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.

Portraits of Thanksgiving

Back in my teens and early twenties, I thought posing for the family Thanksgiving photo was kind of annoying. Just about the time I’d be digging into my carefully allocated favorite foods—while declining any not-so-favorites still circling past me in the hopes I’d free up some precious plate space—the request would be made. “Look up…over here…and smile everybody!” I’d oblige, mid-mouthful, smiling just enough to not mess up my spearing and shoveling momentum. Even when I became a hostess rather than a guest, I’d pause only for a half-seated pose, saying “cheese” then “Who wants more gravy?” mid-route back to the kitchen.

“What’s the big deal?” I wondered silently. “We all know what we look like. Besides, I already have a shoe box full of these different-year-same-diningroom-table-type shots.” And then, I found the old Polaroid.

Sometime in early motherhood, the little girl things I’d taken for granted became vitally important pieces of a legacy I needed to preserve. And the decades of old Polaroid pictures hiding in the shoe box were treasures worth sharing with my girls. Way down on the bottom, we found one of my first Thanksgivings captured in black and white.

The year was 1958. Nine of us are seated around my Nana’s table: myself, my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, my sister, my mother, and my grandparents. We’re all in various stages of spooning and serving and planning out second helpings when the camera froze us for a happy, hectic instant. I am two-and-a-half, perched on a step stool beside my Nana in a frilly dress I still dimly remember. My mother, seated on my other side, has just turned 30. She’s beaming a wide, relaxed smile while her arm is poised like a safety spring to hold me, her youngest, from toppling over and taking the holiday festivities down with me. Nana, looking over her shoulder with a hasty grin, seems to be saying something like: “Hurry up and take the picture before everything gets cold!” The only evidence of my Dad in the portrait is the burst of his flash bulb in the upper corner of the mirror hanging over the table. Below, three generations of heads turning toward the photographer’s light for a few immortal seconds, are reflected in the mirror, too.

Like all middle-aged moms, I have special Thanksgiving prayers about family and food, love and well-being. Before saying them, though, I think back to that old Polaroid print. It’s in the scanning of the grey setting that my here and now becomes vivid, because all the adults—the grandparents and parents posing at that Thanksgiving table—are now gone. After the flash bulb burst and my Dad sat back down, we all went back to our steaming plates, blissfully unaware that most in our precious gathering would, one by one, be leaving the table way too soon. I imagine my Mum looked up from her holiday feast thinking she was posing for just another snapshot. How could she know she’d already lived two-thirds of her short life?

The photo from 1958 is now archived somewhere in the moving boxes I have yet to unpack. Someday, I’ll take it out of the shoe box and preserve it like it really deserves, stuck for posterity amid the prints of my daughters’ birthdays, holidays, vacations and everything in between. By mid-February, I figure, I’ll be more than ready to take up scrap booking to get myself through my first Rangeley winter. Meanwhile, I’ve got a  slide show playing in my head of the most memorable year of my life. It’s been another year of challenge and loss, of beauty, hope and abundance, of my wildest dreams unfolding before me. This Thanksgiving, as I pause, smile, and really look at my family around the table, I will celebrate being there with them. I will give thanks for my daughters, now grown into beautiful, strong, amazing women who mother me back while keeping me young at heart. I will commemorate this year as one of great balance, of growth and simplification. While my home and lifestyle became comfortably smaller, my world once again includes my sister and my niece. And I’ve gained a new love and understanding for Tom’s brother and sisters, making my extended family closer than ever. I will give thanks for all of them, especially Tom, my husband and forever friend—the center of my beautiful collage. I will sit still for the annual picture, aware that it IS a big deal, being another year older sitting around the same old table.

I will never lose sight of my old Thanksgiving Polaroid. It’s a necessary backdrop for me. In contrast, though, my here and now is too vibrant for me to dwell on portraits of my life gone by. Spirit willing, I picture myself in my 80’s surrounded in living color by my family and friends, focused on the blessings right in front of me.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Be blessed.

(For more on Thanksgiving, see Quirky Turkey.)