Dashing, stashing, wedding crashing

‘Twas the day before Thanksgiving and, as usual, the Oquossoc PO was abuzz over hot topics impacting our tiny community. Who was coming to dinner. Who was going away. Who had to cook what for which relative, and who found a new way to spiff up stuffing.

In true multi-tasking mode, I was making the most of my turn at the mail “sorting” station, fishing a couple official-looking envelopes out of the reams of high-gloss junk that, two years later, still finds its way to my cramped cubby hole inside a log cabin post office. I tossed piece after piece straight into the recycling bin, all the while keeping one eye and both ears open to what was shaking “in town” before the big day. “Eat lots of turkey!” folks called as they rushed off to get ready. “Safe travels!” Sending yet another Cabela’s catalog sailing toward the bin, I nodded and smiled. The sentiments would be the same no matter where I roamed. But, while talk of cooking and eating echoed holiday banter most anywhere, up here I know the driving part is a way bigger deal.

“Have a great holiday. Drive safe!” friends called as I headed off to do the rest of my loop. In Rangeley woman lingo, that meant, “If you’re the hostess, may your electricity stay on till the turkey is cooked, and may your family from afar bring all the fresh produce you need. If you’re the one traveling, may you dine in decadence that can only come from a different kitchen, with loved ones all around the table, plus a nice warm bed to sleep it all off in that night. But, above all, be ever thankful you don’t have to go out into the cold and drive back up over the mountain after dark!”

To most well wishers who asked about my Thanksgiving plans, but didn’t have all day to listen to my roundabout answer, I just smiled and said, “You, too! Eat lots of turkey!” I’d be surrounded by loved ones—at a table next to a giant volcano mural with not a scrap of turkey on it. And, while I wouldn’t be driving home after dark, I’d be going way out of the woods, over many rivers, to two airports, and through all manner of toll booths and traffic snarls before heading back up the mountain again.

“What’s that low humming noise?” I asked Tom a couple hours after we’d packed up the Subaru and headed south. He crooked his ear toward the dash and pondered a mile or so. “I think that’s the normal sound a car makes when it goes over 50 and it’s on a paved road,” he concluded.

Good thing highway driving is one of those skills we can rely on to come back to us as needed. By the time dodging traffic gets trickier than pulling over for a logging truck hell bent on its last trip to the mill, and we need our peripheral vision for more than missing moose, we get ourselves re-acclimated. “Cripe, there must be a traffic light every hundred feet or so!” Tom said when we chugged into Rochester. “Did we notice all this stop and go when we used to live down here?”

Yeah, probably, which is one of the reasons we decided to pack it up and move off the beaten track, saving long treks for special family get-togethers or bigger travel adventures. This time, our mission south was special indeed. If successful, we’d eventually get together with family out west, way down south, and a couple points in between. Tom would spend the holiday with his brother in camo out in the Idaho bush, while I’d be with my daughters and son-in-law ‘neath a pagoda in Saugus, MA. But first, Tom had to get to the Manchester airport, and I had to get north again to hold down the fort for a week before coming back down to Logan with daughter #1 (Helen) to fetch daughter #2 (Becky), who’d be flying in from the Bahamas for the weekend to be in her friend Amy’s wedding back in Rochester.

“Phew,” I sighed, pulling down my driveway after the first leg of holiday excursions. “Made it back just before dark!” The trip “uptah camp” was a long pull, especially the stretch of Route 17 between Rumford and Oquossoc when, if I didn’t know better, I’d start to lose sight of what lured me out here. Over the last two and a half years, I’d happily become one of those “can’t really get there from here” folks that people from the other states like to joke about. On the drive back up, as the radio stations went to static and I got too road hypnotized to fish out a CD, I pondered the transformation. Why, I wondered, could I motor for 20 miles into Rangeley to get groceries with a smile on my face, while a two-mile, stop-and-go pass along my old commuting route seemed so out of the way? And why, in comparison, did my long, roundabout ride home—seemingly into nowhere—feel so straightforward? I got my answer as I came around the corner onto the Height of Land and once again squinted down at my little dot of real estate on the tip of a big, wild lake. A few more hills and a bit of long, winding road, and I’d be home.

“If we go past a Walgreens, can we stop for just a sec so I can run in and get some contact solution?” I remembered Becky asking the last time we saw her. It was June and we were in a “busy” section of Portland, trying to find our hotel. Her dad, the driver, did not commit.  And the next day we shipped her out of the Jetport to go live on an”out island” in the Bahamas without a last detour into the corner drugstore. Growing up, she could convince us to drive for hours down logging roads in search of moose no problem. But stopping in the city when we weren’t sure if we’d get “turned around”—now that was a hassle.

I made it up to Becky big time, though. Since she wouldn’t make it farther north than Rochester this visit, I was doing what her island friends called a “mule run.” She’d given me a wish list of all the items she thought she wanted but couldn’t lug down there in June. I’d fish it out of the giant totes up in the garage attic, and bring it to our Thanksgiving day rendezvous. We’d see each other just long enough to stuff her belly with Chinese food and her honkin’ backpack with fresh clothing, and off we’d go our separate ways again till Christmas.

“I miss seeing Dad,” she said. “But I’m glad he’s having a nice time with Uncle Jon.”

“He is,” I agreed, cramming in an egg roll while the waiter served a round of tiki-bowl drinks. “Aunt Nancy’s fixing turkey and all the trimmings.” We’d actually be going back through Rochester right around the time of Amy’s wedding reception, I told her. But her dad would be exhausted, and we’d still have a long way to go to get back home. Good thing she’d have plenty of time to see him at Christmas.

Two days and another airport later, Tom was back in the driver’s seat and I was catching him up on my quirky turkey day with the girls. Maybe I distracted him with my verbal meanderings, or maybe something more significant was steering him, but suddenly we were both wondering how we got off course in the city we’d called home for 30 years. “Why’d I come this way?” he asked.

I shrugged, not sure why he ended up taking the “long way around” either. But when we pulled up to the next stop light, we got our answer. Straight ahead and to the left stood the Governor’s Inn, a Rochester landmark, its parking lot filled with guests who had just gathered inside for Amy’s wedding reception dinner. “I’m going in there,” Tom said, making a hard left, “and hugging my daughter.”

And in we went, standing just beyond the buffet table, searching for Becky. We spotted her as soon as we realized our island girl had turned into the prettiest bridesmaid ever. She found us, too, as soon as she realized the only guy wearing a Mooselookmeguntic hat was her dad–on a short Thanksgiving detour, following his heart back home.

Four stages of Santa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A moving feast

As a woman who prides herself on upholding nontraditional traditions, nothing is more sacred than my holiday feast. No common turkey for me. Christmas goose? No thank you—still too middle of the road. Years ago, I dumped my old standby of beef loin in favor of a bolder, more exotic cut of roast beast(s). Come rain or snow or dark mountain-top delivery, I now must eat Turducken.

Tur(key) + duck + (chick)en = Turducken. It’s a de-boned chicken stuffed into a de-boned duck, which is then stuffed into a de-boned turkey. The turkey drumsticks, breast and outer skin remain, making it look like your iconic holiday main course. But inside it’s a savory mystery of light and dark meats that Grandma never carried to the table unless she came from down on the bayou.  I discovered Turducken on the Food Network, back when cooking/reality shows weren’t a dime a dozen and actually offered some instructional value. I remember the demo having all the boast and swagger of Emeril Live, the intrigue of Man vs. Wild, and the potential pitfalls of a DIY episode gone bad. I took one look at the succulent end-product the chef presented to the camera and knew I wanted to devour some Turducken. I took a longer look at the chef’s three-hour carving and stuffing procedure and knew I wanted it prepared in anyone’s kitchen but my own.

That’s when I found the Cajun Grocer, voted best Turducken source by The Wall Street Journal. Their website got my mouth watering and convinced me that shipping a 15-pound frozen turkey trifecta was a breeze. As long as I observed their holiday delivery schedule from Lafayette, Louisiana, I could savor their signature creation anywhere in the world. I got so fired up, I even went for their spicy seafood Jambalaya stuffing.

The first couple of Turducken Christmases boosted my confidence. Leery that first year that the thing would arrive on Dec. 21 and be rotten come Christmas morning, I since learned that its hermetically sealed, dry ice-packed shipping box kept it frozen till way after oven time if I didn’t unearth it immediately upon delivery. Thawing it took nearly an ice age! I also figured out that: 1) relying on the little pop-up thermometer for Turducken doneness is not a perfect science; 2) despite how it sounds, Jambalaya stuffing juices make for some awesome gravy; and 3) once I served the concentric circles of sliced meat with all their Cajun fixings, my family would come to expect and highly anticipate a repeat performance every year.

Naturally, I planned for Turducken to be the central attraction at my first Christmas dinner in Rangeley. I placed my order on Dec. 9, and went about the rest of my holiday business, calm in knowing I had already checked off my top-of-the-list item. “Been there, done that,” I said to myself, picturing the square styrofoam container showing up on my porch via UPS just in time for my thawing ritual. It wasn’t till mid-December, after plowing through the rest of my online ordering and a couple of snow dumps, that the reality of my new situation dawned on me. The Cajun Grocer’s holiday schedule showed plenty of time for a regular, good old ground shipment to arrive on the 23rd. But the website’s fine print didn’t say anything about shipping to a private road—across a causeway from a long, dirt town road—that eventually led to a post office and a general store. Ground shipments that couldn’t land in my PO box in Oquossoc (or behind my box in the post mistress’ crowded quarters) had to cover a whole lot more ground now that I no longer lived in the flatlands of New Hampshire. Each UPS or FedEx package destined for my side of the lake required tons of lead time, at least two phone calls, a tracking number that was useless beyond Waterville, a neighborhood vigil, and a backup plan in case the thing never showed up.

After consulting the Cajun Grocer website again and cursing myself for picking the Dec. 20 ship option two weeks earlier, I nervously dialed 1-888-CRAWFISH to get help from the Turducken tech support folks. “I really need this to arrive by the 23rd,” I explained, “and I live in a rural area. If I switch to FedEx second-day air, can delivery be guaranteed by then?”

“Certainly, ma’am,” the customer service woman told me in a sweet drawl. My phone number would be printed on the address label so the driver could call if he had any problems reaching my location. Even though I knew she was picturing southern “rural” delivery and not necessarily my snowy landscape, I paid the $17 shipping upgrade and felt relieved.

By the week before Christmas, I had told my story to the woman at the Rangeley  dispatch, central winter dumping ground for most wayward packages. Tom had even gone there to retrieve a couple boxes that, although they got my hopes up, were not my Turducken. He had also been summoned down to the town side of the causeway bridge to pick up another different package off the FedEx truck. With my feast in limbo as I waited for my phone call with drop-off instructions, I understood why the natives resorted to dried venison this time of year. According to the FedEx tracking site, I had poultry in motion on Dec. 20, as promised. But, after that, my special delivery, had become a Tur-TRUCK-en.

The first phone call came on Dec. 22. It was FedEx headquarters in Augusta informing me they would not be able to deliver until the following day. “That’s fine.” I sighed, “Just have the driver call me if for any reason he can’t make it all the way up my road.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am, the driver does not carry a phone,” I was told. No phone? Really? Along moose alley in winter carrying dozens of packages with sketchy addresses? “But my husband just got called by the driver yesterday to go meet him….” Well, turns out, that was the Waterville FedEx guy. My box was on the Augusta truck and the Augusta guy doesn’t use a phone.

The second FedEx phone call came on the afternoon before Christmas Eve. My package was on the truck, but the driver would, unfortunately, not make it to my location that day. Could he drop it off at…(insert an agonizing pause and any number of possible suggestions between here and Augusta)…..the Oquossoc Grocery? “Yes!” I yelled into the phone. My heart soared as I called Tom and Becky, enroute home from skiing at Saddleback, and left a message. “Pick up the Turducken on your way through,” I pleaded. “And if, for any reason, it doesn’t show up, please grab a ham!”

As far as Christmas miracles go, the timely arrival of my Turducken was a small thing in a year filled with blessings. It didn’t require guidance from a heavenly star, just a note to self to back plan better next year. The greatest gift was the family around my table for my first Christmas in Rangeley. We gathered from afar—from over the causeway and through the woods—to eat, drink homemade wine, and top off our feast with pie Tom dreamt about as he picked blueberries back in August. And, of course, we laughed as I told tales of the traveling Tur-TRUCK-en, the latest piece in our rich, but slightly off-center, folklore.

Welcome DecemBear!

Anyone eavesdropping lately would swear I’d already gone woods queer. “So, it’s December 3rd! Do you know where you’re going today, little fella?”

I’m in the diningroom in my PJs, paused at the cellar door on my way to the coffee pot. I’m not talking to Tom because, even though I sometimes use pet names while reminding him of his full social calendar, he’s not my little fella. I’m not addressing the beagles, either. They are, collectively, “big boy” or “littlest guy,” and can only mark the passage of time with their innards. I’m alone, it would appear, carrying on another in-depth conversation with myself—a dialogue I mastered way before moving to the woods. “Today, you need to look outside in the mailbox,” I declare, and shuffle off to get caffeinated.

“She needs a lot more than coffee,” the neighbors would say, “if she woke up thinking somehow we got door-to-door mail delivery in Rangeley Plantation!” But if they looked real close, they’d realize I’m not alone. I’m with DecemBear, a three-inch stuffed teddy who lives with me this time of year. His mission is to search around his house for “the true meaning of Christmas”—checking his mailbox, beside his snowman, and inside each and every room—until at last he discovers it on Christmas Eve next to the tree with the rest of his little bear family. His search starts each December 1st, when he must hang out in each day’s spot until the 24th. It is my mission to see that he’s successful every year, a responsibility I’ve carried on for more than 20 years, through two houses and sending my “little girl” helpers off to college and beyond. I’m not sure what would befall me if somewhere along the way I shirked this duty. What if one year I just left DecemBear rolled up in his red flannel wall calendar in a box in the closet? What if, for a day or two, I lapsed into complacency and didn’t properly position his safety-pin spine? I hate to imagine.

Since moving to Rangeley, I am learning to flow with the seasons, to live by nature’s timetable. Like the first inhabitants of this land, I strive to tune into my internal rhythms instead of relying on clocks or calendars. But, as I said back in Happy Half Anniversary, I do tend to be hyper vigilant about special occasions, and observing my first Rangeley Christmas makes this year ever so special. I also have some quirky control mechanisms that seem to be triggered by the shortening of daylight, making me seek comfort in childlike routines and all things bright and sparkly. All in all, this month finds me pretty far removed from the traditions of the wiser, real Maine natives. They watched moon phases and traded ceremonial wampum. I track a cloth cartoon character hanging off my cellar door. 

Who knows, maybe I missed putting a dime in an advent calendar during my formative years and I got fixated. Then, one fateful Christmas when my girls were little, my mother-in-law made DecemBear from a fabric store kit and my quirkiness found an outlet. At first, I commandeered his travels because the girls were too short to reach the top of his house where it hung on the kitchen wall. Not to mention that a tiny teddy with an open safety-pin sticking out of his back would not have won any “best toddler gift” awards. The girls grew up, went off to college, and I still maintained the ritual. Part of me must have felt that, as long as the little bear made it safely around his calendar house, that meant my “little ones” would always return home, safe and sound, each Christmas, too. As the years went by, putting him up in the attic with the tree decorations became too threatening for me, so I began parking him right in the hall closet behind the coats. Like clockwork, come December 1, I’d take down Helen’s picture from when she won a scholarship and was featured in the newspaper and toss it under her bed so DecemBear could take his place front and center in the kitchen.

More times than I care to admit, I made emergency phone calls from my office back home when she was visiting this time of year. “Hi honey, did you sleep in today? You must be still recovering from studying for finals. Gee…you sound like you’re getting a bad cold. Cough medicine? Yes, that’s in the bathroom cabinet. You should take some right away. And, oh, before you do, could you do me a huge favor and move DecemBear for me? I forgot this morning!”

As you can imagine, finding my little seasonal friend in all the moving boxes was top priority recently. The day after Thanksgiving, I started getting nervous and wasn’t quite myself till I found him, rolled up in his calendar cocoon underneath the stockings and tree ornaments. Phew…all was right with my world! DecemBear had survived storage in the garage and was in the house again!

I know this is not normal behavior. Right now, I’m in denial, immersing myself in a holiday routine that disguises my core issues. I have a real problem, my own form of wintertime “affective disorder.” I suffer from Seasonal Attention to a Decoration (SAD) and I intend to help myself get better…right after the New Year when DecemBear goes back into hibernation.