Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Last paddle

Note: The members of my writing group decided to all write to the same prompt this month ("Last time") and share our writing at tomorrow's meeting.

I change out of my jeans, into an old pair of shorts that I keep at camp, and my purple flip-flops, because after a decade of kayaking, I still haven’t been able to figure out how to get into the boat without getting my feet wet. I’ve seen other people do it (most of them younger, more flexible and athletic than I) hopping in and out of kayaks with ease, on beaches, docks, floats, and rocky shores, but whenever I’ve tried it myself, I’ve been unsuccessful and ungainly, and the attempt has always resulted in getting far more than just my feet wet. Now, in mid-November, although the air temperature hovers around 60 degrees on this sunny, windless day, the water is far too icy to risk a dunking.

At first I try to leave Remy behind, shut in the camp, but as I wrestle my paddle and life jacket out of the shed, I can already hear his inquisitive yips begin to turn into a shrill whine of panic. I had hoped he’d settle down on the couch and sleep, the way he did in the summer when he was left inside alone, but I’ve underestimated his powers of reason. He knows we’re not living there anymore, so he’s sure he’s been abandoned. I relent, and figure I’ll keep close to shore and let him run along in front of the closed-up camps. I’m a little nervous about being out very far in that cold water, anyway, and I decide to actually wear my life jacket, instead of just stuffing it into the front of the boat.

Remy, as it turns out, doesn’t want to run along the shore. He wants to swim behind the kayak, but he’s already done so much running around, and fetching his ball from the lake, that I worry he’ll become exhausted. So I stay so close to the shore that he can half-swim, half-wade, and I have to continually duck the overhanging hemlock branches.

When we reach the shorefront of my brother’s camp, five doors down from ours, Remy climbs out of the water. Apparently remembering the bowl of cat food he raided dozens of times last summer, he barges onto the screened porch through the inward-swinging door, then finds himself stuck there, unable to get back out. Without even a dish of cat food for consolation, he begins immediately to bark and howl, and I’m afraid he’ll plunge through the screening before I can struggle out of the kayak, splash over the rocks, and clamber up the bank to let him out.

I decide a ten-minute paddle is enough and head back to camp. After all, I’m only out here for bragging rights. My first paddle of the year was on March 24th, the day after ice-out, and now I can say I kayaked from March til November.

I replace my paddle and life jacket in the shed, drag the boat out of the water, lug it onto the screened porch. Inside the chilly camp, I change out of my shorts and flip-flops and back into jeans and sneakers for the walk out the road to my car. It’s only four o’clock, but the sun is already slipping down behind the mountain as I draw the shades down over all the windows. I take a last look around in the half-light, whistle for the dog, and lock the door behind me.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sitting right here, watching the leaves turn color

One year, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, on the evening before we were to leave to return to Connecticut from Maine at the end of the summer, as we ate our last camp supper on the screened porch, my mother looked out at the lake and said, in an almost defiant tone, “Some year, I’m going to sit right here and watch the leaves turn color.

I was a teenager—self-absorbed, unsympathetic, dismissive. I wasn’t thrilled about leaving camp, either, but hey—at least I’d get to see my friends, and school might not be too bad this year, and there would probably be some boy on whom to develop an unrequited crush. It was the end of the summer, not the end of the world.

A year or two later, as we were packing up to leave again at the end of another summer, my mother sighed. “This year was going to be the year when I would get to sit right here and watch the leaves turn color.” It must have been 1974, the year my father would have turned 62, the year he would have planned to retire and move back to Maine. They would have stayed on at camp as long as they wanted to that fall—sitting right there, watching the leaves turn color—then relocated for the winter to the snug little year-round home “on a hill in Bethel” that they had always talked about.

Fate, in the form of unexpected widowhood, then my (equally unexpected) arrival, intervened. My mother eventually did retire to Bethel, in 1982, but I don’t think she ever really did get to “sit right here and watch the leaves turn color.” She plunged directly into a hectic retirement schedule that included volunteering, church activities, bridge club, and babysitting (she was “Gramma Wight” to half the families in Bethel), and by Labor Day it was time to get back to her house in town before things fell completely apart without her.

Now that I live three miles away from camp, I’ve been pushing back against the end of summer just a little harder every year. Last year we moved home from camp on September 29th, and we’ve already beaten that by over a week this year. Of course, we’ve had a fire going in the woodstove almost steadily for several weeks, and we’ve probably burned at least two cords of wood that should probably have been earmarked for heating our “real” house during the “real” heating season. But when you’re married to a logger, wood seems cheap and plentiful (it’s not, really) and it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to heat a drafty, uninsulated summer camp in order to squeeze a couple more weeks from the season. (Next year, we’re thinking, with some insulation in the roof and walls, we could target November first. In the more distant future, with new windows, and some heat tape on the water line, could we make it to Thanksgiving?)

We’re planning to move home this coming weekend—really! I know I’ve been saying that for the past two or three weeks, but every day I see something—a sunset, a flock of noisy geese, the full moon reflected in a lake that’s as still as a mirror—that makes me think, if we had moved home yesterday, we’d have missed this. Life is so much simpler here that it’s hard to think about leaving.

 Besides, I’m doing it for Mom…sitting right here, watching the sun set. And the moon shimmer on the water. And the leaves turn color.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

How to bake a blueberry cake like Gramma Wight’s

Start with the berries. Go down to the edge of the lake and pick two cups of berries from the clump of wild high-bush blueberries that has (without fuss or fertilizer, attention or interference) been producing berries for pancakes, muffins, and cakes for more than half a century. 

If you tie a cut-down plastic milk jug around your waist with a piece of clothesline rope, you’ll be able to use both hands to pick; this is good.

Go barefoot, and wear shorts, because to pick the ones on the lake side of the bush you have to stand in the water.  (Gramma Wight did not wear shorts. She wore skirts. I do not wear skirts at camp--or anywhere else, for that matter, if I can help it.)

The best time to go is early in the morning, because if you get there before the sun burns off the dew, there will be fairy dresses to admire, stretched between the branches of the bushes and spread out on the little patch of grass behind them.

Use Marjorie Standish’s Melt-In-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake recipe, from her first cookbook, Cooking Down East. Marjorie says this is "undoubtedly the most popular recipe ever used in my column." There is good reason for that. I modify it with the addition of a crumb topping, because who doesn’t like a nice crumb topping?

You’ll need: two eggs, separated; a half-cup of shortening (next time I might experiment with using butter instead, but today I went with Marjorie’s recommendation and used Crisco); a cup of sugar; a teaspoon of real vanilla; a cup and a half of flour; a teaspoon of baking powder (I like Rumford brand because it’s aluminum-free—no weird aftertaste); a quarter of a teaspoon of salt; a third of a cup of milk; and two cups of blueberries. (I just realized that the recipe actually only calls for a cup and a half, but I used two because I had them, and it came out just fine, with a lovely amount of blueberry taste.)

Separate the eggs and beat the whites until stiff. It’s best to use your mom’s old Pyrex mixing bowl for this; the red one should be the right size. Add some of the sugar from the recipe to the beaten egg whites to keep them stiff, about a quarter of a cup.

Cream the shortening in a bigger bowl; the yellow Pyrex is perfect. Add the sugar, vanilla, and egg yolks and beat until nice and fluffy. 

Sift together your dry ingredients, but first, mix a little of the flour from the recipe with the berries so they won’t settle to the bottom of your cake; a couple of teaspoons should be enough. Add your dry ingredients alternately with the milk. Gently fold in the beaten egg whites and then, even more gently, the blueberries.

Spread the batter in a greased 8” x 8” pan. Marjorie says to sprinkle the top lightly with granulated sugar, but I do love a nice crumb topping. So mix half a stick of softened butter with a quarter cup of brown sugar, a half cup of flour, and a half teaspoon of cinnamon. Use a pastry blender—that ancient one with the crazily bent wires that was brought to camp fifty years ago because it wasn’t “good enough” for home.

Sprinkle the topping onto the batter and bake it at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes, or until it springs back when you press the center.

Put it on a cooling rack on the table to cool. Add a note so everyone knows you didn’t make it for a bake sale or something. Don’t let the dog eat it—a friend tells me consuming blueberries has dire consequences for the canine intestinal tract.
 If you’re lucky, there will be a piece left for you when you get back from your meeting.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Governor LePage should be ashamed of himself

I started this as a letter to the editor after reading this morning's Lewiston Sun Journal, but (surprise!) it got way too long (250 word maximum? Really? At 250 words, I was just getting warmed up) so I'm posting it here instead. It won't be read by thousands, but just writing it made me feel a little better.
Governor Paul LePage is an embarrassment to the state of Maine.

Since running for election less than two years ago, he has thumbed his nose at President Obama (saying he’d tell him “to go to hell”), at the NAACP (“tell ‘em to kiss my butt”), at state workers (calling them “about as corrupt as can be”), and, repeatedly, at the people of Maine.

He dismissed concerns over the chemical additive BPA in consumer products, joking that “it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards.” 

He opposed the removal of the Great Works Dam on the Penobscot River, saying, “It’s irresponsible to be taking out hydro dams,” and refused to attend the ceremony marking its demolition. This, despite the fact that conservation, recreation, economic, and energy interests all hailed the agreement that brought about the dam’s historic removal while providing for power-generation upgrades to other existing dams. 

He banned the state fire marshal’s office from testifying at the hearing on lifting the ban on the sale and use of fireworks in Maine. Apparently he didn’t feel that the concerns of State Fire Marshal John Dean, who opposed the bill to legalize fireworks on safety grounds, were relevant to the hearing. 

He initiated cuts to child-care subsidies under both TANF and Head Start, as well as cuts to the home-visiting program under the Fund for a Healthy Maine. These programs specifically target low-income parents who are working or attending school in an effort to attain self-sufficiency for their families (i.e., get off of assistance programs), and families at high risk of child abuse, neglect, and substance abuse.

Now, in a blow that undermines the incredibly hard work of Maine people, LePage has frozen funding for the $400,000 matching grant awarded to the town of Norway under the Communities for Maine’s Future program. This funding (approved by Maine voters in 2010 as part of a $25 million bond initiative) was earmarked for the renovation of six storefronts in Norway’s historic Opera House, a $1.1 million project that was slated to go out to bid in the next couple of weeks.

Is Governor LePage aware that a group of committed citizens in the Norway area have been working for five years to bring about this renovation project? 

Is he aware that the purchase and stabilization of the Opera House—an 1894 structure that is part of the Norway Historic District, and was, until recently, in imminent danger of collapsing onto Main Street—was made possible by a $200,000 private donation from residents Bill and Bea Damon? 

Is he aware of the tireless fundraising and countless volunteer hours that have gone into helping to get this project off the ground—and that in service to the endeavor, those volunteers employed such diverse talents as scrubbing, scouring, trash removal, staple-pulling, jewelry design, and musical composition?   

Is he aware that delaying the CMF grant funding—which, under state law, he will eventually have to release—could jeopardize the matching federal and state tax credits, which are essential to the project and are due to expire next year? 

Is he aware that this project is aimed at providing jobs, encouraging new business, and revitalizing a historic downtown area? Exactly what does the governor think it means to be “open for business,” anyway?

Governor LePage’s inappropriate behavior and off-the-cuff remarks may be merely an embarrassment to our state, but his ignorance, obstinacy, and arbitrary heavy-handedness are a danger to our future. As a friend commented, “One could say that he is a joke, but this is much more serious than that.”

Friday, June 22, 2012

WWW@100: A Dad’s Legacy

Today is June 22, 2012, and it’s a momentous occasion. Who knows why? If you guessed because it’s the 76th birthday of Kris Kristofferson (the man I consider absolutely the best American songwriter ever and, yes, the man on whom I’ve had a serious crush for forty years), you’d be only partly right. Today is also the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of my dad, William Walton Wight.

Dad was an amazing man. He was talented, smart, and capable. He could build anything, fix anything, figure anything out. He loved poetry and liked to quote it, especially Robert Frost, Robert Service, and Holman Day. He was born in Oquossoc and raised in Bethel and he was the quintessential Mainer—practical, resourceful, and outdoorsy—until the day he died, even though he spent the last half of his life living in exile in Connecticut.

He liked people, and they liked him. “Everyone loved your father,” my mother once told me, a touch of bemusement in her voice. (No doubt she felt a bit mystified, a little wistful—the sentiments with which we introverts regard those Others: the ones who light up a room, whose personalities draw people to them and effortlessly hold them enthralled.)

My dad worked hard at his job—he had majored in metallurgical engineering and worked at Pratt & Whitney Small Tool in West Hartford—and, with a partner, he started his own small metals heat-treating business on the side which, remarkably, still exists today, more than 60 years later. (While he was involved with the company, it was very much a shoestring operation—he used to bring metal rods home and get my mother to temper them in her oven.)

But as busy as he was, there was never any question that his first priority was family. He took my four older siblings hiking, camping, and rockhounding. He helped lead my brothers’ Boy Scout troop. They all built a wooden boat together from a kit—it, too, still exists today. They played Scrabble, did jigsaw puzzles, went
to church, got a family dog.
 And he and my mother brought the kids to Maine as often as possible. They learned the names of all the trees in the Maine woods and all the Maine minerals they found. In the mid-1950s they bought a lot on North Pond in Woodstock and then, together, they built our camp.
In a way, it’s remarkable that I know this much about my dad, when you consider that he died in 1958, more than eight months before I was born. But it’s a testament to his legacy, to the far-reaching influence he has had on my siblings and, indirectly but inarguably, on their children and grandchildren as well.

And on me. I remember asking my mother once, when I was quite young, “How old was I when Daddy died?” She looked confused, and explained gently that he had died before I was ever born. Then it was my turn to be confused. “But I remember him,” I insisted. And it seemed to me that I did. His legacy was to remain a vital part of the family he left behind, during my childhood and beyond—even now, more than five decades after his death.

His legacy is in the wooden boat and the family camp—with his musty suede camp jacket and plaid wool shirts still hanging in the closets. It’s in the fact that by the time we went to kindergarten we could all identify feldspar, mica, quartz, beryl, tourmaline, and—our favorite because we loved the way it rolled off our tongues—lavender lepidolite. It’s in the way, over the years, we’ve all been drawn to the state of Maine—three of us to stay—and the way, I think, we all consider Maine our true spiritual home. It’s in the way we all love the woods, the water, our kids. It’s in every part of our lives.

Friday, April 6, 2012

70 Years Ago Today...

Seventy years ago today, my parents got married. It was a Monday, at 2:30 in the afternoon. (Why they chose to get married on a Monday is a mystery to me; maybe it wasn't that uncommon back then, or maybe the church was tied up every weekend with all the couples who were rushing to get married before the husbands were sent overseas to fight.)

My father was nearly 30, and my mother had just turned 22. Both had graduated from the University of Maine, but they were several years apart and hadn't met there. In fact, although they were both Maine natives, they met, in the summer of 1941, in Connecticut, where my father was working as a metallurgical engineer and my mother was working for the Aetna Life Insurance Company (and living at the "Y" with several other girls from Maine).

From all accounts, it was a whirlwind romance; my mother told me once that my father produced an engagement ring on a Labor Day weekend trip home to Maine, barely two months after they had met. "I said, 'Oh, no, Bill, it's too soon,'" she told me, "and I made him keep the ring until Christmas."

They were married just a little more than three months later, in Bangor, where my mother had grown up, and where her father still lived. For their honeymoon, they traveled to Littleton, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains (yes, in early April!), where they stayed at the historic Thayer's Inn, built nearly a century before.

They snowshoed up the trail to the Flume gorge and took pictures (none of which I am able to find at the moment, but here's a photo of the same place, 70 years later, at approximately the same time of the year, taken recently by my friend Ryan).

On their way back from New Hampshire, they stopped in Bethel to see my father's mother and grandmother, who ran a small restaurant (Farwell & Wight's) together. They strapped on their snowshoes again and hiked up a mountain, to the old Farwell homestead (which the women had abandoned nearly two decades earlier, after both lost their husbands the same year, to move to town and go into business together). There, they liberated an old spool bed, already an antique, which was first theirs, then eventually became my sister's, then my niece's, and is now in the guest room at camp.

They moved into a tiny, boxlike house in Newington, Connecticut, then, after the kids started coming--four of them in the next seven years--a bigger house with a bigger yard (and a sidewalk running all around it--a racetrack for my brothers' bikes). Eventually they moved to Westfield, New Jersey for my father's job.

From my mother's accounts of those years, I think she loved being a young wife, raising her family in a place filled with other young families, baking up a storm ("a pie, a cake, or a batch of cookies, every day"), coffee-klatsching with the other neighborhood wives ("we'd all get together and call in our grocery order, and they'd deliver it to wherever we were having coffee that morning"), taking camping trips in a leaky tent with all the kids and the family's cocker spaniel.

Then in the mid-1950s, itching to get back to Maine for at least part of the year, they bought a lot on North Pond in Woodstock and started to build a camp, and that quickly became a major focus of their lives. My parents always knew that one day they would retire together "to a house on a hill in Bethel," and spending their summers on nearby North Pond was a step in the right direction.

My mother was married for just over 16 years, and was a widow for nearly 46. (I never knew my father, who died a week shy of his 46th birthday, and more than eight months before I was born.) She wore her rings until the day she died, and I believe she always considered herself still my father's wife. The day after my mother retired, in June of 1982, she left Connecticut for Maine, there to stay for the rest of her life (except for her trips to Alaska and Colorado and England and Scotland and France and Germany and Australia...). She started a journal that day with these words: "June 22, 1982--Your 70th birthday, Bill, and a very good day to close out my Milford life and get ready to carry out our dream of retirement on a hill in Bethel!"