Monday, November 21, 2011

Over Rivers and Through Woods

The rivers were stern and steely.

The woods dark and bleak.

Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house in Maine was never as enjoyable at Thanksgiving time as it was in the summertime.

Granted, we usually didn't visit Maine during the summers, since the weather then was conducive for my grandparents driving to upstate New York, where we lived when I was a boy.

And isn't there something genuinely American about spending this very New England of holidays in, well, New England?

So my parents would excuse my brother and me out of school on the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, and we'd spend the day driving down the New York State Thruway from Oneida, across the Hudson River somewhere either above or below Albany, through the quaint New England countryside, to the sprawling Piscataqua River dividing New Hampshire from Maine, and on into the lonely, remote Pine Tree State.

By then we'd be approaching dusk. Maine's namesake trees, lining the state's Turnpike like weathered warriors standing at attention, would seem even taller when my father turned off of the freeway - our last link to modern civilization - and onto the even more rural roads leading to Sedgwick, along the rocky Atlantic Coast.

Those spindly, oblong triangles in their shadows of dark greens and grays rushed alongside our car as we bounced over narrow, poorly-maintained roads, pock-marked and rutted by freezing winters and incessantly wet summers.  My grandfather worked for the state's highway department, and it wasn't until I was an adult and I realized how poor Maine was, and how brutal its climate, that I appreciated how the hard work my family claimed he put into his job really was hard, dreary work.  Just to keep the roads as good as they were!

By the time we reached my grandparent's tidy, tiny house between Sedgwick and Sargentville, the sky was inky black.  There were no streetlights, and if there was no snow, the landscape would be as black as the sky, so you couldn't tell where earth ended and the heavens began.

Morning's light - what light there was at this dreary time of year - would reveal a splendid view of the reach, the wide body of water between the mainland and Deer Isle, a couple of miles away.  Even though my grandparents lived across the road and up a broad field from the shore, the view aways captivated me, the rhythmic lapping of the waves and tides almost soothing in their dependability.

Of course, my grandparents did have electricity, but otherwise, visiting them always seemed an exercise in Spartan living.  For years, they didn't have a television - not even a black-and white.  I remember they used to have a party line telephone, which meant than whenever somebody along their line got a call, everybody knew it.  One ring was so-and-so, two rings was Mrs. Somebody down the road, four rings was that family that ran the home heating oil company.  Grammie and Grampa's was three rings.  We had to wait and listen for the number of rings to know if you had to answer the phone, and everybody was on the honor system regarding each other's shared privacy.

We'd have a feast for sure on Thanksgiving day, even if my brother and I were quite bored with those early years of no television.  But then, my own parents didn't buy one until I entered Kindergarten and came home one day, asking them who Mr. Rogers was.

My grandfather had a large tool shed reeking of musty age, with virtually every board built into the place looking like it was older than Moses.  This being near the salty sea, all the iron - from nails to infrequently used tools - were rusty.  But he had fascinating stuff in there, illuminated only by ancient windows with wavy glass that people prize today for its historic aesthetic.  Some of his tools were certifiable antiques, stacked in corners in the dark, where even in the middle of a sunny afternoon, you couldn't really make out what lurked in the shadows.  There's a fine line between intrigue and spooky, and usually it didn't take me very long to let the latter win out over the former, and I'd leave my father and grandfather to their guy talk inside that shed.

A narrow, shallow brook came down from the hills behind their house and meandered over past the side yard, eventually ducking under the road and dipping down along the meadow across the road down to the reach.  Along its course through my grandparent's back yard, I could sometimes stand on its icy top while still watching the water run freely below me.  Every now and then, the ice really wasn't thick enough, and my foot would slush through, sinking to the sandy bottom of the brook, usually a mere six or ten inches down.  Enough to get my foot and leg wet up to my knee, yet without getting dirty enough to make my Mom really mad when I went indoors.  There was a simple bridge, of course, that I could have used to cross the brook, but what fun would that have been?

Relatives and family friends would stop by to see us, since back then, a lot of people in town knew my Mom and her family.  There were only about 500 people in an area almost the size of Brooklyn.  Nowadays, everybody except about a dozen people is a stranger to Mom, since most of the homes owned by the old-timers have been sold to summer residents and people "from away."

Since we'd be going to my Dad's side of the family at Christmastime in New York City, we'd celebrate Christmas with my grandparents on Thanksgiving night.  The presents my brother and I received from them were never tremendously exciting, contrary to the loot we'd haul in from my Dad's mother and sister in Gotham.  No, my grandparents not only had little money, they had little choice in terms of stores to shop. 

Back then, as now, Sedgwick managed with just a small village store for the bare essentials.  The next-closest town, Blue Hill, about fifteen minutes away, had a venerable dry goods shop, plus a drug store.  After Blue Hill came Ellsworth, another fifteen minutes away, which boasted a Dunkin' Donuts and a few medium-sized stores. Nevertheless, this being Maine, even their selection tended towards the practical, not the fun or luxurious.

One year, my brother and I each got a brand-new metal wastebasket.  Another year, we each got a used steel toolbox with some equally-used screwdrivers and wrenches in them.  Yet somehow, my brother and I never seemed too disappointed with the austerity of those Christmases.  Partly, probably, because we knew we'd be spoiled rotten the next month in Brooklyn.  But maybe also partly because my parents would give us a strict lecture at some point on that boring drive into Maine about understanding Grammie and Grampa weren't made of money and we need to be thankful for whatever we received.

It wasn't like they gave us coal, either, was it?  I mean, a wastebasket isn't glamorous, but every time I threw something away in my bedroom back home, I'd remember my grandparents.  Sometimes I'd even second-guess whether what I was throwing away couldn't be repurposed somehow.  Like my grandparents themselves would do with a lot of things.  And I still have the toolbox, minus most of those original tools, here in Texas.  It was certainly one of the more masculine gifts I've ever been given, even if any hopes Grampa may have had that I would become a handy Mr. Fixit were wasted.

Demanding physical labor was a hallmark of my grandparents' generation, particularly in impoverished places like Maine. Neither men nor women there, even if their tasks fell along gender-specific lines, enjoyed many of the innovative employee benefits other Americans won from the Industrial Revolution.  What days off and vacations Mainers had were rarely filled with recreational pursuits.  In the spring, there were vegetable gardens to be planted, and then weeded in the summers.  In the fall, there was wood to be cut, and in the winters, snow to shovel. From the roof. Not to mention fishing, clamming, and hunting - not for sport, but for food. And that was for people who didn't own farms.  Farmers had even more work.

Nobody had new cars there except the summer people.  Store-bought clothes were status symbols.  Yet houses were usually crisply painted, yards neatly trimmed, and the food incredibly delicious.  Grammie made the only soup I've ever really liked - a chicken broth with rice and vegetables that my Mom, Grammie's daughter, has never been able to replicate.  Grammie finally got a gas stove, but she always relied on her old, black, cast-iron monster of a stove that squatted menacingly next to a well-worn dining table. Tiny squares of thick glass in its oven door glowed from orange fires that raged nearly constantly inside.

The warmth from that stove - heat, actually - could make you sweat even while a blizzard raged outside, with wind whipping snow and pellets of ice against the windows, and electricity - one of the few truly modern amenities in the house - flickering in fear of the maelstrom.

And my grandparents, well-worn Mainers seasoned by decades of such weather, serenely listening to music on the radio, playing board games with us, or waiting to hear from my grandfather's supervisor at the depot if roads needed to be plowed.  Three rings on the phone, and Grampa almost didn't need to pick it up to know his answer.  Grammie would instantly furnish a lunchbox with coffee and a hearty meal lovingly wrapped up inside, and off he'd go, into snow and ice and blackness, until the storm moved off to sea.

Grampa died during one of Maine's spectacular summer days, after he'd retired, sitting with Grammie in their set of hand-crafted Adirondack chairs, looking out across the road, down the meadow, and across the sparking reach.  The state's bitter winters are made tolerable by those few yet perfect summer days God bestows on the hardy folk of coastal Maine. Grammie had gone inside to get themselves something to drink, and she glanced out the kitchen window over the sink to the side yard, where she saw Grampa's head quietly, softly bow forwards.  And she knew he wasn't napping.

I still have those hand-crafted Adirondack chairs, still wearing their same old baby-blue-colored lead paint.  And whenever I see them, like whenever I saw that cheap metal wastebasket, I think of my grandparents.

I think of those dreary rides on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  I think of Grammie's delicious chicken soup, and that fearsome black stove on which she cooked it.  I think of my Grampa faithfully trudging off to plow deserted roads during yet another blizzard.

And I am thankful.

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