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:


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.

Working out….and up…and all over

My closer-to-the-city self used to think that working out meant getting in my car and then going inside. I’d drive over to Planet Fitness and schlep around from one piece of equipment to another, relying on the screaming yellow and purple color scheme and the gargantuan thumbs-up logo to make me want to jump on and go like hell. On good days, I’d  burn 283 calories while finding muscle groups I never knew I had, and watching Dr. Oz cure things I hoped I’d never get. Other days, not so much. If I timed it wrong, the TVs strung over the elliptical would be broadcasting soap operas or golf, leaving me staring out  the window at the parking lot, shuffling in place and feeling slovenly. Then, on May 5, 2010, I  shook up my fitness routine and thrust it into overdrive. “I’m moving to Rangeley!” I told the hello/buh-bye girl at the front desk as I shouldered my gym bag one last time. She shrugged, slid me some paperwork, and punched me out of the computer forever.

I found the Planet Fitness paperwork stuffed under some musty socks when I went to re-purpose my gym bag months later. Deep into my first Rangeley winter, I had to chuckle at my signature and all the fine print above it that placed me on my own—outside the “Judgement Free Zone.” I’d officially attested that, yes, I believed whatever new planet I was bound for would offer me a better deal for staying in some kind of shape than $10 a month.

But I was making that happen, I realized. With a bit of ingenuity and a lot more footwear, I’d learned it was possible to keep vertical, keep moving forward, and stay one step ahead of the potluck suppers and wild blueberry pancakes. I’d also learned that an extra canvas bag would be much more useful for lugging mail out of the post office or old magazines to friends than gym clothes.

As I said back in Homebody Building,  I am aware that Rangeley has the best health club ever seen in this neck of the woods. And I agree with my in-town friends—the view from there is spectacular. But I prefer to enjoy it from the back lawn, outside the building, especially when our local clinic brings up the Doobie Brothers and other bands to put on a benefit concert there. While I do miss the social aspects of club membership, I politely decline going inside to join up. I’ve done the math several times and 40 miles round trip to walk on the treadmill or splash around in the pool takes the wind right out of my sails before I even think about throwing my gym bag back into the Subaru. So I settle for sticking to my “at home” routine, substituting the extra car travel with just “getting out there” under my own steam. I may not be able to socialize in my sweats or ask my girlfriends what’s up while we’re getting pumped for water aerobics. But where else can I do the “road wave” to any neighbor who might pass by on my fitness circuit?

This time of year, with only a few of us non-summer stragglers left in my neighborhood, the road wave becomes less and less necessary. And, when it’s snowing again and still blowing a gale,  getting out there is more about blowing the dust off, keeping the shack nasties at bay, and choosing direct contact with the elements over DirecTV. My daily formula for not “letting myself go” 100% dormant becomes 99% stubborn commitment, 1% motivation.

“I’m going out there!” I declare from my back door, wearing my Elmer Fudd hat and layer upon layer of wind and water resistance. “And, dammit, I’m staying out there at least as long as it took me to get all dressed up to do it!” Most days I fit in a decent routine, solo or with Tom and the beagles. My Stair Master is now a hill across the road, my elliptical a pair of snowshoes and poles, and my view far more inspirational than a parking lot or even Dr. Oz. And although I don’t have any fancy equipment or giant thumbs-up (except those I give myself), I have managed to stay in stride with the latest fitness trends. Here’s how:

  • 10,000 steps: I don’t own a pedometer, but figure I get pretty close to 10,000 steps on my jaunts. And I’d bet anything some of my steps pack more of a punch than strolling around the mall. To those who do happen to drive by and notice, I’m the “seen you out walking” woman, hoofing it all the way to Bemis and back in all manner of conditions. In winter, that means stepping out with ice grippers strapped to my heavy snow boots—not the Yaktrax I raved about two years ago. Those were OK to keep in the car in case a stretch of pavement got a bit slickery. But negotiating the luge track formerly known as my camp road has forced me to permanently graduate to serious toothy, muckle-on-for-dear-life cleats. They’re my Rangeley “shape up” shoes on steroids. Once the snow and slush builds up under those babies, my calves think they’re jogging in deep sand on a beach somewhere until my frozen head tells them otherwise.
  • Circuit training: Back at Planet Fitness, there was a special circle of equipment that guaranteed to work out every muscle group in about half an hour. On really good days, I’d make my way around the circuit before moving on to Dr. Oz and the elliptical. I liked knowing that, unlike shuffling in place, the circuit exercises had a beginning and an end. If I made it all the way around to #10, the ab cruncher machine, I’d won. I’d done all the reps and pretended I might be able to hone a six pack. Out here, though, “circuit” training is not about machinery, but common sense and the laws of locomotion. It means ” If I go over there, or through this, or across that, I gotta come back.” And I gotta make it before dark and before the weather changes, or both. Whether I’m out on the lake or up the hill, the circuitous principle is a powerful distinction from any indoor regimen since I typically launch forth with considerable more vigor than I can muster on my return. My last snow shoeing trek was a prime example. I strode, hell bent and full speed ahead all the way across the ice to Toothaker Island—just me and my spring fever out there under the bright blue sky. But when I turned around to head home, my tracks stretched twice as far in the distance as the steps I had taken to get over there, I swear. I figured 3,000 going and at least 7,000 coming back!
  • Yoga/Tai Chi/and other meditative motions: My yoga mat has gathered a bit of dust in recent years, I’ll admit. But I still remember the moves, and I still seek the mind-body connection that comes from thoughtful appreciation of being immersed in nature, moving to the rhythm of creation. This time of year, that often starts with my version of “downward dog” as I jackknife myself to cinch up my snowshoe straps. Some days, I manage to rise up and perform many “sun salutations” and only a few gravity-defying contortions. Other days—after a poorly executed Tai Chi maneuver to shake snow off one shoe, or a misstep into some great white abyss—I add in more deep meditative moments. “Focus on your breath,” I tell myself, my face two inches from the snow, one leg buried, and the other skewed around next to my elbow. “Just let your body sink, relax into it. Deep cleansing breaths, in…and out. Good! Remember, you have the control, the innate strength—to bend, to stand, to step into your power always!” On good days, the mantra works.
  • CrossFit/core training: It’s all the rage, I know. Confuse my muscles and jump start my metabolism with a rapid fire sequence of burning and straining. I’ve got it covered, Rangeley-style, with a custom workout as second nature as brushing my teeth. I call it the seasonal “backwards recumbent stretch, sit and shake” and it goes like this: Open the door to the Subaru, keeping your arms extended all the way out. Maintain as much distance as possible from the covering of road slime on the apparatus as you angle your gluteus maximus toward the seat. While still holding the door firmly with one hand,  sit down, but make sure you keep both legs fully extended, toes pointed outside the car. Clap your legs together firmly several times. When your boots are free of mud and slush, swivel your legs in and close the door. Repeat as needed—at the post office, the IGA, and all around the loop. If done correctly, you’ll feel it in your shoulders, your calves, and especially your core.


Staying past September

“Dock’s out,” Tom announced. “Boat’s out, too.”

“Yup, I know,” I said, even though I was pretty sure he knew I knew ’cause he saw me watching the whole process from my “office” window.

Out here, stating the obvious is expected. It’s a rite of passage, our way of keeping in touch with our surroundings and in synch with the seasons while keeping our vocal chords limbered up. And the longer we live here year-round, the more necessary it becomes.

“Wind’s come up,” one of us will report at least once a day, usually right after a stiff breeze has nearly blown both our hats off. “Yup,” the other will agree. “Lake’s gettin’ choppy.”

Casual listeners (if we had any besides the beagles) might say we sound like we should live closer to town or, heaven forbid, like retired folks. But I’m glad to be right here, watching ourselves move past summer and into another fall, sharing eye-witness reports.

Not too long ago, what went on “up here” this time of year was a hypothesis, a big grey question mark. We crammed as much Rangeley life as possible between Mother’s Day and Labor Day and, most years, even squeezed in Columbus Day. But try as we might to prolong every moment, the days between having summer sprawled before us like an open-ended promise and heading back home were like a screen door on a short, tight spring. I’d barely be unpacked, just about settling in, when zing… BAM! Suddenly it was time to stuff all my canned goods into an ancient Seagram’s box and lug it back down the mountain for the winter. We’d be away then until ice-out, home but not really home, pondering how things were surviving without us “up to camp.”

“Jeez, I bet it’s pretty barren up there right about now!” I’d muse from my other kitchen sometime mid-November. Munching on limp, sawdust-flavored graham crackers pulled from my Seagram’s box of “camp stuff,” I’d be dreaming of s’mores in July. With no year-round Rangeley relativity, my off-season imagination was filled with such conjecture, and enough cold-weather adjectives to convince myself I wasn’t missing much. Part of me knew the leaves fell, the loons left and came back, and the land critters tromped through the snow until April. But, without being right there to watch, it was all just a big theory.

Each year, when the calendar pages of our other life finally wound back around to May, we switched into “going back up” gear. “You start putting stuff away, while I turn the electricity on, get the water going. Then, I’ll go down front, check the lake level, see if there’s any trees down. Maybe tomorrow, we can get over to the building supply, get those parts to fix the dock so we can put that back in.” We’d pile out of the Subaru and scatter like squirrels, a flurry of divergent activities fueled by the common purpose of getting going with summer. Our agenda was long-winded and multi-directional—pulling us around, under, over and through—allowing us to pause for a couple tranquil breaths before driving away until the next time.

Now that we stay put, our sentences are shorter, our movements slower, taking us just a few steps off center. No more hypotheses. No more figuring that whatever goes on past September, it must be dark and pretty dreary just to console ourselves. Truth is, the loons take their sweet time about leaving the lake, gathering in long, farewell dances on the cooling water until they’re ready for their journey. And yes, the leaves do fall off the trees, sometimes one by one. Before they do the birches hold on a long while against the blue of the bare mountains, their last flashes of gold no less gorgeous than the first wild flowers blooming along banks of just-melted snow. Then, there’s a pre-winter pause when the naked branches stand in contrast to the evergreens, mottling the hillsides with warm magenta and pewter. Who knew? Now I do. Being here, with Tom as my co-anchor, I know colors change and weather patterns come and go, not necessary on schedule with calendar days or vacation allowances. I’m now at leisure to flow with it, my rhythm no longer set from knowing “time is wasting,” or my “time off” is short, but by knowing it’s time. Time for stopping, for starting up again, for pausing along the way.

“Outdoor chairs are back in the garage,” Tom announced the other day.

“Yup,” I acknowledged, even though I knew he saw me watching him trudge by. Bearing witness to the Adirondack chairs’ departure from our waterfront till May, I was glad to see it looked like a natural migration rather than a funeral march as in years past. I waved and smiled, knowing that, moments earlier, I’d been sitting in one of those summer chairs, watching the last leaves fall and the loons gather, long past September.

Songs of warmer weather

South of here, the sounds of spring would call me out of my seasonal semi-stupor even if I  was still hunkered down and had barely cracked a window yet. I’d be driving somewhere in a fog or maybe stuck in my kitchen, hoping that first blast of fresh April air would blow some dust off me. Suddenly spring would reach in and knock me upside the head.

Peeeeeep…..Peeeeeeep…..Peeeeeep!” Peepers! Their familiar falsetto was loud enough to jerk me awaketo make me look hard for daffodils and other boisterous signs of the season I’d probably missedand mesmerizing enough to make me leave the window open till the heat had to kick back on.

Once they caught my attention, I’d be all ears for the peepers. Standing on my back deck in my fuzzy pants each evening, I strained to hear them bring every little pucker brush puddle back life. As the tundra thawed, the crescendo swelled until, by May, hundreds of teensy frogswound to a frenzy in the circle of lifesurrounded me in one, long tumultuous chorus.

Peepers weren’t the only species to wake me from my hibernation. During one particularly belated spring, I didn’t even need to open the window to hear the rhythm of pent up instinct bursting forth outside.

“FWUMPPP….Fwapp, fwapp, fwapp, fwapp….flop.”

I lay in bed listening and wondering. An early morning illusion perhaps, a figment of a pre-dawn dream state? “FWUMPPP….Fwapp, fwapp, fwapp, fwapp….FLOP.”

The only other noise it resembled was the coffee maker. But, this was way before Mister Coffee came with a computer chip to automatically respond to my brewing habits andunless wishful thinking had somehow started it perkingthe thing wasn’t even on. I shuffled out toward the kitchen to be greeted by the roundest-breasted robin ever perched on the deck railing staring at my dining room window. He peered up at the glass so intently it was obvious he wasn’t just admiring my African violets on the other side of the sill. He’d cock his head from side to side, take a running leap and FWUMPPP… right into the window he’d go. Then he’d hover and peck, perch and fly…FWUMPPP and repeat. Over and over and over and over.

Our first explanation was that he had the worst case of jet lag in bird history and was disoriented and starving. Five days later, we were still waiting for Nature to help him get his groove back when we finally went out to observe his view from the deck on the other side of the window. “He sees another big robin sitting all fat and sassy in a tree in his territory and he’s fighting back,” Tom concluded. And judging from the appearance of the deck railing, this feisty fella was at least a pound of food a day away from starving. Two days later, he was still defending himself against his own reflection and driving us completely batty. “What is that bird’s problem?” I hollered for the 15th time in a row.

Way too much bird-and-bee kind of energy, I figured. I was grateful that my friends the peepers could keep their spring fever percolating out in the swamp where it belonged and didn’t use it to propel themselves headlong into the house!

At the time I didn’t fully appreciate my little heralders of spring and their constant background noise. I didn’t realize that moving north would trigger a complete role reversalthat I’d be the one busting forth announcing to the world I’m ready for spring, yearning for an answer to my call. Sometimes I’m drawn to go outside in my PJs or even out in the yard till my slippers get soaked. Other times, I find myself on shores even more exotic than Mooselook.

Ruck…ah…caaaauuw!” I sang off my lanai. It was early spring a year ago and, after a winter in Rangeley that almost froze off my tail feathers, I was more than thrilled to answer the call from the nearby plumeria trees. “Ruck…ah…caaaauuw!” (A couple mornings later, I’m pretty sure the folks from California on the balcony next to me were much more curious about my mental state than where I’d traveled from on the mainland.)

Luckily, by the time I migrate back to Rangeley, the songs of spring aren’t far behind. But, more than ever, I need to go out of my way to listen. “WhaWHO….WHO…ha…WHO….WHO…ha…WHO!”
Filtered through my R-25 insulated log walls, the first loons on the lake beckon. I rush outside, closer to the sound, tilting one newly-naked ear to the night air. Sometimes I answer, especially if Jim Beam comes with me. But mostly, I look out over the dark, ice-rimmed water, and smile. Soon, the Joy Birds will join in the song!

Much as I love peepers and loons, if I ever had to set my feelings for my Maine home to just one melody, it would be the Joy Bird’s. He’s been calling me back here ever since I was a kid, letting me walk without ever missing an IPod. “BOO..DOO…bum-ditty…bum-ditty..bum-ditty…bum!” To sing that sweetly, I imagined he had to be prettier than anything that came to my feeder before the squirrels took over. Must have lots of red on him to sound like that, or maybe blue, I thought. Then, when I finally got my first good look at the lusty whistler, I stood in disbelief for a long time before consulting Audubon and finding out my Joy Bird was actually a white-throated sparrow. A rather nondescript brown and white-throated sparrow, he was, with the tiniest thatch of yellow on his fervently singing head. “Fondly known as the ‘Whistler of the North,” my bird book said, “this sparrow heralds spring in the woods with his familiar song: Oh sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada.

“Really?” I thought. I guessed BOO…DOO…bum-ditty…bum-ditty..bum-ditty…bum was too much of a mouthful for the Audubon folks.

Back outside with the bird book closed, my Joy Birds concurred. “BOO…DOO…bum-ditty…bum-ditty..bum-ditty…bum” they called, reminding me that the simplest creatures often sing the most beautiful songs. “Sweet Canada, my ass!” I chuckled, these little guys know the sweet spot is right here 40 miles from the Quebec border. Throwing my blonde-tufted head back until my parrot-bright tie dye peeked out from under my almost-summer fleece, I answered: “Oh, sweet warm, weather warm, warm weather!

Everything…and the kitchen sink

I do a lot of reminiscing this time of year. And, like any good cabin wife, I do a lot of it right where I should: standing behind my kitchen sink. From there I can look out the window and up the driveway, keeping track of any comings or goings, observing Nature’s ebb and flow while washing and rinsing. It’s my other water view—the one that lets me gawk and ponder the passing of the seasons while being way more useful than when I’m swiveled toward the front yard just staring at the lake.

“Vacation is just another sink,” a friend of mine used to gripe at the end of every summer. She was a mother of six grown children, two of them twins, and our office secretary back before we had to call her an administrator for political correctness. Mostly, though, she was a grumble puss, a glass-half-empty person looking for opportunities to bemoan what she saw as her fixed station in life.

At the time I wondered if she’d ever found herself standing doing dishes in some of the primo spots I knew and appreciated. Had she heard loons calling over her shoulder while Rangeley balsam wafted over her soapy hands? Was there ever a beagle beside her circling for crumbs, softening her heart more than her two-legged beggars? Did she ever vacation where she had to do dishes without a sink and swear if, by some act of grace she got a sink, she’d never complain again?

Back when I first heard the vacation-sink observation, I thought having a camp by the lake–plus having a working sink in the camp by the lake—would be the vacation of my dreams. I had the camp part, a rustic A-frame on the northern tip of Moosehead. I sort of had the sink part, too. I’d recently graduated from perching a large Rubbermaid Roughneck dish tub on my kitchen counter to an actual sink installed in the counter. Except for the drip bucket under the drain pipe that often became a cenote for sacrificial mice, the arrangement was a much better alternative for holding water. But, when it came to running water, the mechanics of getting it into the sink by way of the faucet, my first camp setup left a little to be desired. The only running water I had was the kind I got (or hoped my husband would get) by running down to the lake with a bucket.

Fast forward a few years to my newly-built but still rough Rangeley cabin. So thrilled was I by the promise of indoor plumbing, I didn’t really mind reverting back to the old Roughneck tub for a bit. It was way before the time the girls would want to live in the shower, so they didn’t care that I swabbed Spaghetti-Os off them with giant wads of  Wet Wipes. I, however, was psyched beyond belief. Water, warm wet flowing water over my hands and my crusty dishes, was looming closer and closer like an oasis.

“You’re getting hot running water at camp?” my mother-in-law asked in astonishment. “All those years on Great East Lake, I only had cold water coming out in the kitchen sink. Had to heat it on the stove.”

Yup, back in 1988, I was as spoiled as I thought a remote cabin wife could be. Not only did I have lakefront property, I was going to have the luxury of bringing some of that lake water into my basement, heating it up, and gushing it into my brand new sink on demand! Seems like just yesterday I stood by the Sears “almost-the-best” stainless steel sink sitting inside my plywood pre-countertop next to the Coleman stove that was about to be put into hibernation. I was holding my breath, praying for water to pour forth. Thanks to my husband and the wizardry of hydraulics he was overseeing outside–where a hundred feet of hose came up out of the lake, through the cellar window and into the pump tank–we were ready and waiting. Finally, on his third try priming the pump, the spigot let forth all its pent up air and whoooosh sent a glorious torrent splashing and sputtering inside the sink.

That was more than 20 summers ago. But I still feel the same inner release, the same
liberated feeling over knowing it is possible for me to listen to loons or watch hummingbirds hover inches away white I’m rinsing crusty pots clean down to the
shine. My vacation sink is now my everyday sink, the one I’m glad to come home to, even after taking hiatuses now and again to some pretty sweet condo sinks in the Caribbean.

“All done up there?” I can still hear Tom hollering from his plumbing control center in
the basement. “Can I shut it down?”

It would be this time of year, time to shut down the water, close up camp and head down the mountain till May. “Yeah,” I’d yell back, taking one last swipe at the counter with my sponge. “Done with the water. You can shut ‘er down.” I’d look out at the hummingbird feeder dangling in the wind and hope none would come by first thing in the spring before I’d have a chance to fill it up again.

Now I’m happy to stay put, standing at my newer, shinier sink that fills with well water. I can look for as long as I like—through the yellowing birch branches to where I used to haul a “camp stuff” box out to the car, interrupting the flow of my best possible life for the cold months ahead. ‘Course, what’s not to be happy about, now that I’m living my best possible year-round life in Rangeley AD (After Dishwasher)? I grin each time I grab the box of dishwasher detergent out of the old Roughneck tub in the cupboard and know that, even if I wanted to roam far and wide, I couldn’t find a better place to hang my towel.

Letting myself stay

The first time I remember being concerned about how much older really old folks were, I must have been about four. “How old is Nana?” I asked my parents.

Their answer was way, way out of my arithimetic comfort zone. “Fifty-eight.”

At first, I just frowned and tried to comprehend that number. I knew I had six marbles in my little drawstring pouch and that each Sky Bar came in four sections. Anything beyond that was as bewildering as adding up all the stars in space. Then I got scared and burst out crying. If my grandparents had been around for whatever that forever-sounding number was, I knew they must be ready to die any minute.

Fortunately, I was too busy being a kid to worry myself for very long. After all, my parents weren’t upset that their parents had one foot already in Heaven. And Nana was always smiling. Plus, she had soft, crinkly, Nana skin on her hands and arms that I found oddly comforting. It wasn’t until early grade school had broadened my mathematical reach that I questioned old-age relativity again.

“How many birthdays have you had, Mommy?” I asked.

“Thirty-four,” she answered.

This time I didn’t cry. But I was still pretty darn scared. “Gee,” I said, “that’s even more than the number of days I have to wait between Thanksgiving and Christmas!” Of course, I desperately wanted to be older myself. Not as old as she was or, Heaven help me, my grandparents—just a year or so wiser, taller and worldly enough to hang with the “big” kids.

During middle school, when the desire to age myself out of braces and away from bullies had become a constant daydream, I overheard a conversation that made me ponder the wisdom of wishing away time. “Tammy’s got a tummy!” my mom announced moments after we were driving away from visiting family friends. Not a caddy woman by nature, Mum was delighted to discover that her once skinny college pal now had a mid-life paunch, especially since she could make the observation into a taunting little rhyme. “Yup,” my dad concurred from behind the wheel. “She let herself go.”

“Go where?” I remember wondering from the back seat. Not to the mall or the beach, it didn’t sound like. And with emphasis as much on the letting part as on the going part of his statement, I knew there was a great deal of loss of control implied. “She let herself go,” he said again with authority. Suddenly that other mother went from a cool mom with a great backyard who bought the good kind of chips to Mrs. Tammy Tummy.

“Could she have hung on?” I began to ask myself as a teen when I’d hear my dad make the remark. “And why is it always a she?” I drew a mental picture of a poor woman teetering on the brink of 40, hanging onto a wimpy branch for dear life while nature’s relentless pull raged just beneath her like a waterfall. One moment of weakness, one lapse in concentration and…woosh…away she’d go to the point of no return. I started checking out my mother with a whole different eye. Blessed by genes from the tall, lanky side of the family, she was still a bean pole, but for how long? Would I get some sort of a warning that she was slipping so I could somehow give her a heads up? Or, would Dad just pronounce her gone when she was too far downstream for help? And, when I got to be her age, would I instinctively know how to muckle onto the branch where she let go?

In hindsight, I think it’s a good thing women in my mother’s generation didn’t know what we know now. They hit 40 back before coed gyms, body mass calculators, and good carbs versus bad carbs. Back then, if anybody’s mom said she was “working out,” she meant in the garden, not spotting you on the weight bench. So, they could let gravity and lower metabolism take over without the added torment of Dr. Oz or Dr. Atkins telling them they had only themselves to blame. Healthy eating meant ordering a Fillet o’ Fish with small fries and no shake. There wasn’t Biggest Loser Bob showing you how to take charge of your own proactive lifestyle, how to get up off the couch, elevate your cardio and steel your abs. There was Jack LaLanne doing a few jumping jacks with you in front of the TV. And, if that didn’t do the trick, you couldn’t turn on an infomercial and know that a Spanx body shaper would answer all your prayers. You were just incredibly grateful panty hose had been invented so you didn’t have to squeeze your shape into a real girdle like your mother did.

“Joy’s keeping herself up real nice,” I overheard my dad telling one of his fishing buddies  when I was almost 40. By then, the remark should have gotten him slapped, sued, or both, but I took it as a supreme compliment. I was forever bemoaning my slant toward the short, stocky side of the family and beginning to wonder if the dryer was shrinking my jeans. Suddenly everyone, including me, was jumping around the gym in their Reeboks and ripping the skin off their baked chicken. Still, it seemed harder and harder to not get sucked under, into the flow of middle-aged complacency. But then I’d think about Mum and lift my real self above those troubles. As it turned out, she didn’t let herself go. Before she had time, she got swept away by an undetected “defect” she’d been born with and would have been powerless to hold in check. She never suffered, though, and left with a smile, a teeny pot belly on her lanky frame, and the very beginnings of Nana skin. Nana herself, on the other hand, ended up living way longer than I originally predicted. While in her seventies, she’d waged war with her short, stockiness and shrunk herself about five dress sizes by eating little but plain yogurt and Melba toast. Even if she had let herself go, though, or had stayed gone, it didn’t matter. Soon after, she forgot where she was completely, how she’d gotten there, who was with her, or what she’d had for breakfast before leaving.

Dad who, ironically, was the patriarch of stockiness (or, as he called it, barrel chestedness)—became a gym rat later in life. When he wasn’t out fishing, he was horsing around weights at the health club, keeping an eye on whether or not the women in Spandex were letting themselves go. He’d puff out his chest, flex his biceps and say, “Not bad for almost 70!” But his coronary arteries did not agree. Eventually, all his pre-Dr. Oz years of letting himself eat whatever he wanted took him down at 68.

Dad watches me, though, I can feel it. And, hopefully, he still brags. Mum was with me, too, as always, when I celebrated a landmark birthday the other day. I’ve now lived ten years longer than she did, as much by hanging on as by letting myself stay in the moment. I remember them when I turn down chocolate in favor of carrot sticks. But I think of them just as vividly when I decide to say yes to a pair of “just because” earrings or to savoring every last bite of cherry cheesecake. They’re my hiking buddies, now that I’ve traded my gym membership for long walks along the lake they brought me back to. “We’re doing just fine,” I tell them as my heart gets pumping and I take deep breaths of Rangeley balsam.

My daughters concur. They’re keeping an eye on me for any signs of slippage and they swear I don’t need pleated pants or a swimsuit skirt. They tell me I “don’t even look scary yet” in my underwear. And, if I promise to not start wearing bright pink lipstick, they promise to warn me when it’s time to give up the hair dye and let myself go grey with dignity. Plus, best of all, they’ve taken the opportunity to keep me young and run wild with it like I never could with my mother. I’ve decided, with their help, that the Nana skin on my hands looks just as wonderful gripping a fishing rod against a West Kennebago sunset as it does wrapped around a roller coaster handle bar at Six Flags, screaming like a 12-year-old, and hanging on for dear life.

Surprise visitors

“Yep, I seen it. Long about dusk, it come creepin’ alongside the woodshed, eyes shinin’ through the trees. Wasn’t actin’ like any racoon, no suh!”

Tales like this are the stuff of cabin folklore and, since staying at a tiny camp on Moosehead Lake as a little girl, part of my family history. The locations and casts of characters have changed a bit through the years, but the common story line runs the same. Some “thing” is in your woods, coming toward your cabin, getting closer. Once it’s in your driveway, if you have a driveway, it is officially a visitor or a trespasser. A common property boundary nearly everywhere, a driveway leading up to your lake place takes on heightened significance as a line of demarcation. When there is something in the driveway and it’s not your car, not the CMP guy, not your expected company, or not even approaching on two legs, the actual driving right down to your cabin luxury you were so proud of when you carved that dirt path through the trees turns into a mixed blessing. While whatever it is uses your access route to get closer, it blocks your escape route over dry land!

The best ever nail-biters are stories in which some critter has approached totally without warning, ambling up whatever path leads it toward you, on to your porch. It’s on the porch, snuffling and scratching, inches away from your last barrier between fleeing or fighting for your life — the door inside!

“I heard it come up on the porch, so I peered through the window in the front door and saw its neck fur in front of me! I figured it must have stood at least six feet tall. I looked around for what I could grab in case it tried to bust down the door and all I had was a fire extinguisher and a shovel!” (Infamous bear on the front porch story as told by my dad; Moosehead Lake; circa 1962).

With stories like this woven through my psyche, and buried memories of lying in a bed a couple feet away from the front door where the bear on the porch was showing his neck fur, I try to be vigilant about knowing who or what is approaching my space. Even so, poor vision, and slothlike reflexes usually render me defenseless, peering at any intruder with, as my dad put it, “a dull vacant stare.” Such was the case last Friday as I stood in my kitchen, cozy in my fuzzy pants, planning nothing more exciting with Tom than hanging up the picture I just bought at the blueberry festival. But suddenly, the beagles were bellowing and there was something on the porch, something that hadn’t even come down the driveway, something that was at the door and had already found a way inside!

When I saw who it was, I froze, helpless. BECKY?!! How did Becky, my Outward Bound instructor, world adventurer, based out of Moab, Utah (when she happens to be indoors) daughter get into my kitchen in Rangeley? Wasn’t I just talking to her on the phone last night about the hot weather “out there?” My expression lapsed to another one of my dad’s favorites: the “close your mouth you’ll catch black flies” face. One of those surprised people whose reaction didn’t quite measure up to what the surprise perpetrators had hoped, I didn’t shriek or flail, jump, or fall over. All I could muster was a few stammered half-questions. Thinking back on it now, I remember my mind racing wildly and my thought process going something like this:

  • I know I have a special maternal connection to Becky and her sister that transcends time and space. But try as I might, I don’t think my super powers can materialize her in my kitchen, even if tomorrow is her birthday.
  • Is she alright? She’s just come off leading a 23-day course hiking the LaSalles and rafting the Colorado and is on the verge of a 50-day course. She’s selected to proctor the fall semester, which is Outward Bound-speak for the person in charge who doesn’t come off the trail the entire season. Did she have second thoughts? Had she gone some sort of desert crazy?
  • When was my last trip to the IGA to get groceries and is it possible I have enough food for her?

Becky, knowing why her mother’s nickname has been Fidget since way before she was born, was quickly over the threshold and answering my questions during a hug with her dad. She wanted a sanity / R and R break before her next assignment. She had flown into Boston the day before, where her sister and brother-in-law, Helen and Jerry, picked her up. She was not in Moab during our last phone call, she was in Portsmouth, talking to me from a hot spot she wouldn’t get a chance to enjoy in Rangeley: a bowling alley. After spending the night at Helen’s, they drove up to the lake, abandoning their car by the road to encroach on foot. They combat-crept through the trees along the driveway, timing their porch landing just right until…..SURPRISE! And yes, she assured, pointing to Helen and Jerry coming through the door behind her laden with plastic shopping bags, they had enough groceries.

“Can I have a Mom hug?” she asked coming over to the sink where I stood, still slack as an empty feed sack. As I grabbed ahold of her for the first time in over three months, she said she also wanted food…..mass quantities of steak, chicken and other non-freeze dried proteins she could eat indoors on a plate. She wanted PBRs (college-speak for cheap beer) by the lake. And most of all, after spending most of her birthdays since she was a teenager out on the trail — missing her family from Grand Teton to the Kennebec River and many points in between — Becky wanted to be home for her birthday.