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.

IMG_0765 (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Normally, my mind wanders for no special reason whatsoever. My favorite roller coaster ride. The perfect way to fix a sentence. What’s on sale at the Rangeley IGA. The next U2 concert tour. Hawaii. What’s not on sale at the IGA that I need anyway.

This thought process is not particularly constructive, especially when someone thinks they’re having a conversation with me and I’m really thinking about synonyms, sunsets, or who’s going to win this season of Survivor.  Still, there is a certain time when such detachment and cerebral cross wiring comes in handy, a place where I’m grateful I’ve elevated day dreaming to an art form. The dentist’s office. I begin dissociation strategies in the waiting room, occupying my mind with any and all images except those connected to the sound of a drill squealing its way through enamel. Over the years, I’ve learned to let my thoughts flee in whatever direction they will.

Used to be that mentally retreating to the late 19th century dentistry exhibit I saw at the Boston Museum of Science made me feel better about what awaited me in the next room. Singing along to the Muzak helped some, too—until songs like “Hurt So Bad” and “You Take My Breath Away” wafted through the waiting room speakers, filling me with fears that not even Barry Manilow could soothe.

“What came before dentist office music?” I’d wonder to bide some time. “What in the heck lulled patients into submission back before FM radio?” Lots of good, old-fashioned ether, I guessed. Then I’d get summoned into the big reclining chair of dread where I’d work out a week’s worth of menus and TV selections, determine the sequential order of the tile pattern on the examining room wall, and draft four or five new writing projects. It got me through a couple decades of exams—until the day the dentist announced my next visit would entail more than routine cleaning. Suddenly, my search for distractions took on a whole new urgency. After reaching my mid-thirties without a flaw, I’d have to be drilled and filled!

“That’s what can happen if you don’t brush your teeth enough,” came a warning from my cavity-prone years, back when a poster of a molar with black streaks shooting into its roots hung above the dessert counter in the school cafeteria. I came to find out, though, that this trouble spot happened because I did brush my teeth—with great deliberation—until I pushed the gum away from the top of my incisor.

“You mean it hurts when you drink hot or cold liquids?” asked the dentist when I brought the sensitive area to his attention.

“No, I mean if you poke right there with your little silver pick it’ll jolt me five feet out of the chair and I might slap you,” I wanted to say. However, “nuumph” was the only response I could muster.

“I won’t have to really drill,” he said. “I’ll just rough it up a little so I can bond some white filling to the small cleft where the gum’s receded.” But the words didn’t relieve me as intended because, as far as I was concerned, “little” and “small” would lose all relevance once high-speed steel made contact with his work surface. Only a major diversion—like a plot for my first best-seller—could see me through.

“Ten o’clock tomorrow?” I repeated as the receptionist checked the appointment book. “No I can’t come back then unless I get a baby sitter.” A legitimate excuse and, depending on how hard I tried to make arrangements, one that could buy me a lot of time.

“Why baby sitting?” she asked.

“Well, ’cause I have a three-year-old, Becky, who does furniture aerobics for exercise, who flew into a rage last time she saw a doctor come after me with hypodermic half the size of the one you’re planning to use for Novocaine.”

“Oh, she’ll be fine,” she reassured. “We have toys for her to play with. Besides, this would be a good way to introduce her to what happens at the dentist.” I agreed, reluctantly. Given my tendency to shiver and sweat profusely, I wasn’t sure I’d provide a proper first impression.

But taking Becky to my dentist appointment actually worked out well. Diverting myself from the discomfort was easier than ever, especially once Becky decided to watch from a stool on wheels about a foot away from the procedure. “You can sit there, honey, as long as you’re careful of the doctor’s feet and you watch out for the special buttons at the bottom of Mommy’s chair,” said the dental hygienist.

The unpleasantness of the immediate situation escaped me as I pondered the functions of those “special buttons” and what the doctor was likely to do with his hands if his feet were suddenly trampled. I hardly felt a thing.

It is possible, too, that advancements in equipment and technology since the last time I needed to have a cavity filled in the ’60’s had rendered the once excruciating process agony-free. And childbirth had, no doubt, redefined “discomfort” for me in the meantime. Plus when did banana flavored topical anesthetic for numbing the site of the big shot come on the scene?

“Aw, cmon, I don’t get the exam room with the really great view?” I asked upon meeting my new dental hygienist for the first time. Deciding to become year-round residents in our summer “camp” in Rangeley, Maine, my husband Tom and I told ourselves we’d have the best dental visits possible when we could look out over the lake and wooded fields surrounding Rangeley Family Dentistry. Drilling and poking just had to feel better if you could watch deer and geese rather than staring at whatever office park print hung lifelessly on the wall within your peripheral vision. “No,” answered my new hygienist as she led me to a chair overlooking the logging trucks on rural Route 4. “But you’d rather be in here anyways. You only sit in the room with a view if Dr. Dave is doing a procedure on you.”

Yup, my new dentist is Dr. Dave. His waiting room doesn’t need Muzak ’cause it has a fish tank, a selection of my friend’s local wildlife art, and a display of early 20th century dental relics up in the rafters that would make me want to disassociate from my surroundings—if I didn’t love the six-foot stuffed moose doll wearing a surgical mask that’s waiting nearby to check out someone’s chippers.

Thanks to many more years of unreformed power brushing, I didn’t have to wait long to sit in Dr. Dave’s procedure room. And shortly after that, I was back in the chair with a view, trying to levitate my way through my first root canal. Actually, it wasn’t nearly as terrible as legend had led me to believe. Dr. Dave is a drill master/micro-surgeon extraordinaire. That plus peeking out at the panorama and amusing myself imagining these very blog sentences really helped. “Rooted In Rangeley getting uprooted! I can have some fun with that…” And viola, Dr. Dave was done.

Turned out, though, that was only a trial run for the next procedure I’d need—one that would send me down the mountain to the “big city” of Auburn to a dentist reserved for one out of twenty root canal-ees like myself requiring special attention. “You need an apicoectomy,” Dr. Dave said after examining the bump on my gum not healed by spiced rum or other home remedies. Sounds exotic, I thought, until you get to the ectomy part. Like an up-sell drink off of a chain restaurant menu. (“Would you like that made with our top-shelf Apico vodka?”)

Who knew Lamaze breathing would come right back to my rescue? Two minutes into the apicoectomy chair and I was huffing and blowing like a trooper. I soon calmed down, though, deciding once again that the reality wasn’t nearly as bad as thinking about what was actually going on as Dr. Michelle, my new special dentist, peeled away a piece of gum flap to grab and excise my infected rogue root. She worked miracles with grace and humor, fixing me up so painlessly that by the time I noticed my view was of the back of a Home Depot, she was done. “A week from now you can go back to Dr. Dave to get your stitches out,” she said.

Cool, I thought, running my tongue across what felt like a Chinese string puzzle on my upper gum. I could heal up back home in Rangeley, transcending out over the lake and hills, dreaming up the perfect blog post.

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Reaching out for Robin

This is the story that almost wasn’t.

How could I possibly write about Robin? Whatever could I say that someone else hadn’t already said in a better, wiser, more enduring way? Not much, I decided. Not much at all.

Then she gave me a talking to.

“Open your heart to everybody you know and those you don’t,” she told me.

Well actually, she gave us all a talking to. We were gathered at the Church of the Good Shepherd to celebrate Robin’s life when, there she was, filling the video screen in the fellowship hall, giving us her parting wishes in that soft, no-nonsense tone we all knew so well. Say what you need to say. Reserve judgement. Spread kindness and joy. Accept. Cherish. Smiling straight into the camera, she let us see that, although cancer had weakened and withered her body, her face still radiated inner life. “There are so many messages!” she said. But she managed to share the ones closest to her heart, segueing into a slide show compiled by two of her best friends. Vivid glimpses of how she laughed and loved, how she lived her own philosophy, rolled across the screen. Casual snapshots merged into Zen moments. Friends and family members grew older with Robin, surrounding her in sickness and good health, and then returned back to childhood together. Seasons came and went, a perpetual backdrop of woods and water in all the places she called home. Let It Be and Oh Very Young played as memories faded in and out in perfect randomness.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim blue fading up to the sky.
And though you want him to last forever
You know he never will
You know he never will
And the patches make the goodbye harder still.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
There’ll never be a better chance to change your mind.
And if you want this world to see a better day
Will you carry the words of love with you?
Will you ride the great white bird into heaven?
And though you want to last forever
You know you never will
You know you never will
And the goodbye makes the journey harder still.

Watching through tears, I felt myself growing young again along with Robin, too. I remembered how cool those Cat Stevens lyrics were the first time I heard them as a teenager, the fringe on my suede jacket swaying as I danced a little hippie dance. The tune was magical, I thought, the words soothing and sort of vague—like a nursery rhyme. I was going to last forever, of course, everyone was. So I just kept singing along, smiling and swaying to the music.

Not anymore. As Robin’s legacy flashed before me, the words were suddenly all too real, as close to me as the other mourners I was shoulder-to-shoulder with in the fellowship hall. Oh very young what will you leave us this time? Softly singing along with Robin’s and my not-so-very-young friends, I wondered if they were unsure of their final answer, too.

“I know I’m not there, but it doesn’t matter ’cause I’m here, wherever here is,” Robin chuckled into the camera, leaving us with one final wish. “Just be kind and, most of all, spread the love. That’s my message: Spread the love and the joy.” One more time, her photos spanned from blonde, robust Robin, to bald but still beaming Robin, ending with Robin in a group “selfie” surrounded by friends in her hospice bed, her face shining from the center of theirs as they all drew close and focused upward for one last portrait.

“I want that,” I said silently. Not the that of cancer and chemo, God willing, but the circling of friends, the guts to thumb my nose at death while, at the same time, the grace to face its inevitability with a smile. I want to start taking all the candid snapshots of my day-to-day life very seriously. In each moment—whether I choose to be floating on the lake, lining up for a wedding, getting goofy with my girls, posing next to something I first saw in a guide book, or standing around partying with a red Solo cup—I want to be there, front and center. And from that vantage point, I want to reach out more, to do what Robin hoped, to spread myself beyond my comfortable corner in the woods.

“OK, Robin, I’ll give it my best shot,” I promised. First and foremost, that meant writing, sitting down at my laptop to meld her story with my own, translating her wishes into words I’d be proud to share with our neighborhood—around the lakes, into town, and out to the far reaches of my worldwide web signal atop Bald Mountain. But after a few days of staring at my blank “new post” page about Robin, it didn’t feel right. It felt inadequate and hollow—different than the self-doubt tinged with the promise of redemption I’ve come to know as my creative process. Was I a good enough friend? Did I get to know Robin too late, or just in time? My fingers stayed idle and, except for Cat Stevens singing as Robin’s kaleidoscope of pictures played over and over, my mind was blank. Then it hit me. A picture of me writing, crouched over my laptop in my own little world, would not even show my face! And while writing is my reflexive way of reaching out—how I most often do my spreading, my opening up and sharing, and all those vital ing things Robin asked of me—it’s not engaging material for my own someday slideshow. I needed to back away from my desk, start using my typing fingers for picking up the phone more often and my words for conversation. To truly honor Robin’s friendship and give her life meaning within the context of mine, I needed to get out there, drop in on people, initiate instead of just participate, be the best girlfriend material I could be. Heck, maybe I even needed to go shopping—the old fashioned, offline kind that usually involves walking around with other women, consulting on clothes, going for coffee!

I didn’t have to wait long to put my thoughts into practice. Another thing Robin really wanted was for her childhood friends from the coast to come up and meet her Rangeley friends. They planned a girls’ weekend this summer, and vowed to be here even if Robin “couldn’t make it till then.” She couldn’t, but they all gathered as promised, and I joined them for an afternoon of shopping and plenty of good ol’ girl talk focusing on Robin. The reminiscing resumed a few days later when I asked another mutual acquaintance to meet me in town for lunch. I sensed we might have more in common than just Rangeley and Robin, and I was right. We now have the start of a new friendship.

When I finally did get back to my laptop to write, I was just getting in the flow when…WHAM…a thumping against my office window screen made me jump out of my chair. Looking out, I saw a bird, bobbing around on the lawn, getting its bearings after getting my attention. It was a robin. “Nice one, Robin,” I said. And as I watched it fly to a nearby tree and then on to each shed roof on its way to join another bird up the driveway, I didn’t have to wonder if I’d received a sign from Spirit or if I was silly to take its symbolism literally. I knew. Robin is no longer on this earth, but she’s dancin’ close by, helping me, helping us all, spread joy.

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Daddy’s grown-up girl

Whenever I met someone throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and either end of Massachusetts, I’d have to tell Mac. Besides inheriting his passion for story telling to anyone who’d stand still long enough to listen, I believed nothing ever really happened until it got reported back to Mac. And each and every time I did so, he’d puff out his chest like a partridge ready to drum and ask: “Did you tell ’em who you are?”

“Yes,” I’d say in all honesty. “I told ’em who I was.”

I wasn’t Joy McGranahan like it said on my birth records. I wasn’t Mrs. Thomas Clough, even after I took vows, signed a marriage certificate, and had that stamped on my first credit card back when Sears thought women couldn’t be held responsible for their purchases until they had a husband. Even later, when I became full-fledged Joy Clough—writer, mother, successful business proprietor, and wife to a Science Teacher of the Year—that still wasn’t who I was.

“Hi, I’m Joy, Mac’s daughter.” That’s how I came to introduce myself. It paved my way, opened doors, and usually sparked instantaneous recognition. On the rare occasion I’d run across someone who couldn’t readily remember hearing or seeing Mac, I’d have to coax out a recollection. “You know, ‘Mac’ McGranahan? Writes the outdoor column for the paper? Talks about fishing on the local cable channel? Talks about pretty much anything anywhere, but fishing stories and Maine jokes are his claim to fame. Red and black flannel shirt, suspenders…?”

“Oh, yeah, I know Mac!” most folks eventually responded. “He’s your Dad?” They’d shake my hand, assessing the mild-mannered woman who seemed to be holding her own in the shadow of such a character, retell their favorite outdoors with Mac story, and wish us all the best.

There was a time, of course, when I was just Joy, or Joy Joy as he called me when we were being silly, which was most of the time. Back before I called him by his nickname, before I ventured into society on my own, he was just Daddy. I had no relativity, no separation, no real knowledge of my own identity, and no words to label the love and security I saw in the faces of my father and mother as they reached down to hold me, lift me up. For the longest time I figured everybody’s daddy smelled faintly of boat exhaust, took their families to big lakes in Maine named after moose, and played practical jokes on raccoons. I had no clue that some moms weren’t OK having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Tang for supper so they could stay on the water till dark, or that, when company came over, some cared if their hamburgers weren’t made out of cow meat.

“Daddy, do you think God is up there?” I asked as we trolled around Moosehead Lake at dusk. Mac looked up with me at the last rays of sun turning the clouds cotton candy pink and, for the first time I can remember, could not pretend to be sure of an answer. “If He is, what do you suppose He looks like?” he asked back. From where I sat watching him steer the boat, silhouetted by lake and sky, I imagined an older, white-bearded guy kind of like him. Able to move mountains when he had to, and stop you in your tracks with his big, booming voice.

“Hey Joy Joy, come see how strong your Daddy is,” Mac would holler. Holding one arm at a right angle, he’d thrust his fist up in the air and I’d grip onto his bicep for all I was worth until he’d flex a grapefruit-sized ball of muscle, heaving my hands out of its way. Then he’d hoist me to the ceiling on one hand, bragging I was lighter than the boat anchor he had to horse back into the boat all the time, and spin me around the room till we were both giggling.

As I grew, so too did my perspective, slowly expanding my universe out and around the man at its center. Who I was evolved from Daddy’s littlest fishing buddy, to his Twist and Shout dance partner, to the young writer whose first stories he published on the Xerox machine in his office and hand-delivered to captive readers. When I graduated from “the little blonde girl who asks too many questions” to scoring my first newspaper byline, he proclaimed: “My daughter can do anything she puts her mind to.” I grew to believe it, too, especially if Mac gave me a big shove in the right direction.

Born near Boston on “the real” Memorial Day in 1928, the son of a tug boat captain and a Scottish immigrant, my Dad’s given name was Warren. But no one ever called him that except his parents and sister who, by nature and necessity, were quiet, temperate people. “I never figured out how he got the way he is,” my Nana, his mother, would tell me. “Up until the time he was three, I could just sit him out in the yard in an old tire inner tube and he’d stay put for hours, afraid to crawl out of it, not a peep out of him. How’d he grow up to think the sun has to rise and set over him? Maybe I should’ve let him have his own room instead of making him sleep on the divan all those years.”

No matter what spawned it, Mac had an ego the size of the biggest bull moose in the herd. Like the huge ol’ christer you see standing in the road and pray he goes around your car and not charging into it. He was always right. Period. And if you tried to sway him toward your way of thinking, he’d wear you down till you’d not only see his point of view, but tell him you were wrong not believing him in the first place. We usually didn’t mind, though, because he’d make everything into a joke, getting us to laugh, at ourselves, at him and the wonder of his all-knowingness. “Good thing I moved us back up here from Massachusetts when I did,” he said. “How else would you have met your future husband, gotten a job, bought a house, had kids? And good thing I keep such a nice boat down on Great Bay. Gave Tom all the more incentive to marry you and take you off my hands!” Yup, Mac, I’d say to myself, becoming your fishing pal was the trump card, way more alluring than my looks or personality! I’m sure what Tom really wanted, God help him, was to be able to tell people he was Mac’s son-in-law.

Technically, of course, he was right. Mac was half the reason I was born in the first place, the perfect complement to my mother, who knew when to stand her ground and when to bend, who matched him joke for joke and, sometimes, fish for fish. If not for his paternal influence, I might never have visited places like Rangeley, never have grown up dreaming of a guy who wanted to live with me in a cabin on a lake, never had Mr. Right waiting for me by the altar while Mac gave me his blessing.

“Smile at everyone as you pass by,” he said, waiting to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day. “You’re beautiful, and every single one of these people is here just for you.” Well, probably some of them are here to see Tom, too, I remember thinking. But I didn’t want to argue, so I rested my hand on Mac’s arm, feeling his bicep tighten under his tux, and went side-by-side with him toward my future.

“Wow, I’m pretty lucky to have a daughter with a place in Rangeley who thinks enough of her father to surprise him with a cake,” Mac told me years later after one of his New England Outdoor Writers’ annual dinners was hosted here. “Everybody realized it was my birthday and they all sang to me!”

“Yup, I told ’em who I was at the Rangeley Inn and they baked it up special,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure they had a Memorial Day parade for you in town, too.” It was the best Mac celebration ever, perfect indeed. He got to eat cake, preside over his fellow writers, and brag about how his daughter “put her mind to it” and got herself a cabin right down the lake from where he’d caught the best brookies.

“How am I ever going to top that one?” I wondered. “I really helped him toot his horn big time.” Good thing, too. A year later, Mac died in the L.L. Bean wing at Maine Medical, just after I turned 40, and mere days after he’d thrown his canoe on top of his Jeep for the last time. When he retired early ten years before, we teased him that he’d fish himself to death. He made a valiant effort but, truth was, he wasn’t a force of nature. Heart disease, his preference for Snickers and Hostess snacks and, I believe, his unyielding approach to life, caught up with him.

Mac’s a lot quieter now, and a much better listener. But I still hear him right around sunset out on the dock talking back to the loons. Once in a great while, when I get to introduce myself the way he taught me, I can almost see him grin and puff out his chest. But best of all, over the years I’ve come to know that the distinction he craved, the recognition of me being Mac’s daughter, was his honor as much as mine. Who I am, who I’ve become as an older woman, is a calmer, gentler, female version of my father with the same warped sense of humor, same need to talk a blue streak, same determination for living life to the fullest where I can see God in the open sky. “My daughter’s just like her Old Man,” he’d brag at social gatherings. And, although I couldn’t agree at the time, didn’t see it till much later, I now accept the claim as mostly true. Minus the red and black flannel shirt with Snickers in every pocket and, most days, drowning out the loon calls, Mac was right.

Happy Father’s Day!


For more Father’s Day stories, see:
Dads of daughters
From Daddy’s little girl
Dining with Dad

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Mother’s Day anniversaries

For more than 20 years, Mother’s Day meant time to go back “upta camp” to rake the leaves, dust off the cobwebs, and watch the lake warm up before declaring it summer-ready and heading back to New Hampshire. Time for my girls to bestow their annual, handmade Pine Tree Frosty gift coupon/card and whatever trinket their allowances allowed, even though I told them to save their money.

“Mumma doesn’t need things,” I’d insist. Being with my family, happy and healthy, and back in Rangeley, was the best possible gift. As my pile of un-cashed ice cream vouchers grew, so did my memories of this fleeting weekend in early May when the promise of warm days by the lake stretched ahead like a mirage. Inevitably school, work, and my maternal duties in my “regular” house crept back into focus so that, by mid-summer, I’d be grounded in truth: I was a split-personality mother leading a seasonal dual existence. My family’s residence—a house with more space but a lot less charm—was three and a half hours away from our true home, our real base camp in Rangeley.

On Mother’s Day 2010, I made a colossal liar out of myself. Sitting in my Adirondack chair watching the lake “turn over” from another winter, I wasn’t the least bit remorseful, though. I’d come to find out there was an even better best possible gift for Mumma. Being right here with my family, happy and healthy, and staying here was all I ever needed and then some. Beginning with that one monumental weekend, I did not need to pack and head for “home” as soon as I got settled in. I was home—for good—a bona fide year-round Rangeley resident! Faith, family, determination, and a touch of insanity bought me my fairy tale. My life was consolidated, my pared-down possessions tucked snugly in my now-just-big-enough cabin. With home base and its newly-added upper stories peeking out of the birch boughs behind me, I faced the lake and let my head align with my heart. I could stay put now way past “camp closing” time, to see the big lake ice over again, to be there still for the next spring turning. “Priceless,” I said, and gave myself a big motherly hug.

This Mother’s Day weekend marks four years since my Big Move. Just before I pulled the plug on my old life (and my higher-speed Internet connection) and left New Hampshire for the last time, I posted the following thank-you note on Facebook:

I will be celebrating Mother’s Day in my “new” home by the lake, sending love to everyone who made the dream possible. To my three mothers….Mum, who gave me life and who shows me every day how love lives on in Spirit; to Prudy, my step-Mom, who helped me love myself as a grown woman while seeing the wonder in all things; and to Ruth, my Mother-in-Law, who taught me just in time, the healing power of unconditional love. To my beautiful, strong, funny, amazing daughters, Helen and Becky, who mother me back, but keep me young at heart and always eager for adventure. (Thank you for chosing me in this lifetime!) And, of course, to Tom, my husband and forever friend. Thank you for the courage to take this free fall, for the wisdom and common sense to bring our “craziness” into the realm of possibility, for keeping my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds, for laughing with me and loving me all ways, and for always  just being with me by our big, beautiful lake.

I’m still saying thanks every day since I wrote that. I thank my three mothers in Heaven for bringing me, collectively and in their own separate ways, to where I am today. I thank my daughters—for knowing I don’t need things because letting me scream like a 10-year-old with them on a mega-coaster or a whitewater raft is better than any trinket. I thank Tom, my best friend, for building this life around me and still wanting to share it with me, even through the long, cold Rangeley winters. I thank my girl friends, my soul sisters, who nurture me like mothers, and love me unconditionally for who I really am. I thank my work family, for enabling me continue my financial security out here in the woods, for helping me prove to myself and the rest of the traditional business world that earning money is just as much of a blessing as having the freedom and the enthusiasm to enjoy spending it. And, more than ever on this Mother’s Day, I thank myself, for just plain being—here and now—hugging myself in my camp chair, at peace with all that I have and have lost.

Forty years ago, I thought my joyful Mother’s Days were over. I’d proudly bought my mother a set of stoneware salt and pepper shakers with some of my $1.80-an-hour paycheck, even though she’d told me to save my money. “As long as you’re happy, I don’t really need things,” she said. “But thanks honey, they’re lovely.” Grinning, she set them in the dining room hutch for “special company.” Fortunately (and unfortunately) I had no way of knowing that was to be our last Mother’s Day. I was 17, madly in love with Tom, getting ready to graduate high school and head into my “best summer ever.” Mum died suddenly a couple months later, leaving me to stare angrily at the salt and pepper shakers and all the nick-knack gifts I’d given her that seemed so hollow. Happy? If happiness was what she really wanted for me, from me, how come she’d just taken all hope of it away with her forever?

But neither did I know then that mother-daughter chats wouldn’t stop, that the wisdom and support would come to find a different, more powerful, communication channel. I didn’t know then that, today, I’d be so relaxed in my camp chair, a mother of two grown women myself, surrounded by what I choose to bring into focus, nurtured by laughter and love that never dies. Happy. Blessed. Rooted in Rangeley—with a huge stack of coupons to the Pine Tree Frosty yet to be cashed.


For more Mother’s Day messages, see:


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Terms of endearment (and other gibberish)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For other Valentine’s Day posts, see:

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Goin’ to town: A Rangeley winter primer

“Goin’ to town. Need anything?”

On any given day, the question elicits a mild adrenaline rush. Even if I’m just back from doing the whole loop, with provisions stacked up like cord wood, the doubts still surface. Gee…what’s left in the freezer? Is company coming? Got milk? Then it’s winter again and I go from backwoods practical to Pavlovian.

Used to be, planning my shopping meant figuring out if I had to hit Market Basket on the way home from work or could wait 24 hours, picking a Rite Aid based on ease of traffic flow, and avoiding both on the day of the month when folks got their Social Security checks. Now, after my Big Move to the outskirts of Rangeley 13 to 20 miles from goods and services, my strategies are no longer about a store, but the store—and how I’m going to get to it and back while still accomplishing enough in-town necessities to make my own Subaru commercial along the way.

“Probably gonna go to town this afternoon,” Tom said the other day. I waited till my heart rate leveled back out and my brain synapses stopped rapid firing, and made a quick assessment. “You can’t!” I insisted. “It’s Monday!” And, being the year-round Rangeley life partner that he is, instead of shaking his head like I’d gone woods queer, he took a moment to rethink his decision. “Jeez, you’re right,” he said. “Let’s wait till Wednesday.”

Part way through our fourth winter up here, we’ve super honed our skills at a mind game I call “information mapping Rangeley-style.” To play, I combine my investigative reporting and technical writing skills, enabling me to gather information no matter how complex, and make it somehow make sense. Then, Tom throws in his industrial logistics guru-turned-science-teacher expertise and, bingo! Mention going to town, and we instantly do a mental decision circuit that, if put to paper, would make my days documenting major product launches for HP and other high tech giants look like child’s play. The thought process (and rationale behind it) goes something like this:

Goal: To get groceries.

Start: Approximately 20 miles from goal destination.
From Point A, getting groceries (AKA “going to the IGA”) is rarely a singular task, a goal in itself. Until we end up with more gas money than we know what to do with, getting groceries without just getting groceries is crucial. Same thing is true for any Point-A-to-Point-B round trips, unless someone else is driving and they don’t want to stop. Also, if Tom or I ever do go to town without going to the IGA, we need a good explanation for why the hell not when we get back home. Example: “Bob was driving and he didn’t want to stop.”

Key objectives/tasks: These are weather and time/date dependent, so we select as many as possible from the following list and aim for the best outcome.
A–Rangeley Plantation Transfer Station (AKA the dump)
BOquossoc Post Office
Dhair cuts
Ebuilding supply store
Ggas station
Hoptional additional tasks as stamina/time/date/weather permits

The following is a sample Rangeley wintertime information mapping exercise with determining factors.
Mission statement: I want to go to the IGA without just going to the IGA.
<Decision 1> Is it a weekday?
If yes: Skip the dump and proceed to the next decision.
If no: Proceed to the dump, but only if it’s not after 1 p.m. on Sunday. Skip the PO, bank and, if it’s not Saturday, hair cuts and the building supply, and then proceed to the next decision.*
<Decision 2> Is it a Monday?
If yes
: Skip the dump and the hair cuts and probably lunch (see “Additional tips for optimal success” below), and then proceed to the next decision.*
If no: Proceed directly to the next decision.
<Decision 3> Is it a weekday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.?
If yes: Proceed to the post office only if you don’t need to pick up any packages and it is     before 4 p.m., then proceed to the next decision.
If no: Proceed to the post office, to all other available objectives, then on to the next decision.
 Footnote: In these scenarios, if remaining tasks are not critical, reconsider aborting mission and restarting on a different day.

Additional tips for optimal success: 

  • A–transfer station (AKA the dump): If it’s a Saturday or Sunday morning and you live in Rangeley Plantation, never under any circumstances leave your house this time of year without your garbage and recyclables. If it’s any other day and you happen to go by the dump and the gate is somehow miraculously open, slap yourself upside the head for not having your garbage and recyclables, or consider going back and getting them.
  • BOquossoc Post Office: Consider having the new, limited “full service” hours tattooed on your arm so you don’t get all the way there and end up with your important packages on the wrong side of the closed window. If this is not feasible, pause for an extended moment of gratitude that you still have a post office in Oquossoc (and hope that it will take just long enough for the window to open back up.)
  • C–lunch: To proceed with confidence in going “out to lunch”—the ultimate prize in all goin’ to town missions—first verify that: a) an OPEN flag is displayed outside your selected eating establishment; and b) there are obvious signs of life inside the allegedly OPEN restaurant.
  • Dhair cuts: Honor these appointments and give them precedence this time of year. If not, you could risk getting kidnapped by one of those “emergency makeover” shows next time you do make it down the mountain. However, in the event that you must cancel an appointment due to hazardous driving conditions, take heart. Your loss is someone closer to town’s gain. My stylist assures me her chair never stays empty for long, even in a blizzard. All her in-town customers wait for days when folks can’t risk coming in from the plantations and rush in to fill our slots (while we get woollier waiting for the weather to clear.)
  • Ebuilding supply store: Regardless of other priorities, consider making this stop mandatory. Study all aisles with care, ensuring your ability to find and purchase that one gadget you won’t remember needing till tomorrow—when you’re back home in the pucker brush—shit outta luck.

So there you have it, information mapping Rangeley-style (winter version). Depending on your dietary requirements, and where you place yourself on the spectrum between making do and “gotta go get it now,” your results may vary. The game’s not for everyone, especially some friends from away. “I’m a half a mile from Petco and the Home Depot, and I think I have at least three grocery stores within a mile radius,” our friend tells us every year on the second day of his visit. (His calculations start then because, on the first day, he’s too glad to be back in his favorite fishing retreat to be feeling like he has to justify where he chooses to call home.) Closeness to “stuff” used to be a consolation for us, too, I tell him. Each time I had to leave here to return to Market Basket country, I remember saying “At least I can go get groceries without planning my every move.” That was little comfort, though, when our real home, our ideal situation, was back on a big lake on the outskirts of Rangeley.

As year-round residents, we’ve now become highly motivated to win the goin’ to town game, even though some days we don’t get very far past GO before returning to home base to regroup. “Thank God we have enough boxed wine and powdered milk to last awhile,” Tom remarked after the worst of the recent ice storms. We’d just barely loaded up and headed off towards town when the Subaru started to skid out of control, and we figured we’d look better cancelling our hair cutting appointments then smashed into a tree. If flow charted, it could have ended in a “Dude, you’re screwed” dead end, leaving us longing for the IGA and, perhaps, even our old lifestyle. But, luckily, Tom already factored in the ultimate decision triangle back when the Big Move was first taking shape. Got a pantry? Yes, we sure do, and it’s a game changer! Plus, the fact that he saw fit to give me enough square footage to stock with provisions from as far away as Farmington seems to be earning me bonus point around here. 

The first time my friends lay eyes on it, they do a Rangeley version of the “He went to Jared” commercial. “He gave her a pantry!” I hear them marvel. Yup, he did—so he only has to take me to the IGA if it’s Wednesday, and the road’s sanded, and all the restaurant flags are flying.

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A friend called Coco

Christmas Day 2012

Christmas Day 2012

I squinted across the parking lot and sighed, letting the humid breeze blow away the last traces of airplane air. There was no rush, really, no need to dash around, check my watch or even wait closer to Tom so we didn’t lose track of each other in the shuffle while he got the luggage. Because, I reminded myself, down here there was no shuffle, no tight schedules, no worries. There was one runway, an outdoor luggage cart with ours in plain sight ready to grab, and a long, lazy month in a beach house just down the road.

I already knew what to get at the small market on the way to the house, which drawers I’d use to stash my stuff before shoving my suitcase under the bed, how I’d lay my mask and fins out on the porch till morning and my swimsuit in the little wicker chair by the deck. I’d sit in the cabana with my daughter, Becky, on her days off from teaching at the Island School, just exactly as I’d done when I’d stayed there over Christmas. It felt so good to be back, to be waiting outside the airport repeating it all in my mind with calm certainty that nothing had changed a bit. While I’d gone home to three months of Maine freezing and thawing, Rock Sound, Eleuthera, Bahamas, stayed exactly as I’d left it.

When it comes to being on island time, I’m usually there before the plane even lands. I feel the change coming over me like a deep cleansing breath and, as soon as I can swap my L.L. Bean boots for Tevas, I’m back in the groove. But today was different. Today was April 16, 2013, the morning after the Boston Marathon bombings—and by the time I made it through the sentinel of security at Logan Airport, past the “what’s going on in the rest of the world” news coverage in the Nassau departure lounge and, finally, to the remote end of this out island—I felt like I’d escaped much more than mud season in Maine.

Hauling his huge rolling duffel packed with more snorkeling and fishing gear than clothing across the parking lot, my husband, Tom, seemed to agree. He looked up at the palm trees with a weary, but expectant smile that told me he’d reached the leg of the journey when horsing stuff around was no longer a hassle. The exertion was now earning him rum drinks.

“Luggage is all here,” he announced, and I nodded. Despite sharing an adventuresome streak that lands us far and wide, we still find comfort in stating and acknowledging the obvious along the way. I, especially, have a need to repeat things out loud to myself—our flight numbers and gate numbers, our departure and arrival times—re-reading them from the itinerary I keep in a giant paper clip in my carry on, reciting them off the airport monitors, again when we get to each gate and, finally, hopping up and echoing the boarding announcements as they come over the PA system. Fidgeting over the reservations, the little details, then freewheeling how they actually come to pass is, after all, how we manage to venture so far off the Carnival cruise line. Once again, a fine-tuned balance of focus and faith carried us from the JetBlue Airbus 320s, through the bowels of the “domestic” terminal, and on board an island hopper turbo prop, leaving the dolphin encounter brochure families back in Nassau.

We also left behind Comfort Inn, McDonald’s, Verizon wireless, and Hertz Rental Car. I did make arrangements for a car, supposedly, the same one we’d driven back December. But I had no rental contracts, no formal agreements, no guarantees. “This is where the paperwork ends and the trust kicks back in,” I reminded myself. The more I scanned the parking lot for the ancient RAV4 that wasn’t right there waiting for us when we landed, though, the more I wished I could rifle through my clip full of printouts for some verification, something with today’s date on it, something official. Visions of the armed guards and bomb sniffing dogs that surrounded me in Boston crept back to mind, and I couldn’t help voicing how vulnerable I felt standing so far from home, waiting for one man to fulfill his promise: “Where is Coco?” I demanded.

You just couldn’t be in Rock Sound for more than five minutes without seeing Avian Morley, AKA “Coco.” Besides being the go-to guy for transportation, his restaurant/bar/conch stand was the most happening place in town. Heck, even Martha Stewart and her camera crew managed to find him, lured from afar to taste his legendary conch salad. Plus, to me, he was the face of Rock Sound, the essence of what it took to thrive on the sleepy end of this out island. The minute I met him back in December, “gotta see Coco” stopped having much to do with practicality and logistics, and became all about wanting to just be around him. Yup, I told myself, if there was one thing I was pretty sure I could count on in Rock Sound, Eleuthera, on the morning after the Boston bombings, it was finding Coco again.

“Hey, hello and welcome back, dahlin’!” he greeted, coming across the parking lot with car keys and a big bear hug. I was struck again by how much he reminded me of someone I couldn’t quite place. It didn’t matter, though, ’cause I’d found Coco again. And the way his huge, easy smile felt the same as looking out through the clouds from the puddle jumper plane to spot my first glimpse of turquoise water, so vivid but tranquil over the long stretches of white sand, was all I needed to know for now.

“Coco! So good to see you again!” I said. “Hope you didn’t wait here too long. And, oh, we do want the car for four weeks, but our bank back home has a maximum per-day ATM withdrawal, so we’re going to have to pay you cash in several chunks so you don’t get hit with a MasterCard or check cashing fee.” He nodded, smiled, and walked us over to the familiar grey RAV4. “No problem, no problem,” he said.

Classic Coco, I thought, climbing back into the banged up SUV. It was hard to tell if the odometer had moved in the last three months since it was still hovering around 200,000, and we were still too hesitant to do the kilometers-to-miles conversion. “You sure this thing has enough ground clearance to get us down the remote beach roads?” I’d asked the first time we saw the RAV4. According to the Eleuthera travel guides, venturing off the Queen’s Highway to explore could be as risky as it was rewarding, and I found myself remembering how a gorgeous tropical view hadn’t helped Tom Hanks much in Castaway.

“No problem, no problem,” Coco said. “Drive slow.”

Hadn’t I heard that tons of times in my travels! No problem, mon. Usually it came across as the island way of saying there really was a problem, but we want you to calm down, chill out, have another rum drink so you don’t notice. That’s what you tourists expect us to say…pay us to say. When the boat captain on my first trip to the Bahamas told me: “No problem, dahlin’ we go snorkeling today,” it meant even though it was hailing and blowing a gale, I just needed to have another Goombay Smash and get on the boat. Even back home at a local concert hall, I heard the manager for Bob Marley’s sons’ reggae tour say “No problem, we’re on island time,” to the volunteer usher ladies (who seemed all the more perplexed by dreadlocks). I’m pretty sure it meant the musicians chillin’ out in their tour van (right next to the police station) an hour after the concert was supposed to start were not experiencing any hassle.

When Coco said no problem, it was different. His way was like a mantra, half lullaby, half chant, a personal affirmation that “every little ting gonna be alright.” Hearing him repeat it over and over, I could believe and make it my own truth—whether I was bouncing down a jagged road in a rental jalopy, or trusting that he could just shut down his entire restaurant on Christmas Day to invite us and a small gathering of other “locals” to dinner. “No problem, no problem,” he said when Tom got his wallet out and tried to pay for the bottle of wine we drank with our turkey with all the trimmings and fresh banana cream pie. “You’re family now.”

Other vacationers told me they came to Eleuthera for the people, by-passing islands with more amenities, but less soul. That Christmas night, as I watched the annual Junkanoo festival, I understood. The residents from Rock Sound, Tarpum Bay, Governor’s Harbor, and the other communities linked together on their skinny strip of limestone between the Atlantic and the Caribbean were family, parading by in one big celebration of life and tenacity, and I was mesmerized from my eyes down to my swaying torso. The costumes drew me in, colorful and gaudy as the tinsel-covered Christmas trees I’d gawked at as a child. Somehow, too, the drum beat and the rhythm of their age-old dance of joyful defiance filled me reverence, the kind I’d get gazing up at stained glass windows in a candlelit church. The brass section tooted by, keeping it upbeat, and I was whisked out of church, back to the roadside revelry. Had I ever been able to leave that moment in time, rooted there near Rock Sound with my family, I actually could have dreamed I was just a bit off Broadway. Then along came Coco, king of his community’s Junkanoo band, dressed like a Bahamian police constable, dancing with all his might and clowning around for the crowd.

It wasn’t until I got back to Eleuthera in April, and I was sitting in Coco’s restaurant watching his Junkanoo video, that it finally hit me. Big Papi! He was the David Ortiz of Rock Sound, Big Papi without the beard, or the bat, or the big baseball salary. Plus, while he didn’t have the same bling as the Boston Red Sox MVP, he lit up that parade route like a shimmer of diamonds. “Can you please make me a copy of this DVD?” I asked Coco.

“No problem, no problem,” he said. But I never saw it, or Coco, again. Coco died in a motorcycle crash in September, just up the road from his last, jubilant march. I heard the awful news as the fall colors were fading back home in Rangeley, Maine, and the air was taking on a chill that made me dream of dancing barefoot in the Bahamas. I’m no stranger to grief, both the kind that stabs me swiftly in the heart, or drains me slowly like a wound that can’t heal. Still, the loss of Coco stunned me to my core. How could I miss someone so profoundly I was pretty sure I was never going to see again? Now that Becky had finished teaching down there and moved to Boulder, I should have been better soothed by happy memories of time spent with a great guy on a laid-back island. People come and go, after all. And sometimes I’d end up wondering things like “whatever happened to that guy who used to work here….he was nice.” I’d find out he’s not coming back, observe a moment of silence, shrug and move on. Not so with Coco. Not even close.

The night Becky called and told us, Tom and I looked out over our lake and toasted Coco, drinking the special Rangeley Red Juice liqueur Tom made from raspberries we picked in the warm August sun. We wished more than anything that Coco could taste it with us, beaming his approval. We drank to living life in the moment—and to the mixed blessing of having a friend like Coco, now gone, who left a legacy of how we’d treat ourselves and others in his memory.

I cried a lot over Coco. And with Christmas coming around again, I’m sure I’m nowhere near done. I am finding comfort, though, in a picture I keep near my desk. It’s Coco, in his element down by the clear, blue water, palms up and arms spread wide, grabbing all life has to give. He sort of reminds me of the the giant portraits that, as a kid in church, I thought only Christ could pull off. Striking a “come to Jesus pose,” He’d conjure up a powerful spirit vibe I figured must be reserved for the Son of God Himself. As an adult, I now believe the spark comes closer to earth. It moves through people like Coco, who show us how to carry Heaven with us, day by day, in our attitudes. Each time I see his picture, I now also know that it’s my bittersweet burden to always remember, to always radiate how he made me feel—instantly special, a forever friend.

No problem, Coco. No problem.

Photo courtesy of Perry Joseph

Photo courtesy of Perry Joseph


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Just like riding a bike…not!

“It’s just like riding a bike!” With a quick nod and a dismissive hand gesture, this is society’s way of telling us we are “good to go,” that whatever we might be struggling with is doable. And almost everybody hears the breezy little saying the same way.

“Oh, OK then, I got this!” Easy peasy. Piece o’ cake. Not to worry.

Not me. While I have come to understand the gist of the sentiment, I’ve never been able to make a simple translation. I’ve always added my own mental side note: “Easy for almost everybody. A bit of extra work—and maybe some blood, sweat and tears—for me.”

I got my first tricycle when I was five. It was a rugged red and chrome beauty nothing like the plastic Power Wheels of today. My dad brought it home one afternoon, plopped it in the driveway, and said, “There ya go! Have fun.” And, boy, was I planning to…just like Billy next door, and Cindy who lived down by the school and got to race around on the pavement to her heart’s content. I hopped on, ready to ride, but didn’t budge. Unable to push the pedals a full revolution, I just sat there, a coiled ball of “big girl” determination, hoping and grunting, and going nowhere.

The trike went back to the hardware store the next day, and that’s the first time I think it dawned on me I really wasn’t like almost everybody. Oh, I’m sure I knew, deep down, long before. But having no real relativity, no Billys or Cindys in my field of vision yet, I naively went along at my own pace. As a baby, how could I know that dragging orthopedic gear behind me wasn’t the developmental benchmark kind of crawling Dr. Spock had my mother anticipating? And what yardstick could have told me the long expanse between the sofa and my next handhold on the bookshelf was something most toddlers had already walked with brazen confidence?

I was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. Just a touch. Not enough, thank God, to leave me in a wheelchair or visibly crippled as the diagnosis often implies. But enough to leave me unsteady on my feet, better on one leg than the other, and longing for Keds instead of “special” shoes. In the days before mainstreaming, it was enough to sideline me every track and field day, to leave me in the bleachers where no one needed to wait for me to catch up, or tell me my two-foot flailing leap across the dirt didn’t qualify as a long jump.

I remember feeling like I’d never take off under my own steam, ditch the training wheels and the worrisome looks, and just fly like the wind. Eventually, though, not so long after my stationary trike trauma, off I went speeding across the school yard on just two wheels, my grandpa doing the “no hands” wave behind me. To this day, with many miles of victory and defeat at my back, the Olympic moment when the pavement rushed beneath me—of seeing my orange tiger handlebar streamers fluttering with every determined push of my pedals—still stands out as my personal best.

“Ramblin’ Rose to Papa Bear. Come in Papa Bear!” Many years later, I was calling from the Oquossoc Grocery, so pleased with myself I used our walkie talkie “handles” to report back home to Tom. I couldn’t use my walkie talkie, I told him, since I was way out of range. I’d just biked 13 miles into town and, after a sandwich and the satisfaction of watching cars go by as I sat at a picnic table drying my sweat-soaked bike helmet hair in the summer sun, I’d make the return trip.

So began my Ramblin’ Rose years when, in my late thirties, I finally figured out ways to use “favorite” and “exercise” in the same sentence. I had two: snorkeling and mountain biking. The first felt so free and graceful I wanted to grow a mermaid tail, but required a plane ticket to the tropics. The second felt gnarly and gritty, never floaty, but was right in my back yard. So, most days, biking was a no-brainer. Using the legs God gave me to propel myself through the mountain biking mecca of western Maine was a matter of natural selection more than natural ability. And, most days, it was better for my body than other choices such as aerobics, especially my metatarsals and menisci, which barely survived my attempts to join the Jane Fonda craze. It certainly was better for my ego, safety, and sanity than skiing. And running? Well that, or my form of it, was something I rarely attempted—reserved primarily for snake sightings and general admission into a U2 concert.

Hard as I tried, though, practice never made biking smooth going. It wasn’t something I returned to effortlessly 20 years after parking the old Schwinn five-speed I used as a teenager when I couldn’t get a ride somewhere. Getting back on the seat took guts, gumption, and overcoming the agony of letting my daughters see that, for their mom, the old “just like riding a bike” saying wasn’t true. Any sort of fluidity in motion required a finely tweaked head start and attention to detail en-route: 1) Carefully swing my “bad” leg up (and especially over) the bike frame and hop on. 2 ) Get my “good” foot cranking. 3) Throw my other one onto the opposite pedal. 4) Hang on, pedal like crazy, and enjoy the ride. 4) When done, dismount without keeling over (See step 1). Thankfully, my mastery was rewarded with many, many family bike trips, even more solo excursions, and surprisingly few dumps or crashes. I celebrated turning 40 with a 40-mile round trip ride to Rangeley and back with Helen, then 13, proudly setting the pace. And, by age 45, I even managed to look my personal best in the black Spandex bike shorts and red rose emblazoned jacket Tom bought for that birthday.

Not long into my 50s though, things changed. I let my bike gather more garage dust than road dirt. I traded my daily rides for walks, and took my biking indoors to the gym. I began to suffer more and more from what a healing friend compassionately called “gravitational insecurity.” Age, loss of flexibility, and being thrown off center by life’s hazards left me more finicky than ever about how I chose to “get out there” without getting hurt. I stayed in shape, wearing out more than a few pair of sneakers and, occasionally, strapping on snow shoes. But I longed for the freedom of the open road, the exhilaration of pushing myself past my own backyard.

“Trust me. I got you and I’m not letting go till you feel safe again,” Tom promised this summer. I was on my bike again for the first time in so long I needed him to hold onto my seat and follow me up the driveway like my grandpa did 50 years ago. Eventually I did let him let go. And I did get the hang of the whole pedaling and balancing thing enough for us to take a short ride together. But I was shaking when I got back home, so unsteady that I found the excursion more terrifying than invigorating. “Yeah, right…just like riding a bicycle,” I muttered and hobbled off, leaving it in the driveway. At 57, I was learning the difference between blindly attempting what I should be able to do with my slight disability, and how far I could safely push myself toward what I genuinely wanted to do. Still, retreating to my Adirondack chair for the rest of the afternoon, I felt my limitations closing in on me.

I went back to walking and waiting for my next snorkel vacation. I told myself I’d just have to be OK with enjoying life in prime biking country on foot. And then, just as August gave way to the clear, crisp perfection of September in Maine, I had a knowing so strong it woke me from my trance. “But I want to ride a bike!” I said. “I really, really do!” I wanted to claim the trail on my own terms, and I wasn’t ready to pack it in and park myself on an ATV like so many of my rural neighbors. But what, exactly, did that look like? How could I regain the joy of grinding up the gravel, of gliding past woods and water, while nurturing myself and my needs? I Googled “adult mountain bike training wheels” without much success. I scrolled through online pictures of three-wheelers more suited to retirement communities than God’s country. Then I decided to swallow my pride over “giving up on myself” and ask Tom what he thought.

He didn’t laugh or even smirk and, in the blink of an eye, had me looking at the answer. It was a recumbent tricycle, a Sun EZ-3 AX to be exact, and he knew this because his traditional bike was bothering his lower back and straining his wrists and he wanted one too! The trikes would take a little getting used to, pedaling from a different angle and all, but they couldn’t fall over and would keep our legs and core in great shape while we laid back and enjoyed the scenery. A few weeks and a trip down the mountain later, and our twin Sun EZ-3 AX recumbent trikes waited side-by-side in the driveway.

“Sweet ride,” Becky said. She’d been my other biking buddy since way back, and was glad to see me ready to roll again. And I was ready, or so I thought, as I sat down and attempted to take off. But I only made it a couple tire spins up the driveway before the reptilian part of my brain stopped me short. “Woah….definitely not just like riding a bike,” I realized, attempting to regain my old center of gravity and gain some ground with my new age set of wheels. “I can’t!” I said, trying not to notice the disappointment on Tom’s face as he sat watching. Even though flipping the trike was technically nearly impossible, every fiber in my being swore I was going to fall over and never get up!

But Becky, bless her, wasn’t about to let me slump back to my Adirondack chair in defeat. An Outward Bound instructor, she is gifted with helping others dig deep, push through pain, and discover their core strengths. “You’re not going to fall over, Mom, you can’t!” she yelled in her tough love voice, hip-checking my handle bars and fender over and over till she convinced me. Then she helped me practice how to pedal, how to turn, how to stop and start. And, finally, I was off, leaving her in a puff of road dust, squinting behind me.

As it turned out, learning to ride my second tricycle was no more second nature for me than trying to ride my first. But as I heard my daughter’s victory whoop fading in the distance and sped off to catch up with my Papa Bear, I knew it was worth every ounce of extra effort. No, I certainly was not like almost everybody, rambling along at my own pace on my new Sun EZ-3 AX, the road wide open in front of me.

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