-material-belongings ritual, I remind myself of the classic George Carlin “stuff” monologue. According to George, we spend our whole lives getting more and more stuff till our houses become just “covers for our stuff.” Then, right after we convince ourselves we need bigger houses for bigger piles of stuff, we realize we have extra rooms to hold more and more stuff, and on it goes. Traveling poses the huge dilemma of selecting, carrying, and reloading some of our stuff into a new, usually smaller, containment pod till we have to reverse the process and lug the stuff back home.

But each time my packin’ kraken resurfaces, I also console myself that I am not a Carlin joke. I now have less stuff than ever, not more. During the Big Move to Rangeley, I sold stuff, gave or threw away stuff, whittling my stuff hoard down to what would fit in my smaller log “cover” by the lake. My vacation stuff—a subset of the downsized stuff—fits into a small bedroom holding area, neatly encased in Ziplocs and Tupperware. Come travel time, I plop it into rolling luggage fillable to within a few ounces of the standard checked baggage limit, a backpack fillable to cram but not jam into an overhead bin, and a personal carry-on fillable with just enough overflow to not sprain my shoulder and still pass as a “pocketbook.”

Fortunately, most of my vacations are in climates where a perfect day means changing out of my bathing suit long enough to eat dinner and watch the sunset before I’m back in the summer jammies I can only wear a couple days a year on Mooselook. Lightens my load as much as possible. Otherwise, I find myself whittling down my packing list to whatever color scheme I think will get me through various climate zones. Like my “green” trip to Chicago last fall, where my entire wardrobe was various shades of green so I could “mix and match” a week’s worth of carry-on clothes.

Wherever I’m going, when I get there I blissfully unpack my stuff, admiring how my plain necessities look better, more exotic, while temporarily arranged on a gleaming Hampton Inn counter or tucked into cute, eclectic little condo shelves. And then the race is on to actually use most of my vacation stuff—my dental floss, my ear wax removal kit, my alcohol (rubbing and drinking) and all those things so critical to my temporary survival I lugged along like I was going to Timbuktu—far flung from any place resembling a Rite Aid or Hannaford. I start swapping just enough stuff out to cram in souvenirs and any last-minute tingums I buy at the airport in a moment of nostalgia-tinged panic. And, on the last day of vacation, I practice good condo rental ethics, paying it forward big time. I hope that the thrill the next renter gets upon finding a bottle of Worcestershire sauce and a box of Wheat Thins in the cupboard far outweighs my need to haul ’em home.

Still, when the time comes to transport my stuff back through the airport, there’s a fine line between getting the most bang for my baggage allowance buck and not being able to drag it along without bellowing or taking out small children in the process. When the equation works, the packin’ kraken and the TSA agents are temporarily tamed. Passage is smooth till the last leg “up over the mountain” back to Rangeley.

AAAARGH!” I groan, thundering over the threshold with bulging canvas now covered in all manner of travel spewage. It’s all worth it, I tell myself, leaving the stuff in a pile till tomorrow. Besides, the packin’ kraken always roars louder at the end of mud season. It’s a monster of mythical proportions until it can haul out summertime stuff and submerge in the lake once again.

Posted in Creatures great and small | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Family and friends, Seasonal celebrations and observations | Tagged | 1 Comment

Directionless TV


New Year’s Day 2014: “To read more in my free time.”
New Year’s Day 2015: “To watch less TV, giving myself infinitely more free time.” (See last year).

Watching New Year’s Rockin’ Eve two years in a row, while what my body really wanted was bed, must have been the final straw. I stopped being a resolution recluse and boldly proclaimed my change of direction: “Start picking up a book more often than the blasted TV remote, you lazy, half-witted slouch!”

So far, it’s working for me. Not perfectly well, but I’d say distinctly better. I’m doing more page turning than channel surfing. I’ve gone Wild and vicariously hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and become engulfed in an Inferno of mystery and intrigue. I’ve left the Sister Wives and the Little Couple in favor of some quality time with Mike Bowditch, my favorite fictional game warden. And if I stay strong in my resolve, I fully intend to be Daring Greatly by March.

It’s still a hard-fought battle, a nightly dilemma. Will I open a book and forge new mental pathways or once more kid myself that The Learning Channel somehow deserves its name? Will great authors spark my imagination, or hoarders, bridezillas and gypsies totally snuff it into the couch cushions?

Not too long ago, there was no such choice to make, when TV and “camp” were not mutually possible, when the only big screen I had was the one keeping mosquitoes from swarming as I watched my own National Geographic episodes live from the porch. I could get a few different channels if I stared at the fire in the wood stove long enough. But aside from that—and being entertained by the pantry mice—paperbacks, cards, board games, and a retro radio tuned into “The Mountain of Pure Rock” atop Sugarloaf was as exciting as things got inside the cabin after sundown. Company from away didn’t always understand, especially after they got water logged and the thrill of going to the Pine Tree Frosty had worn off.

“But what else do you do up here?” one of Helen’s middle school friends, who reportedly had Nintendo and her own TV/ VCR in her bedroom, asked.

“We play Yahtzee and Monopoly and eat s’mores and read,” she said. “We read a lot.”

“Like chapter books?” the girl said. By Sunday morning, her attention span was shot. And that was in the summer.

“I s’pose this will be kinda nice in the winter,” Tom said just after we made the Big Move to Rangeley full time. He was kicked back in his new double recliner watching our first ever upta camp TV, which also happened to be our first ever flat screen, hi-def, bigger than a breadbox TV. It was a huge buying decision, solely mine to make, while Tom had been away working out his teaching contract till the weekend. Did we really need to bring a boob tube into our “dream” log cabin? Was it time to ditch the tiny Discount Warehouse set we bought back in the ’90s, even though it still had some life left to it? “Yes!” I decided in a moment of early spring slump. I closed my second novel of the week and called DirecTV.

But I still couldn’t imagine how in the heck we could pick up satellite reception out here amid the towering trees. “Don’t worry,” friends told me. “Norm will set you up. I’ve seen him put a DirecTV dish out on an island. He even put one on an outhouse once.”

They were right. A few days, a really tall ladder and some serious roof hook-ups later, Norm clicked through the remote, and presto chango. I could see glaciers calving into the Gulf of Alaska, the real shades of The Color Purple, and every single palm frond and bug bite on Survivor. I had more than a hundred channels and, soon, a renewed addiction.

I fell deep and hard into “reality” TV—my obsession of choice, convincing myself I could turn it off any time I wanted. After all, I said, I didn’t get sucked into the sports/movie super-mega-bundle dish package. I didn’t have a bedroom TV and a kitchen TV and a loft TV. I had one TV in a small corner formerly known as “the beagle room.” And thanks to steadfastly refusing a DVR hook-up, I had to be strong. Who knew when I’d have to go to the bathroom and miss some vital twist, some witty comment or, heaven forbid, seeing who got Chopped or wasn’t The Biggest Loser? I had high standards for when and how I indulged.  Amazing Race, Undercover Boss and, if no one was around, an occasional Say Yes to the Dress, were my allowable choices. And North Woods Law—a vital local broadcast—was a non-decision, my civic duty. I deliberately black balled Amish kids binge drinking, and couples wanting to “embrace” life in Alaska while not wanting to haul wood, poop outside, or butt up against bears.

And then it hit me. I was sad. Not the kind  of sad that kept me from walking the dogs, showing up at the dinner table, or opening the curtains. Too much mindless TV had given me a case of what Psychology Today calls “infinite sadness,” a seeping, low grade feeling that I was turning into a total waste of skin. While it hadn’t suffocated me yet, a door was closing, slowly crushing my psyche, show by stupid show.

I began to wonder: If my mind was a bookshelf, what would it be lined with after hours and hours of reality TV? Wilting roses from the Bachelor? The Travelocity gnome sitting atop a stack of Amazing Race clues? Would it have any of the rich permanence of a grand old library, or the vacant stillness of an empty warehouse? Or worse, maybe the regions of my brain had become a row of closed cubby-holes—and the only thoughts waiting to pop out were silly, vacuous, Laugh In-like one-liners!

I took a hard look at how I defined “surviving” the long winter evenings out here. Was it letting the dim glow of an idiot box keep me going till ice out, or spending long evenings becoming truly enlightened by the books that were piling up like cord wood? I sure did miss Mike Bowditch and whatever new adventure Paul Doiron had for me to read! And I kept promising myself I’d finish The Promise of Energy Psychology, a second-hand paperback all the more inspiring because it was earmarked, highlighted and annotated by its previous owner. “This book is a New Age textbook,” I decided when I read the first half. “It’s helped someone be the best she could be!” The only thing the Learning Channel and Discovery Channel were teaching me was how much back-to-back crap I could gaze at, slack jawed and inert in my recliner, till I shuffled off to bed. I did learn to be glad I wasn’t a third sister wife, or compulsively eating dryer sheets, or cheap enough to dumpster dive out back of Parkside and Main. “At least I’m not dating my car!” I’d mutter to myself when I finally clicked the off button. “Plus, lucky me, I’m way past the threat of suddenly squeezing out a baby in the Coos Canyon rest area because whoops….I was more than just fat.”

So I backed away from the TV and got back to my books. Real books. I don’t do Kindle ’cause yup, you guessed it, I don’t own one. Tracking words across a tiny screen is what I do for a living. So when it comes to reading for pleasure, I prefer the tactile enjoyment of holding a real book, the thrill of unearthing a good Rangeley “dump” book, or the social amity of visiting my friends who own the bookstore in town.

It’s over a month into the New Year and I’m happy to say I’ve gone whole days immersed in Paul Doiron, Dan Brown and Colleen McCollough. No more gypsy wedding brawls or folks long-jumping through hoards of junk to get to their front door. I’ve limited my consumption to select comedies, North Woods Law, and a few upbeat reality shows. I’ve only slid off the book wagon once but, hey, that was a special occasion. It was free HBO, Cinemax, Starz and Showtime weekend. And now that I fork over almost as much for satellite TV as I used to for a car payment, free trumps everything. “My books will be there next weekend,” I decided, “Fifty new channels won’t!” Except for when I have to run to the bathroom and chance missing something really cool, home entertainment doesn’t get much better than that in my cabin in the woods in February.

Posted in health and healing, Mindfulness | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Family and friends, Seasonal celebrations and observations | 2 Comments

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.

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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.


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