The Early Beginning of a Down East Maine Winter

Stranded on a desert island?

So I made a quick trip to see my daughter who lives on an island in Maine. Okay, there are twenty thousand people along with her and Mount Desert Island *is* connected to the mainland with a bridge. Of course, I also live on an island, mine is shared with 950,000 other castaways. An island is a feature of geography but a parallel island always takes shape in the brain. Hers is a lot smaller than mine, but has equally exotic cultural elements.

Mud Room

On that island, she inhabits a small wood shingled cottage along the side of a road near Somes Sound, at the base of Sargent Mountain, with a babbling brook in the back yard, among the hardwood trees. Beech and Oak. Getting out of the car at night, no streetlights nearby, through the bare branches above I see stars that Van Gogh would envy – The Milky Way, the Pleiades, a planet or two. The cold high-pressure system to create winter clarity already exists here, and oak leaves crunch underfoot along with the gravel. Winter is a month away but the second major storm is in the forecast. We don’t see these kind of stars, and never the Milky Way, in Honolulu. Too much moisture at sea level.

Inside, back wall of the mud room displays a copper pipe assembly for the forced hot water heating system as if it was art. A maze of tubing gives off an aura of mystery. Like the exhaust manifold of a Harley, or perhaps a pocket trumpet on a grand scale. Trace the path of the fluid in the pipes; any moonshiner would envy the intricacy.

Tour of Kitchen

Once you’re past the mud room, there is track lighting, the smell of wood beams, and gleaming woodwork. Well insulated with e-glass and a small wood stove.  Through the window you can see the  solar panel array tilting on a sturdy freestanding pole. The landlord is a man of few words  but when he delivered a snow shovel, he paused to advise her never to park under the shiny slope  during a snowstorm.

Show me what a person reads and I will tell you who they are

Open kitchen shelves now stocked with staples – three kinds of dried beans; a bag of onions; canned goods; an assortment of tea… On the shelf to each window are books from her parents’ house – ranging from the traditional (Robert Frost) to the eclectic (croquet strategy) with an emphasis on natural history and outdoorsy stuff (“Weathering the Wilderness” by the sierra club) – medical memoirs include an autographed copy of The Hospital at the End of the World as well as Heirs to General Practice in which her mom dad and sister appear, by John McPhee. The cottage is rented to out-of-state rusticators in summer; When we unloaded some groceries we moved the expensive crystal leaded stemware out of the every day shelf, these will be stored safely for next year’s stylish outta-staters.

On the pullout couch a hand-knit afghan awaits the reader who might snuggle with a book and a cup of cocoa for added warmth. Hold the mug against your cheek when it’s empty, the warmth will soothe the arthritis in your knuckles. There is nothing quite like the heat from oak burning in the woodstove. In my mind, I bless the hands that will hold these books in the coming months. A true dad never stops praying for his kids and family.

In the magazine rack, a few past issues of The New Yorker, carefully chosen from among a large pile we used to have. You never throw these away or use them to start a fire. Ray Charles on the US twenty dollar bill? I’m down with that. Photos of an old Allagash trip with Amy and Julie’s high school buddies, I see my old F-150 pickup truck laden with trailer carrying five canoes to the County. Older albums of happy family times in Norridgewock – gardening, canoeing, blackberries, maple trees, Popham Beach. Amy and Julie independently paddled their own canoe around the cove at Embden when they were three and five. Julie sat in the stern.

York Island, Maine. year-round inhabitants: zero people and eighty sheep.

Surprised to see a framed three by five photo in the bedroom that showed me with red t-shirt and Amish straw hat, Julie and Amy kneeling alongside as we hand-sheared the umpteenth sheep of the flock on a hot June day at York Island, Maine. (not to be confused with York, Maine further south. York Island is located off the east shore of Isle au Haut). My daughters learned how to castrate a sheep, when they were ten and twelve years old.

Other pictures of my former wife. I have none of these in Honolulu. No reminders of that life, on my other island. That smile that could light up even the night sky, so rarely seen later in our life together. Did her hair really shine that way, in the sun? Was that really her kneeling proudly behind my preschool daughters, one Easter morning, wearing stylish hats with plumes and foofaraw? The pictures say yes, it was. I was behind the camera in those days, not so many candid photos of me.

Amy on the grass, crawling among the small bed of red tulips. Gardening au naturel as a two-year old, with Archie The Dog Of Enthusiasm (a.k.a. “Le Chien du Mangee” ) running nearby. College photos of Amy’s Vermont friends whose names I never knew, at places I do not recognize.

The Elgin Marbles, or equivalent thereof.

I remember the old location where the sheepshearing photo used to hang- a spot over our mantel, place of honor along with graduation photos, family shots taken during wedding receptions in Massachusetts and such. Points frozen at the click of the camera, like fish caught on a line to be pulled out of the  streaming river of time. Artifacts get inadvertently created by one person and then assume a life of their own among a small group of archeologically-minded descendants. Now in a different place of honor at the next house. I remember how Amy once found a cast-off wallet of mine and appropriated it through her high school days.

The Trail.

On the enclosed porch, a one-person yellow backpacker’s tent. I’d only seen grainy photos of this, til now. The pile of backpacking stuff is small as befits a thru-hiker. Yes, the backpack and the bag looked like the ones I saw in New Jersey two summers ago. Every hiker racks up a list of nights spent camping. Amy’s lifetime total at the age of twenty seven now exceeds mine, I think. Even though I am nearing sixty.

Home as museum

We all establish a museum of our own, here in Honolulu I go out of my way to avoid the kind of dusty clutter so emblematic of homes on the East Coast. Some day I will give the inventory, but the short version is, thirty years of adulthood went missing when I came here. A South Asian theme, with my thangka, prayer flags and Hindu posters. Any clutter in my life, is relegated to the office. I have pictures of both kids, the one taken outside Durgin Park the summer Amy worked on the dairy farm, is one of my favorties and it is placed so I see it every time I exit the office, right above the light switch. Amy has my old red white and blue Norwegian sweater, the one my mom knitted in 1982. She needs it.

The Urge For Going

So much music and song is made about the simple fact of exaggerated seasons in New England. We have seasons in Honolulu too but they are not the same. To winter over in New England has been celebrated by Henry D Thoreau; Louise Dickinson Reich and E.B. White have essayed the journey in their own way. Wintering over provides the theme for many an extended solitary retreat. Some of these succeed and some fail.

What you do during this time, is chosen from among the list of possibilities. Read or knit. Among the younger generation I suppose TV and Wii have taken hold. Eat, of course. Watch birds at the feeder out the window – chickadees, woodpeckers including the occasional Pileated, always dazzling. Crows are the largest but I wonder if she will see any since she lacks a compost pile here. Loons, robins and whippoorwills are long gone. Amy says she will write her novel in this cabin. And listen to Nanci Griffith sing the songs of lost love.

Anticipating Cabin Fever

Entertaining friends of course, is a must. March is coming and Cabin Fever is inevitable – the “ten foot stare in an eight foot room.” In Maine the remedy is a Contra Dance or a trip to Boston. On Oahu, the islanders with Rock Fever go to Las Vegas.

And I reflect on all this as I sit on the lanai. Sun arises in the East. Here the haze combines with the light of streetlamps to obscure the stars, but I know that even if I can’t see the night sky, it is still there. And shared with the night sky of that other island.



Filed under Maine, Uncategorized

2 responses to “The Early Beginning of a Down East Maine Winter

  1. gaynor

    Beautifully written, Joe.

  2. Patty Holt

    I stumbled on your writing about Amy and MDI. Enjoyed so much your writing and hope to read more!

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