Missing Person Report

How does one handle a hole left by an important loved one while attending a special event? I wish I knew. This summer one of my daughters and I traveled from Portland, Maine to Mobile, Alabama for the wedding of my great niece Zelda. She is my brother Steve’s first grandchild. She was born at the end of the year he died. A massive coronary took him at the age of fifty-two. Among his three children, there are now nine grandchildren, including two charming step-grandsons. I was thrilled to be included in the celebration. My dear sister-in-law is now remarried to a wonderful guy who always makes me feel welcome when I visit. He is a Yankee from Boston, so we have a lot in common. My nieces and nephews and their spouses are friendly, as are all the grands. I am the sole survivor of my childhood nuclear family. My parents and brother Wayne also succumbed at a young age to coronary disease. The same illness has plagued me, but I am still here.

            It is sometimes challenging to be in Mobile where my brother lived and worked. I can still feel his presence in the family home. Bittersweet feelings fill me when members of his family take me to Dauphin Island, one of Steve’s favorite places to go to unwind.  Driving into the cul-de-sac that the family house sits at the head of always makes me remember how he stood in my kitchen in Maine and bragged about living on a “cul-de-sac.” He had announced it was probably something we still didn’t have in Maine. Steve and I grew up poor in Central Maine. He was so proud to be able to buy a four-bedroom, three bathroom house in a very nice neighborhood.

            The wedding ceremony was perfect. Zelda was beautiful, elegant, and radiant in her stunning gown. Her groom was adorable. Bridesmaids and groomsmen were lovely. The only thing that didn’t work as planned was when Zelda’s two-and-a-half year old cousin Harlie fell asleep on her mother’s lap during the long mass and couldn’t serve as one of the gift bearers with her dad, aunt, and another cousin. I got teary but got away with it as many guests did as well.

            The reception was another thing all together. My explanations as to who I was confused some of the relatives on the groom’s side, especially one dear southern woman who didn’t realize that Maine was actually still in the United States and not part of Canada. I felt a bit awkward identifying myself as the late grandfather’s sister. It got worse as the dance floor came to life. Zelda was dancing with different male relatives as the custom is. I thought of how Steve had taken dance lessons for his son Rhett’s wedding, so he wouldn’t look bad on the dance floor as he felt he had at Zelda’s mom’s wedding. I had to disappear for a few minutes. Fortunately for me, the women’s room was down a side hall and quite a distance from the dance floor. No one was in there. I could howl in sadness for a couple minutes without alarming anyone. I wiped away the sparse mascara I had attempted to put on for the special occasion and got myself back out with the group without anyone but my daughter missing me. At least I think I did.

            The day after the wedding was filled with updates about who was going to what college, who was on the honor roll, who got an award at karate class, and other important stuff that sweet relatives like to share. We reminisced about past family gatherings and got into silly stories that have been told many times before at reunions. I took time this visit to just simply enjoy looking at all three of Steve’s children being in the same room at the same time with me. This hadn’t happened since his funeral. My nieces live in Mobile near their mother, but their older brother and his family live in Ohio. I worry about being a painful reminder of what had happened twenty-two years ago, but it was wonderful to be there and share this special occasion with them. Still, damn it all, Steve should have been there. He was missed.

True Mainers?

                                    Why would one worry about being a true Mainer?

            Recently, a dear writing friend wrote a blog about being a “true Mainer.” The piece was witty and well written as her work always is, and I chuckled reading it. But it left me puzzled. Now if you met this person, you would think she is about as “Maine” as they come. She passes seamlessly in the small Maine town she lives in. Heavens, she’s married to a born and bred Mainer. As a person who meets the criteria of being born in Maine and having ancestry on both sides who were born here, too, I never have to worry about being a “true” one. I wonder if some of these wonderful people who aren’t realize the negative baggage that accompanies that honor, though.

            Now, first of all, let’s get specific. There is no one “true Mainer” in the sixteen noble counties. There are the people from York and Cumberland County, and then there are those from the rest of Maine. Of course, there are the people from “the county”―Aroostook. Those potato farmers think they’re special, but the rest of us just ignore them. I was sixty-seven years old before I ever stepped foot in that place. By the way, it’s beautiful up there. Getting back to the original division, the first group is close enough to Massachusetts to absorb many of their traits. Heaven forbid! The former group possess the largest city in Maine―Portland, with its huge population of almost sixty-seven thousand people, hotels, and restaurants galore, especially in the highly touted “Old Port” section by the Casco Bay. Greater Portland people feel there is no need to hold any event anywhere else. The year that a state wide writers’ organization held an award ceremony way up in Bangor, they actually had to hire a charter bus to transport people from down there up to that remote Central Maine locale because there was such a backlash of complaints. Don’t get me wrong. Although born in Central Maine (or technically, Southern Central Maine,) I now live in what is affectionately called the Portland suburb of Falmouth. Both of my daughters were born and raised here, so they are perhaps what one could call “urban, true Mainers.” Unfortunately, they carry some of the same Maine baggage that their father and I do when going out of the state.

            The first time I left the state and stayed in a motel, I was twelve, and my mother told my father it was time us children to absorb some culture. We drove down and stayed overnight in Peabody, Massachusetts to hike the Freedom Trail in Boston. All five of us stayed in one room and took turns using the shower which was a treat for a family who lived on a farm with a dry, dug well when weather got warm. I felt like an alien walking those streets. Plus, my mother scared me with constant warnings of don’t speak to those strange people from there. The whole experience left such an impression on me that I still look for that motel every time I drive into Boston on Route 1. Of course as an older establishment, it now boasts hot tubs and hourly rates on its signage. I was too occupied on my first trip out of state to notice that people were probably laughing at the little family dressed in their Sunday best and standing in front of the Paul Revere monument. I wasn’t so naïve five years later when I experienced the Big Apple.

            I arrived in New York City with my then boyfriend who is now my husband, his best friend, and his best friend’s girlfriend who lived in Forest Hills. She was attending University of Maine at Orono like the boys. I was the lowly high school senior. This New Yorker was of the rare out-of-state students at UMO. Armed with my legal-aged cousin’s driver’s license as I was only seventeen, I was thrilled to be where the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was going to be that year, perhaps having sneaked a beer on the way over. The first day we walked the streets of the city, my boyfriend’s best friend wore a huge UMO bench jacket. We were staring up at the skyscrapers when he literally ran into and bounced off the abdomen of a huge NYPD officer who grasped him by the scruff of that jacket and about picked him right off the sidewalk. We were all behind them, also starring up until that happened. I was horrified to see the angrily irritated look on the officer’s face. Then he twirled him around and saw the logo on the back of the jacket. Anger turned to amusement. “Watch where you’re going, farmer!” With that warning, the officer left us shaking his head and laughing. It was then I realized Mainers are treated a little different upon leaving their home state.

            My oldest daughter had the audacity to attend Cornell University way off in upstate New York instead of her legacy school. She was a constant source of entertainment to the big city students there. She was teased about her Down East accent even though I don’t think she has one. Certainly not like her dad and I do.  She was asked if her family had indoor plumbing or cable television. They were surprised that a Mainer could be as smart as she was. Now she was from what is considered an affluent area of Maine, but the wealth she ran into at Cornell astounded her, and she regaled us with stories about it whenever she came home. Being from Cumberland County in Maine, she wasn’t as intimidated by all this as I was at her age. A few brave college friends of hers actually visited us during breaks and were charmed to find our home quite comfortable. Parents of her friends grinned at my husband and I while attending events during such things as Family Weekend at Cornell. I noticed this which gets me to my real point of this whole thing. Real Mainers born in the other fourteen counties of the state have inferiority complexes about it.

            In my now neighborhood, we Mainers count heads occasionally. We are in the minority. Most have moved from other states, most surprisingly from New York. We are corrected constantly by them. We are told one needs to go to at least Boston for decent health care. One neighbor had bagels shipped up from New York for her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. We don’t run the schools right. Our government needs to be updated. We smile and allow them to do this. Many are now elected officials of important things. Don’t you get it? Bragging about being a “true Mainer” because we were actually born here is all we have, and we’re hanging onto it!

Project Pause

                                                Project Pause

For more than three years recently, I had been writing the story of a brave woman who was no longer with us, but she seemed to ride around on my left shoulder. When I saw something about Dunedin, Florida or Greenville, Maine, Vietnam or POWs, or anything about the many controversies from the late 1960s to early 1970s, I would stop and think about how it connected to this person. I reviewed the history of the Vietnam War, watched documentaries about it, and pored over this fascinating woman’s scrapbooks, letters, pictures, and tapes. I interviewed people who knew her. I talked with people who had written about that period of time. I felt close to her even though I had never met her. I wrote about her and revised and anguished over dialogue and details of her story.

            Suddenly this summer, I lost her for a while. In July, I was whisked away literally on a stretcher from my cardiologist’s medical practice to the hospital via ambulance. A triple bypass and valve repair kept me hospitalized for seventeen days. Somewhere in my miasma of fear and anxiety concerning what was happening to me, her presence disappeared. She must have been wise enough to realize I didn’t have the energy for her at that point. She graciously gave me a break. I will admit I didn’t notice or think about anything to do with her as I tried to pull myself back together and come to an understanding of what had happened to me and what I needed to do to recover. One night toward the end of my stay in the hospital, she appeared in my thoughts as I lay awake in the noisy hubbub of the cardiac ward. I imagined the future launch for the book that would tell her story―one that was important to share about the courage of a mother whose son was being kept in a prisoner of war camp in a hopeless military intervention in a country half way around the world from the United States. In my half dream, half daydream, people warmly received the book about Minnie Lee Gartley, and I was elated. I woke up to a nurse putting a medicine cup full of pills in my face. I was informed my blood pressure was sky high. Minnie Lee disappeared again for a while.

            Now at home, I am trying to regain her trust. I am digging back into my manuscript, attending my writing workshops, and talking with beta readers. Armed with a bag of pharmaceutical products, next month I will visit Swarthmore College to do some research in their Peace Collection. I will read journals of Cora Weiss and David Dellinger who both helped Minnie Lee go to Hanoi to get her son Mark. She is back on my left shoulder most of the time. She seems worried about the number of naps I need to take and the slowness of my movements, but she seems glad I’m back. To use one of my mother’s favorite expressions, I have informed Minnie Lee we will finish this book, “Come Hell or high water!” She smiled.

What is the Truth, Anyway?

                                 

            Working on a nonfiction book has allowed me to reexamine a period in history that I actually lived through. The setting of this book is 1969 to 1972, a time that I remember vividly and thought I understood. In 1968 as a sixteen year old high school junior, I had gone to the Maine Democratic Convention as one of the McCarthy Children and cried when he was pushed aside by Humphrey. I thought I was aware of what was going on with the Vietnam War in 1969 as I watched reports of body counts and failed peace negotiations on the evening news. In 1972, I watched some POWs disembark from a plane at Kennedy Airport and hoped the event heralded a big move toward peace. A half a century later, I am dumbfounded by how much I didn’t know about what was actually happening. I wonder if others feel the same as more is now being written, or dealt with in films, about this time in our history. Books and films are still being made about World War II that tell us new things about it. It worries me how little we as average people really know what is happening politically now in our country.

            Do many of us really understand that things are happening at a federal, or sometimes local, level behind closed doors that are only open to a chosen few? Politics is about competition, and many things are done to win elections. Once presidential papers have been made public years later, we learn moves were made secretly, not to help bring a war to an end or bring aid to a certain group of people, but to grab a presidential election. We have come to accept the fact that prominent people often say one thing in public and do the opposite in private.

            Media spin is now a commonly accepted fact of life. Has it always been, and no one talked about it? If you have personally never been misquoted in some form of media, you are fortunate. I attended a conference in the mid-1970s as a head teacher of a Head Start program. I was in a group discussing methods of safety restraints and which ones perhaps went too far. Another teacher talked about a mother tying one hand of her preschooler to a counter to keep her away from a hot stove where she was canning. The rope used was long enough for the child to play with toys around her. Teachers in the circle had mixed feelings about the example. I said anything can be detrimental to a child if done for too long. I cited an example of a mother who put her young child in a playpen for hours every day. People seemed to agree that common sense was always needed, and we went on to a different example. A day later in the Sunday edition of the local newspaper, the conference was reported with the headline, “Local Head Start Head Teacher Says Playpens Are Abusive.” It then went on to name me. I had some explaining to do to the county director of the Head Start Program the next day.  Since then, I questioned media quotes of well-known people.

            Along with recognizing the influence of friends and coworkers, I am old and wise enough now to realize that my perspective about a period of time is affected by my experiences, socio-economic status, and political persuasion. For example, what is happening to one social-economic group sometimes has no effect on other groups. Many people are beginning to examine the fact that inequities abound in our country in many facets of life. In the last presidential campaign, I read the phrase “evidentiary truth” in many different places. I immediately thought whose evidence and from what political persuasion and socio-economic strata was this person or people who attained this evidence? Even firsthand accounts of the same event can be witnessed very differently. With the hindsight of fifty years after the Vietnam War, I am reliving three years writing this book with new eyes and different views of notable people of that time. It’s compelling albeit somewhat disconcerting.

Writing about Someone Else’s Mom

                                 

I have accepted a huge writing challenge. One that demands an incredible amount of understanding of a certain piece of history. One that requires trying to conjure through skillful characterization a person I never met. One that needs to be done in a way that allows the reader to understand the significance of what Minnie Lee Gartley accomplished in three short years in the middle of her life. I am honored to be given the chance to do this, but I am also worried about being up to the task.

            The book I’m writing starts in the summer of 1969 and goes to the fall of 1972, during which time I was seventeen through twenty years old. Of course, I was aware of the Vietnam War, fearful for friends with low draft numbers, and horrified by body counts on the news, but I’m afraid I was not aware of so many things that were going on socially and politically around the war issue. The political divisiveness with a Republican president and a Democrat-controlled Senate was something that I didn’t worry about as much as the schism of thought between the younger and older generations. The social movements for peace, for racial and sexual equality were important to me, but they were backdrops to my becoming an adult. After reading and studying this time period, I find there are many, many versions of what actually happened. So many different perspectives and opinions. It makes me question the whole idea of “history” itself.

            In describing my main character, my heroine, I have the help of her son and daughter-in-law, some of her close friends, videos, and her personal notes, testimonies, and talks. I’ve interviewed a brilliant peace activist who worked with her and a charming reporter who befriended her husband and wrote many articles about him and Minnie Lee’s activities. The problem is everyone seems to have a slightly different image of Minnie Lee. Some images contradict other images. Do we all have different versions of ourselves? The mother version, the teacher version, the wife, the friend, the activist? And most important, and what I see in Minnie Lee’s writings, the adversary. She was a fierce one of those. I am struggling to follow her through this quagmire of political and social groups to understand how she moved forward and managed to rescue her son from a prisoner of war camp in North Vietnam.

The whole time I have been doing this project I also have a stern face in my mind’s eye. One of a strong woman from Kentucky who spent her married, adult life in Maine. One who defied her government’s admonitions and went with a peace group to Hanoi in the midst of U.S. bombing. One who looks at me and says, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

Gracie Says Goodbye, a guest blog by Kelsey Grace Gillespie

Grace Says Goodbye

It was only natural that the ghost of Cherie’s mom was glaring at her. Cherie had seen her make that same angry face when she was alive thousands of times. It had gazed at her stonily when Cherie was six and accidentally swore in church, that time when she was twelve and spilled tomato soup all over the couch, and most memorably when she was nineteen and told her mother she was engaged. It was a face of silent judgement. It told Cherie exactly how exasperated her mom was with her, without having to speak a word. Cherie thought it was only right that if her mother’s spirit were to haunt her, she would do so with her best stern glare firmly in place.

Cherie had not been expecting her mom to return to her from the great beyond. She had passed away over a year ago after many years of ill health. For the last few months of her life, Grace had lived with her daughter and son-in-law, occupying a small room on the ground floor of their home. She was ornery and difficult for the duration of her stay, resentful of the fact that she had to rely on “kids” to take care of her. Grace had been generically religious in the way that all women of her generation were. She went to church every Sunday but her daily habits never indicated to Cherie that she was a true believer. It was just something she did because she was supposed to, the same way she curled her hair or wore stockings if she went out. Cherie was laxer in her Christianity than her mother. She had been raised Protestant, but in adulthood had adopted atheism. She was only thirty-three, but nothing in her experience thus far had convinced her of the existence of the spiritual world. It all seemed like wish-fulfillment and nonsense to her. When Grace died Cherie knew that would be it. Her mother was gone. End of story. Or so she had thought.

Jake, Cherie’s tall, patient husband, was a carpenter. They had purchased an old house a few years back with the intent of fixing it up to resell. Grace’s presence had slowed down renovations a little, but Jake hadn’t minded. His mother-in-law wasn’t an easy woman, but she had been through a lot in her life so Jake excused many of her surlier habits. He even enjoyed her company from time to time; Grace had a funny, feisty spirit that made him smile.

Jake gave Cherie some time to grieve after Grace’s passing and then went ahead with remodeling her old bedroom into a bathroom. The house previously only had one bath that was up a narrow set of creaky stairs. Adding the new full bath downstairs would increase the resale value and make it more friendly to visitors. Plus, Jake thought Grace would find humor in her old bedroom’s new purpose so he wasn’t worried about offending her memory. He was, perhaps, slightly mistaken.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about the day Grace appeared. It was a Sunday. A few weeks had passed since Jake had finished the new bathroom. Cherie and Jake had a lazy start to the morning, lingering in bed to read the paper and savor warm cups of coffee. Cherie had hopped up to let Muffin, their old sheep dog, out. On her way back to Jake, she stopped in the new downstairs bathroom. She stood in front of the sink washing her hands when she glanced up into the mirror.

“Holy shit,” Cherie whispered under her breath. Her own reflection was gone. It was replaced entirely by Grace’s critical countenance.

Cherie quickly turned her head to look over her shoulder. All that was behind her was the freshly painted wall. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a second. When I turn around, she thought, it will be my own face. I was just thinking about her because this was her room. That’s all.

She kept her eyes tightly shut until she was fully facing the mirror again. Another deep breath. A split second of blissful blurriness when the possibility of it all being a trick, a joke, a dream of her half-awake mind stayed alive. Then, clear as the sky on a cloudless day, there she was again. An unmoving, solid presence in the small bathroom mirror.

Cherie leaned closer to the image of her mother. Grace didn’t react. She just stood still. Kept glaring. Cherie shook her head, gently at first, then a little harder. Grace did not move. Cherie reached for the tap, thinking maybe splashing cold water on her face would help.

That’s when Grace crossed her arms. Cherie screamed at the top of her lungs and ran out of the room.

“JAKE! Jake, Jake, Jaaaaake! Come here. I need you. You need to see this. Hurry!”

Jake sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of his side of the bed. He couldn’t imagine what Cherie had found that needed his attention so urgently. He gave Muffin a curious look before staring expectantly at the door. Cherie was small but fast, a habitual runner, and she should be popping up from the top of the stairs any second now. When she appeared, long blond hair wild, face pale, he became worried.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“It’s Mom. My mom. Grace. She’s here.”

Jake stayed still, dark brow furrowed with concern as he tried to understand what Cherie was telling him. “Cherie –“ he started to reply, but he was cut off.

“I know. I know she’s dead. But she’s here. In the bathroom mirror. Just staring at me. I tried to shake it off but she won’t go anywhere. Come downstairs and see for yourself.” She leaned towards Jake, grabbing the front of his white t-shirt. He let her pull him upright and then followed her towards the stairs with a chuckle.

Neither of them spoke on the short trip to the first floor bathroom. Cherie paused at the threshold, hand on the doorknob. Her eyes wide, she looked at Jake for confirmation that he was ready for the horrors that might be held within. He smiled at her in a way he hoped did not reveal the laughter he felt bubbling up in his chest but rather reassured her that he was there to support her. She was clearly upset. His wife was normally rational, calm, collected; whatever had happened in this room a few minutes ago had thrown her off kilter. He wasn’t expecting to see his mother-in-law when he walked into the bathroom, but he didn’t want to make Cherie feel stupid or small for believing he would.

She nodded at him. Then took two large, militaristic strides to stand in front of the mirror. Jake stood in the doorway, leaning his head in far enough so he could also see into the glass. Nothing was there, aside from their own reflections. He saw Cherie’s face fall in the mirror first, then turned to look at her real face instead.

Cherie’s mouth opened into a perfect “O” shape. She held it like that wordlessly for a few seconds, then closed it. Jake placed a big hand on Cherie’s shoulder. He rubbed it up and down a few times, then pulled her into his side gently. She still hadn’t taken her eyes of the mirror.

That was when Jake realized she was crying silently. Her cheeks were wet. He leaned down to kiss the top of her head then held himself there for a few seconds, taking in the pleasant scent of her hair.

Cherie wiped at her face, finally breaking eye contact with the mirror. She tilted her face up towards Jake’s. “She was here,” she whispered.

“I know,” he nodded to confirm his belief in her story. “Maybe she was pissed that we turned her bedroom into a bathroom. Doesn’t want people shitting where she sleeps.”

Cherie rolled her eyes at his crudeness, but Jake could tell she was holding back a laugh. She had always liked his ability to ease the tension in a room with a joke. It was part of what made them work so well together as a couple. Cherie may feign annoyance, but not-so-deep-down he knew she enjoyed his sense of levity. She pressed a firm hand to his wide chest. “Or maybe,” he continued, “she came to say goodbye.”

At this, tears began to flow down Cherie’s face again, faster than before. Jake pulled her fully to him with both arms, letting her bury her head in his chest. He stroked her hair gently with one hand.

They stood like that, pressed tightly against one another, for several minutes. When Cherie’s tears finally subsided, she let out a big puff of air. “Or maybe she just likes fucking with me,” Cherie mumbled into Jake’s shirt.

He laughed loudly at this. It would be just like Grace to come back and play a trick on her daughter. She had not been an affectionate mother; that much had been obvious to Jake from day one. But he thought she had loved Cherie in her own unique way. She wouldn’t be the kind to send Cherie a message of comfort after her death, to let her know she was at peace. Grace would use any opportunity to remind her daughter she was always watching even if it meant scaring her from beyond the grave.

“That’s definitely it,” he said to Cherie. They dropped the hug, stepping out of the small bathroom and back into the hallway.

Dad

Dad

            My father was only given fifty-five years on this earth. In that time he was a son, brother, husband, father, uncle, grandfather, boxer, golfer, a builder, and much more. He was also my mother’s caretaker. In 1948, three years into his marriage with my mother, he signed a document that stated she was released from the Augusta State Hospital in his custody, and he was to watch over her.  He kept his promise. He guarded her like a hawk through a tumultuous relationship. Though my mother asked him to leave three times, and sued him for divorce at least two of those times, he always went back to her when she called. He only stopped taking care of her when he dropped dead one hot summer Sunday of 1978. He was helping a neighbor, young Tom Michaud who lived just down the road, dig postholes that August day. Massive coronary. Dead as soon as he hit the ground, another neighbor and cardiologist told us.

            Born in 1923 in Roxbury, Maine, he was the fourth child and only boy in his family. He wasn’t raised as a prince because of this, though. He got up at four every morning and worked the family farm as soon as he physically was able. Bob and Sandy, two huge work horses, were close friends. It’s a good thing they liked him. At sixteen, Albert was a Golden Gloves boxer, weighing in at less than 115 pounds. Bob and Sandy had no reason other than love to let Albert work them. Albert’s father insisted he was needed on the farm, so he brought his wife Gracie to the Grant family home after their wedding and lived there until his father died a couple years later.

            A product of his times, Dad was a traditional sexist who could spout derogatory ethnic names at work and come home and still in his work clothes, do things like hold onto the back of the seat of my bicycle and walk around and around the driveway while I desperately tried to learn to ride. My mother didn’t believe in training wheels. In the few months before his death, Dad was supervising a construction crew of young men. One worker was African American. He became Dad’s favorite on that building site. Dad told my husband and me at every visit about this nice, smart kid. Of course, the free sandwiches didn’t hurt. My mother would scold my father for packing four or five sandwiches into his lunch bucket each morning. She said they couldn’t afford to feed his whole crew.  Dad’s reply was always the same. “Gracie, how can I enjoy my lunch knowing that some of those young lads didn’t have anything to pack a lunch with?”

            One of my dad’s joys in life was having his college educated son-in-law, my husband, tear off    his tie and take a job as a carpenter. He told everyone this young man was smart enough to realize that building was more creative and challenging than any desk job. They spent many a visit talking shop in the barn after that. Dad’s wooden box containing his woodworking tools sits in my husband’s shop even now although on the job John uses electric tools. Sometimes I am still jealous of the close relationship they developed as John seems to remember more things about my dad than I do. Dad was very guarded with his only girl.  I would resort to eavesdropping on conversations he was having with my older brothers to try to understand him better. As a teen and young adult with my brothers off and living their adult lives, I started watching Red Sox baseball with Dad. We loved George Scott, a big bat everyone called “Boomer.” I still love the Red Sox and have always loved their power hitters, probably thinking of Dad as I cheer for them.

            One teaching job I had just before Dad left us was near his jobsite at the time. My car failed to start before school, and I called the house to ask Dad if he would pick me up after he was done work. I planned to correct papers until he came. It seemed to be getting late that afternoon, and I was worried he’d forgotten me as he didn’t appear in the foyer of the school. I walked out to the school bus driveway and found him sitting in his beat-up station wagon he used to drive his tools back and forth to work in. I asked him why he didn’t come into the school. He replied that he was worried I would be ashamed of him in his work clothes. He died a few months later. The funeral director at his wake apologized to me for not being able to get his fingernails clean for the open casket. I remarked sarcastically that he wouldn’t be recognizable with perfectly clean fingernails, and the poor director scurried off. Dad has been gone for forty-two years this past August. What I wouldn’t give to have that man pick me up anywhere while he was wearing his grungiest work outfit ever!

Chronicles of the Head

 

Chronicles of the Head

 

Fifty-three years of changes, and my husband’s head chronicles them the best for me. As I stand at the stove while peeking at John’s head as he naps before supper, I can’t help but think of the hair-raising evolution of this journey.

The head I peer at now is covered with white wisps of curls desperately trying to cover an otherwise pink baldness. The curls give up on the top of his head, and his skull shines through. “Not enough of the crap to pay a hairdresser to cut,” he announced six years ago as his younger daughter trimmed away impatiently at it the day before her older sister’s wedding.

This same head a decade or so ago was covered with thicker salt and pepper hair always too unruly to be kept in a baseball cap. I used to trim it a few times a year then.

Before that a Beatle bob escaped in all directions that was defined by a trimmed moustache. His serious, college-educated, running his own business, but still wearing jeans phase.

A ponytail came before that in a rebellious phase when he pounded nails for some other asshole.

A blonde-streaked, banged do was what he sported when we met in 1967. No moustache. Baby face. Too cute.

Those blue eyes are still shining out on the front of this gray-haired gentleman, but oh, that gorgeous head of hair. Where did it go? It’s bouncing around on our older daughter’s business woman’s head as she rushes off to work in San Francisco, and growing thicker and curlier each day on the head of a darling granddaughter as she bops around at Child Time Daycare. That’s where you’ll find it!

Young Love in Cheap Apartments

Young Love in Cheap Apartments

 

The beehive on Brunswick Avenue was notorious in Old Town, Maine. It was also the site of my husband’s and my first apartment upon marrying in 1971. It worked because it was cheap and close to University of Maine at Orono where we were students. The landlords, dear, elderly Mr. and Mrs. Bosse, had the audacity to rent to UMO students mostly. One young family with two little, tow-headed girls, named Lisa and Terri, snuck in the first floor, front apartment on the right side building. The girls’ dad enjoyed living the college life vicariously through drinking beer in the parking lot with the students. Lisa and Terri begged for the purchase of chips when a beer run was announced, and they usually got them. This couple comprised the only tenants perhaps over the age of twenty-two in the complex.

I never counted how many apartments were in this unsightly, huge conglomeration comprised of an old paper baron house and a makeshift ell, but the whole monster was numbered seventy, with its various letters delineating the individual units. The original old house must have been elegant in its day. An odd wall or unusual corner would make one wonder about the original use of spaces now carved into less than elegant apartments.

My husband and I occupied three different apartments at this unique dwelling over the course of two year. Our first one was an almost two room wonder stuck in the back of the house to the right facing from the street—behind Lisa and Terri’s place. The bathroom was so tiny that on a visit my Aunt Lucy’s 300 plus pound being was difficult to cram in the space between the shower stall and the wall to allow herself to sit on the commode. Thankfully, the cheap tin shower stall bent graciously for her. She did not visit again, though. Our rent was $60.00 monthly, which included electricity and a little bit of heat supplied by an open vent in the middle of the floor of the real room. There was no telephone. Mr. Bosse graciously let his student tenants list his home phone number when applying for part-time jobs, etc. He was delighted to knock on our door and inform me about my job at Grants’ Skillet one fall day. I spent many days later in the months of January and February dancing on top of that heat vent. My husband’s best man stayed with us for a couple weeks as fall semester started. It was a tight squeeze until his student housing came through, and his wife and baby joined him from Calais.

We splurged the next summer on the three room, pent house in the attic of the building. There was a poetic feeling to looking out over our section of Old Town from the tiny windows carved in the roof. Our thirteen inch, black and white television had better antennae reception up higher, and we could actually make out the picture of our favorite show MASH. The heat, derived from the kitchen oil stove, was nicer than what we had in our first apartment, albeit a bit smellier. My mother-in-law declared it was a “deathtrap” as our source of oil for the stove was down a set of stairs to a tank set in the inside hallway. Tenants, including us, would fill canisters and drip oil all over the floors and stairs back to our stoves. We never told Mother about the small oil fire we had in the old stove one morning. We kept that secret and enjoyed an old claw-footed, enamel tub that at the time both my husband and I could fit into.

The penthouse proved to be stifling in the warmer weather, so as soon as possible,  we moved to a second floor, four room unit on the outside of the building. This apartment had the same, old-fashioned funk of our previous ones, but with an added delight. From a kitchen window, one could crawl out onto the roof of a porch that went with the unit below. We spent many evenings in a cheap beer-induced, relaxed pose on that roof as we mulled over what shape our lives would take once we had graduated and grown-up.

In the fall of 1972, we watched in awe as a POW walked off a plane in New York. He was from Maine. I still remember watching that young pilot with fascination. Years later I would not only learn his name but meet him as the husband of a teaching friend of mine. Life goes around in funny circles. I am now writing about this returning POW’s mother and her journey to get him home.

Spirituality?

Spirituality?
When people asked me about my religious views a while ago, I usually played games. Sometimes I said I was a complete heathen. Never been baptized. Had original sin on my soul. Sometimes I joked about how relatives tried but failed to bring me into the fold. At a recent book group, a couple friends told me they thought I must be a lapsed Catholic because of my French mill town home. I got the impression that some thought it would be better for me to be a lapsed “something” than to never have been anything. Religion had always puzzled me. I used to wonder why after sixty something years God had not spoken to me like so many people talk about. It wasn’t that I never tried to hear him. Was it that I was not understanding how this communications works?

A string of negative experiences involving churches had made me bitter about organized religion. For example in grade school, I loved going a Baptist Church in Waterville, Maine. I had friends at Sunday school. I still remember gathering the small communion cups after a service and being affectionately scolded by the minister about the germs involved with sipping the remains in some of the cups before putting them in the trays. He never ratted me out to my mother who would have thrown a fit about it. When I was about ten-years-old, the church committee found out that this dear minister’s wife had experienced a nervous breakdown before being at this church. They proceeded to ask the minister to leave. My mother was furious. She liked the minister’s wife, and she made a fuss at the next church council meeting. We left the church as a result.

A couple years later during my parents’ first separation, my mother’s friend picked me up and took me with her family to a different Baptist Church. I felt like someone’s charity project and begged my mother to stop this. Even later on, my mother and I attended a Nazarene Church for a short while. The church people seemed nice at first. Not wearing makeup was okay with my mother who never put anything on her face except for a touch of lipstick, but when she was told that curling her hair was sinful, she decided that religion was not for us. I still remember riding home with my mom in her VW bug and laughing about walking around looking like an old wash woman for the sake of being pious.
Things bumbled along for me and my attitude toward religion until January of 2000. My brother Steve lay in Cardiac ICU in Mobile after a quadruple bypass. Unfortunately, his brain had been without oxygen for a few minutes too long, and he didn’t regain consciousness. As I sat in the cafeteria of the hospital with my nephew Rhett, I glanced out the window and noticed a beautiful wading bird in the manmade pond in the hospital garden. This egret stood and watched me as I tried to console my nephew. Every time I went get a snack after that first sighting, the bird was there. I walked to the other side of the garden to a small chapel with Rhett. Rhett railed at God about taking his father at such a young age. I looked out the chapel window at the pond and saw the egret standing near the edge looking into the chapel. A couple weeks later, we went to bury my brother in a section of the cemetery in Mobile that my brother’s wife had picked because it overlooked a lovely pond. As the coffin rested on the mechanism that would drop it into the grave, I looked away toward the pond. An egret was at the edge of the pond watching us.
Later that year, I was working with a cousin on a scholarship in my brother’s name. I told her over dinner about the egret. She flashed a knowing smile and asked me to send this story of the egret to her in an email, so she could share it. I didn’t ask why. My epiphany about spiritual communications crashed on me like a high, fly baseball I caught awkwardly. Since then, I have been visited by a cardinal bird couple when writing about my parents. The beautiful, olive green female glances at me tentatively and looks away. She doesn’t stay long. The brilliant red male seems to watch me for long lengths of time. He stays in view of my kitchen window long after his mate leaves. My brother Wayne has not visited me yet. His death was premature and accompanied by many unresolved relationships. Maybe he’s not ready to look for people yet.

A couple years ago, I was walking with my elderly neighbors Ron and Jan. Ron is a retired Congregational minister. Jan is a gregarious minister’s wife. She was entertaining me that day with a story about how she thought she was probably going to hell as she had left the Catholic Church to marry a Protestant. She and I were exchanging sarcastic stories about being doomed when Ron interrupted us. He announced that what church one belongs to doesn’t matter. There is a place in heaven for anyone with a good heart. He looked at me and said he’d seen my heart, and Jan and he would see me in heaven. That was that. We continued to walk, and Jan started fussing about neighbors who didn’t mow their lawn enough. I think I may have been baptized that day by a true Christian soul. Bless you, Reverend Ron.