I finished the book a few weeks ago. I must admit that near the end, I believed I was hearing the same messages over and over. I was somewhat frustrated with the case studies, and grew weary of some of the people in them who seemed stuck.
But, let me tell you what’s happening here. A group of women I know who have been getting together for ages once a month for drinks and dinner and now reading Women Rowing North together. Some are over 90. They are taking it slow. This past month, they gave themselves no reading assignments because they had so much to talk about.
So, here’s what’s happening in my county. As part of Aging Well in Waldo County, I lead the Social Isolation committee. One of my targets was to organize the county librarians, let them exchange ideas about senior programming, maybe come up with some new ideas. These librarians are an impressive group. Their libraries are poorly funded. Two county libraries are entirely run by volunteers. They do much with so little.
So me and my grants committee has written and received two grants, both of which help libraries. One grant is specific to funding social isolation remedies. So, we ordered 7 copies of Women Rowing North (and I gave them my copy to make 8). The set will circulate around the county, a month in each, and let groups form over the book. Looking forward to seeing how this goes.
As I said in the last post, women needed this book!
By this time of life, people my age have already said goodbye to all members of the older generation in their families. That’s true for me and most of my friends. We all have tales of woe cleaning up after the life of parents, aunts, and uncles. Every single thing must be liquidated, assigned, sold, placed, or donated. Of course, generally we are all doing all this while grieving for whomever has passed on. And those belongings can be a mine field of emotions and memories. And, fortunately, a few laughs.
My mother passed first. She’d had Alzheimer’s, and her remaining belongings were just as odd and bizarre as some of the things she would do and say during those last years. Like the time I visited her during the evening in the nursing home and found her sitting in the lobby near the entrance.
“Oh, I am so glad you are here,” she began, unable to recall my name, but certain I was familiar. “Have I missed my train?”
“No, Mom. You have plenty of time. I’ll check the schedule.”
“Good,” she said, relieved of her agitation.
After she passed, I sent all her clothes to a thrift store. But cleaning out her drawers and closet was difficult. I tossed pantyhose with runs, stained cosmetic bags, rusty hairpins, and the pink rubber rollers she had once used on my hair when I was small. There were pens that had been out of ink for decades, broken pencils, brochures, dirty tissues and stretched out headbands. But most amusing was an entire drawer full of prostheses for her left breast following a mastectomy when she was 70. Medicare provided a new prosthesis every two years. She lived to her late 80’s. So there was an entire drawer of fake boobs.
“Why don’t you use them, Mom?” I’d asked her once before Alzheimer’s had entirely set in.
“Oh, they’re too hot,” she replied, explaining it was easier to stuff the empty bra cup with a sock. “And I don’t want to wear them out,” she’d added. “Besides, I’m over 70, what do I need two breasts for?”
My father passed a few months after Mom. Then it was important to vacate his two- bedroom apartment before the end of a month, or we’d be charged another month’s rent. I found a Mom with 6 adopted kids that could use all the furniture. Little stuff like dishes and knick-knacks all went to the thrift store which supported a local hospital.
Dad had a lifelong love of books. He’d culled books when he’d left his last house. But not enough. He was adamant that the remaining books were valuable, and that I should get a good price for them. He thought he had something very precious because he had every book Jack London had ever written.
A kind man, a specialist in antiquarian books, graciously agreed to peruse Dad’s collection. After half an hour, he pronounced that the books were still good for reading, but that they had no monetary value.
Most of us are not privy to the romantic side of our parents. I always knew my folks had a strong love story. But I got a good laugh when I found a stack of vintage Playboy magazines in Dad’s closet.
The process of cleaning out someone’s stuff is tedious and dreadful. But what I learned is that in the end, it’s all just stuff. Just stuff. What someone values has little to do with money.
Now, I try to look at my home this way. Everything I have, everything I will have by the time I die, it’s just stuff. My stuff. Stuff that means something to me, and probably not to anyone else. I will try to remember not to collect so much stuff. Because, in the end, it’s just stuff.
(This is a response to a darling play I saw last night titled “The Seekers” written by Kristin Frangoulis and produced at “Elbow Room” at the Waterfall Arts building in Belfast, ME.)
The 70’s were my “granola” days. I cannot claim to be part of the “back to nature” movement which took place in Waldo County in the 70’s, because I had a job teaching 6th grade. I lived in a shabby little house in Frankfort, Maine, which was purchased by a spouse and myself for only one reason – we could afford it. It was situated at the major curve in the main road, Route 1A, between Stockton Springs and Winterport.
I did identify with many of the traditions of the time. The little house was heated with wood, using a Scandinavian wood stove we had purchased from Frank Raftery’s wood stove store on High St. in Belfast. By necessity, I learned to bank a stove for all day coverage, because teachers cannot run home for lunch. I had some propane backup, but it was bloody expensive to use it, so I rarely did.
The picture that follows shows the house before we bought it. My father, the carpenter, arrived a few times with tools and doors and wood and cabinets. Dad made the place more livable. He installed a front door without a hole where the knob was missing. He added a mudroom and porch on the front. He enclosed a back deck making a place for firewood storage out of the weather. He added a bathroom with running water and a place for a washing machine. I had not been fond of the “inside outhouse” at the far corner of the woodshed.
He arrived with lovely cabinets he’d made to make a real kitchen where there was just a sink and small gas range. He’d made them from American Chestnut, his favorite wood, which he’d hoarded whenever it could be found. He gave me bright red counter tops, and I was delighted with how bright and cheery they were. I loved how the red counters looked with my white and black Bennington pottery and my red placemats from Willey’s General Store in Greensboro, Vermont.
The little house sat close to the Marsh River, too close for a septic system. We settled on a composting toilet called an ecolet. One had to mount two steps to be seated and so it stood like a throne in the new bathroom. It was far better than the outhouse.
In those days, being dirt poor (teachers did not earn enough to make sends meet), I made my own yogurt, baked my own bread. I joined the newly formed Belfast Coop, and had to put in my hours once a month working there, meting out one pound bags of prunes from a large cardboard box, weighing bulghur, rice, and oats.
I ate lots of tabouli and soybean soup and lentil loaf back then. My many bulk foods were stored in large jars on the top of the cabinets, and they added interest and color to my red kitchen.
The little house had once been a general store. So the layout was odd. Local people remembered sitting around a potbelly wood stove, and scooping bulk foods like flour and rice from barrels right about where my kitchen table sat. The owners would have lived upstairs, which explained why I found a dry sink in my upstairs hallway. There had been stairs once upon a time on the outside of the building to the second floor quarters.
My favorite time there was when my good friend Martha, another teacher, moved in with her toddler, dog and cat (I had one cat, too) It took two teacher salaries to cover the basic bills. I managed the inside of the house. Martha managed the outside. She enjoyed mowing the tiny lawn. She planted a few flowering bushes, and cultivated a small vegetable garden. We were over the moon delighted when we heard that the green onion plants we had been given came from Scott and Helen Neering’s garden!
Our only Thanksgiving there was memorable. I had a good table with two leaves. I made the splurge purchase of a harvest gold tablecloth, which I still have. I had a set of china but no silverware to speak of. Martha, who had no china, had inherited a service for 12 of sterling silver, never before used. Between the two of us, we had created a wonderful looking table. We invited a few friends to dinner.
The most memorable part, though, was the atmosphere. You see during the summer prior, I had gone down to MDI to work for the summer as a waitress at the “Head of the Harbor” restaurant in Southwest Harbor. Teachers didn’t get summer pay, of course. So summers meant finding work. With the house empty for two months, mice had moved in.
I had an awesome cat then, who’d gone to Southwest Harbor for the summer with me. Once we returned, she went to work. While the house had been empty, mice had moved in. My cat honed her mousing skills. Each night I would hear her hunting, I would hear a squeak and a pounce, and then find a dead mouse in the morning. This went on through the autumn. The last time I heard her hunting at night, I had never found the dead mouse. I looked everywhere, emptying the woodpile, behind cabinet drawers -I pulled the house apart.
I may not have mentioned that I didn’t cook much in those days. Especially things that required an oven. Turkeys require an oven. So when I preheated the oven for our Thanksgiving turkey, I located the dead mouse.
The smell of dead burning mouse was unforgettable and unappetizing to say the least. Once removing the carcass, we tried to air out the house. But, it was 5 degrees outside that day. Opening the door could only last a few seconds. And the wood stove was working overtime to heat up the house. So we found some scented candles, and that made it all bearable.
The following year, the chicken industry folded in Waldo County. I was laid off along with two other teachers after many families with children moved away. I went off to grad school; Martha found a quaint cottage home in Stockton Springs. She still lives there. I rented out the house in Frankfort. The tenants never told me the ecolet stopped working. They used something, maybe a camper potty, and buried the waste in the tiny yard contaminating the well. I got back from school to find a letter that my property was condemned.
I gave the house to the town for the tax deduction. It was the only course I could think of. They sold some contents, then let the volunteer fire department burn it down. Now there’s something far uglier there than my little house.
So much for the 70’s!
It took me until 2009 to get myself back to Maine except for visiting. As much as I loved the place, I was so sick of being poor. So I accepted jobs elsewhere, and returned to retire. In a sense, I had to leave in order to afford to come back.
I loved it when I went to get my Maine drivers license again. They gave me my old license number and said “Welcome home.” I was home, truly, and I still am.
[The picture that follows in the little house on Route IA in Frankfort. The photo at the start of this piece is me, while working in Bar Harbor for the summer, sitting on the rocks of Acadia National Park near Thunder Hole.]
Around 2006, I was invited to lead a delegation of Literacy Educators for a conference via People to People (the organization started by President Eisenhower). About 20 teachers signed up for the excursion.
As is often the case, the conference of international speakers (mostly Chinese, speaking Chinese with occasional translation) of talking heads was dull. But other activities were planned for the week, such as a visit to the Great Wall, a silk factory, shopping, and of course school visits. We were all most looking forward to the two school visits.
In the way of context, Chinese children in Beijing are grouped into schools by abilities based on their score on a single uniform test across the city (as it was explained to us bu our guide). Therefore, we would be shown only the top schools with only the top scoring students.
The first visit was a high school which began with a welcome orientation by a school administrator in a sort of conference room. He was warm and welcoming. One of my teachers asked how they deal with struggling readers.
“We don’t have any,” was his terse reply.
The rest of our visit was orchestrated and escorted with no interaction with either teachers or students. We got back on the bus, and began talking.
“I didn’t see a library,” one teacher brought up. Hmm, we all thought. Indeed we did not. American schools always show off their library to guests. We had asked our guide earlier if the schools have libraries.
“Yes,” he said immediately, and he recited the ratio of books to students in each school.
So, we resolved on the second visit, a school with younger children, to see the library. We arrived at the second school.
“We’d like to see the library,” I asked respectfully via a translator. There were heads nodding and we were escorted to….a lunchroom. At one end were a few magazine racks with age-appropriate magazines. We looked at each other. Hmmm.
By this time, was international travel had been extensive. So I was thinking there had been a translation error. Translation is a tough thing, especially between languages that are so very different.
So, as delegation leader, I asked again, trying in earnest to be more clear. “We would love to see your library – the room where all the books are, where students might find a book to read, or to check out for a report or project.”
There was quiet talking and mumbling and of course, we had no idea what they were saying, but clearly there were conferring about our request. We were then directed to the two elevators, and in each case, a Chinese person selected the basement button.
From the elevators were were led down a long hallway. The ceilings were lower than in the rest of the building. In the hallways were also the planters taken in for winter and broken chairs and desks. Lighting was dim, and winter chills seeped from somewhere.
A Chinese man stopped us in front of a metal door with a padlock on it, We stood there for a good 10-15 minutes. Clearly this man did not have the keys. Finally another man arrived with a ring ok keys, and opened the door. We filed in quietly.
There were books all right. Rows and rows of metal stacks. We went up and down the rows looking at what was there. BUT, nearly all the books were still in shrinkwrap. No book showed any signs of use. Everything was too clean and untouched. There was no card catalog, no windows, no place to sit and read, no desk for checkout. Many titles were Chinese translations of British literature – classics. We saw no picture books. No evidence of cataloguing.
We stayed quiet, not wanting to be disrespectful. This time we were given a tour which was more personal. We were brought to a large room where children were seated with their teachers, and they demonstrated for us a Chinese art of paper cutting. It was interesting and enjoyable. We were invited to answer questions of the students. Some raised their hands. Translators helped. One asked what we thought about the “One child” rule, and didn’t we agree it is a good thing. We decided to steer away from that one. I said something about how we really don’t know much about the rule, so we cannot comment.
Afterwards we were paraded into a lovely art room. The thing was, however, there was no evidence that art room was used. Nothing smelled like art supplies. There was nothing drying, or in progrss, or hanging, or displayed.
We were brought into a science lab. It was a large and well equipped lab with bunson burners, beakers, flasks, and lots of sinks and benches. But, there was a fine veil of dust on all the glassware. There was no evidence that this room had ever been used.
As we passed classrooms, we smiled at the children who were stuffed wall to wall into rows. A teacher upfront would not be able to walk anywhere but down and row and back as desks went all the way to the back wall – I counted 36-40 students. Children had all identical haircuts, wore uniforms, and the rooms were quiet.
“May we go in?” I asked the escort. He seemed unsure what to say, but opened the door. We trailed in, said hello to the teacher and greeted the students. We encouraged the teacher to keep teaching, but that wasn’t going to happen. Children broke they stoic stance and popped up like jumping beans, wanting to shake our hands all at once. We felt like rock stars amid momentary chaos. We said our goodbyes and then left.
I don’t think that part of the visit was in the Chinese plan.
We were taken to visit the “counselor” who was called the “Teacher for Morality.” She was talking with a few students in an attractive and comfortable setting with chairs and a table. Of course, we do not know what they were talking about.
Our guide had been the assistant principal. We learned the principal was not an educator. He was a member of the Communist Party there for enforcement of whatever they needed to enforce. The assistant principal, a woman, was the real educator.
Subject area textbooks were Party approved, and uniform. We saw no child interacting with books other than the approved texts. We saw no books anywhere, other than those magazines in the lunchroom.
We had lots to talk about back at our hotel. I still think about this visit. Still unpacking what it means to have a locked library that no one uses. Still thinking about a country where children have no access to books – by design, not because of poverty.
I find myself so very thankful for American libraries, and the fact that they are so incredibly important, and that we sometimes have to defend them, and I for one, will always support libraries. A world without libraries is a very different sort of place. Not one I wish to live in.
The house Tom and I grew up in was tall and narrow, with two regular floors and then a basement and an attic. Our bedrooms were small so the attic became our place to play as younger kids. Mom put a linoleum rug on the floor to keep us from getting splinters in our feet, hands, and knees from the wooden planks of the floor. The red flowered linoleum became Attic City.
Between the two of us, we had quite a few dolls and stuffed animals. Dolls, all girl dolls, were then married off to various stuffed animals who we made all boys. Bookshelves with the books removed were apartments for couples. We had a sort of real-sized wooden dog house that had been made in Dad’s shop at school, and this became the home of the mayor of Attic City. The mayor, named Happy, was a stuffed beagle toy with open and close eyes, and a toy Tom really liked. A small child sized table became a home for my entire family of Ginny Dolls (before Barbie was invented). I had sisters Mary and Muffy, three teen dolls named Sharon and Jill and Marian, and a baby doll named Ginette. They all had real wooden beds, with pillows and blankets. Marian was the Mom of this little family. Jill was nice. Sharon was always getting in trouble.
On rainy days, we played Attic City. We would make up stories for the characters in the town. Tom always wanted there to be a robbery or a murder. I never wanted anything bad to happen. I preferred stories with weddings, or going to school, or playing games.
On the other side of the attic, Tom had his Lionel Trains set up. Two big tables in the shape on an L, one table being the city with little houses and trees, and the other table being the country with barns, cows, and fences. The best part, in my opinion, was the train whistles. Tom had two. Sometimes we would blare both of them.
We played Attic City for years. Our last game, we had made our town its biggest yet. We thought Attic City needed lights, so we got into the boxes of Christmas ornaments. Tom strung 6 strands of lights back and forth across the attic ceiling, then did something to make them all blink, and then added the blaring train whistles.
Right about this time, probably responding to the noise, Mom came up the stairs. She was not pleased. She made us take down the lights, put them away, and clean up Attic city. That was the end of it. But then Tom was getting too old to play with a little sister anyhow. Tom still has Happy, the mayor of Attic City on a bookshelf in his home. I visit both of them at his house each year.
This is Mary (left) and Muffy (right) from Attic City. They are over 60 years old now, so Muffy’s eyes seem to be rusted shut. My mother made both of the dresses they are wearing.