We arrived on the pond in Bradley in early September when we could still feel the heat of summer, the open windows of our camp bringing in a breeze at night. After Labor Day, the campers and boaters headed back into town and we could enjoy the peaceful setting undisturbed.
We chose to stay at this camp to be near my mother, who was turning 101 the next month. My mother is a remarkable woman who savors the simple pleasure of being alive another day. She is tended to by a team of aides who ensure her safety and engage her in puzzles and activities. We joined her every day we could.
When her birthday approached my mother frequently asked how old she would be and, after learning that she would turn 101, smiled and said, “I guess my days are numbered.” I laughed, agreeing that my days are numbered, too.
It was a quiet fall, filled with paddling on the pond or walking along the four-mile dirt road that lead to our camp.
We made one trip to Campobello, Nova Scotia, where we bicycled the entire island over the course of two days. I bought a beautiful new bike, an electric one, in September and experienced the joy of riding all over the place.
Throughout our three-month stay I worked with a local group that is affiliated with the Central Maine Labor Council called Food and Medicine. My assignment was to make contact with three dozen small farmers throughout the region and contract with them to purchase some of their crops, part of a program called Solidarity Harvest.
Solidarity Harvest raises money from labor unions, community groups and individuals to provide nutritious overstuffed baskets of food to some 1,300 Mainers in need. It is founded on the principle of solidarity, not charity. Before Thanksgiving, nearly 40,000 pounds of the produce – carrots, squash, turnip, beets, onions, garlic, apples and cranberries – need to be sorted and weighed, a feat carried out by an army of volunteers. Mark joined in this year, serving as captain of a team of college frat volunteers.
We went for long hikes every weekend, admiring the leaves as they turned from green to gold. The hills near Acadia National Park provided an opportunity to watch the maples burst out red and orange and the colors of the blueberry fields explode.
On one hike in Steuben, we discovered a plaque on the grave of a geologist, Wilmot Bradley, that read: “The earth has music for those who listen.” Inspired by these words, a local seismologist and artist created a global chain of monitoring stations that record the vibrations of the earth and broadcast them online at earthsound.com..
Click here to listen to the sounds of Pigeon Hill in Steuben and enjoy below a view of the ocean from the hilltop.
Our camp on Chemo Pond in Bradley was really much more than that. The house hugs the shoreline and looks out at the hills surrounding the pond. Fully equipped with a canoe, a kayak and a paddle boat, we could take a paddle whenever the mood struck.
Inside, the house was so solidly constructed with great attention to detail. Our landlady, Jane, is also a woodworker and she had a hand in building the place. She also decorated it with etched carvings and taxidermied animals.
While the weather was still mild we had some visitors, including Sharon and Simonetta from Cornwall-on-Hudson and Ernesto, the son of a friend. Our son, Max, was able to spend several days with us out in the country and we sang songs around the campfire one full-moon night.
In late October, Margo and John joined us for a few days from Minneapolis and we managed to get out and hike around the area despite many grey clouds and some rain.
By then, the warm weather was a distant memory with temperatures at a record low. We put our bikes away and donned orange vests for walking when deer-hunting season opened next.
We had our first dusting of snow on October 24th.
By November 16th, the first real snowfall hit us, and again, even harder, four days later. Thanksgiving day the temperature did not rise about above 15 degrees.
It is time for us to leave. We are saying our goodbyes to my mother, loading the van and hooking the car to the trailer hitch to head south to our next destination: New Orleans.
Before we go, I’d like to remember the changing seasons on the pond.
We just spent our third summer in Alaska, where we are surrounded by the double joys of warm family and spectacular scenery.
Throughout our travels we photograph the natural beauty and, at home, we partake in the rituals of gardening and, naturally, of eating the bounty the gardens produce.
In the following sections we are sharing some of the best views of our 2018 Alaska stay, from the many glaciers we discovered to the footprints of wanna-be miners stampeding to search for gold.
Yes, the glaciers are receding from coastal Alaska. Yes, scientists report that 75 billion tons of ice are lost every year from Alaska’s glaciers, resulting in “sustained mass loss.” Glaciers are melting at the fastest rate in 400 years.
The warming trend brought by climate change could be reversed in time to stop the ice fields from melting but, pessimistic about the future, we have seen as many of these sparkling frozen rivers as we could.
Check out some Alaska glaciers here.
When we stay in Alaska, we’ve been living in a small apartment attached to my brother- and sister-in-law’s house on the outskirts of Anchorage. Their house is perched on a hillside overlooking Turnagain Arm, part of the Cook Inlet. Some of Janis and Jerry’s children live in the area and we often got together to share a meal. In July, their son Josh and his wife Tess came from NYC to celebrate an anniversary with us all.
See how the family enjoys Alaska together here.
We didn’t have to go far to see wildlife, they frequently visited us, grazing through the nearby woodlands. When two black bear cubs were separated from their mamma, we listened to the babies cries and the mother calling them.
The wildlife did not stop us from hiking in the outback where we found flowers, mushrooms, fungi and lichen.
Take a look at some sweet pockets of nature here.
Farmers in the Matanuska Valley are the major vegetable producers for south central Alaska and we visited the gardens in Palmer where we met the lovely Cabbage Fairies pictured at left..
At home, we had two green houses, six beds, many containers and a fruit orchard to tend to throughout the summer. Our niece runs a small urban farmer growing greens and flowers and saw them grow from seeds.
Click here to see what you can grow in a garden in Alaska.
Pioneers & Artists
White settlers first came to Alaska 120 years ago in a mad stampede for gold and displaced many of the Native peoples who lived there.
At a National Park Service display in Skagway, we learned about the thousands of people, largely men, who spent a year trying to get to the Klondike gold field only to find the gold gone by the time they got there.
We also visited the Anchorage Museum and want to share their splendid new exhibits tell the history of the state and highlight its artists.
To learn about some of the Alaska pioneers and artists we discovered, click here.
We have driven by hundreds of mountains in Alaska, and can testify that each one has its own special charm. That’s why we keep taking photos of mountains.
If you like them, too, click here to see some of the beauties that we found.
This year we took three trips on the Alaska Marine Ferry System and got a first-hand look at the waters where so many Alaskans make their livings on fishing boats.
From Bellingham, Washington, we spent three nights and four days in early May sailing past Vancouver then through the Inside Passage to Ketchican, Juneau and Haines.
In July we sailed seven hours from Whittier, Alaska, across Prince William Sound to Cordova, which is not reachable by road.
Finally, on our departure from Alaska we took a short ferry ride from Haines to Skagway on the state’s eastern edge.
Click here to see some of the views we encountered in the waters off Alaska.
Fire Island Bake Shop
My sister and brother-in-law, along with daughter Rachel, own the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, certainly the finest pastry shop in the state. When we arrived in May, they were putting the finishing touches on their third bakery, this one with a giant oven to meet the demand for bread and cakes.
In August, Fire Island opened its newest shop on a beautiful, sun-struck day. See the excitement here.
How two cultures intermingled in a small Alaskan town.
On the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska, in the village of Eklutna, we found a vivid reminder of a clash of two cultures nearly 250 years ago.
In a spruce forest at the foot of the Chugach mountains, a cemetery is filled with graves marked by dozens of tiny spirit houses painted in bright colors that have been pummeled relentlessly by winter snows and summer rains.
Close beside it an onion-domed Russian Orthodox chapel that is filled with elaborate gold icons and intricately-painted images of Orthodox saints.
Looking around, we found that Alaskan Natives had built the ornate church as well as the spirit houses. The spirit houses are an expression of their native culture, while the three-pronged Russian Orthodox crosses reflect the new faith they have adopted.
This is the cemetery of the Dena’ina, Alaska natives who are descendants of the Athabaskan people who crossed the Bering Strait from Asia more than 12,000 years ago. Their traditional religious beliefs held that the world was filled with spirits, both human and animal, who could be called on by shamans to heal the sick or ensure success on a hunting expedition.
Dena’ina Chief Stephan of Knik is shown wearing a ground squirrel parka, headdress, and dentalium shell (k’enq’ena) bandolier in this late nineteenth-century photograph. The dentalium shells and headdress are symbols of Chief Stephan’s status as a qeshqa, a leader. Photo: Louis Weeks Collection, Anchorage Museum.
After contact with Russian traders, Orthodox priests sought to eradicate the Dena’ina shamans and by the late 19th-century many of the Dena’ina had shifted their faith to the Orthodox Church. The transition emerged after decades of abuse by the traders who quickly established their dominance over the native people.
Beginning around 1784, Russian traders moved from the Aleutians and Kodiak Island to the Kenai peninsula and mainland where they implemented the practice of capturing local natives and holding them as hostages until their kinsmen returned with piles of furs to sell to the Russians. Female natives were forcibly raped and a Russian Orthodox missionary reported that traders “treat the natives in the most barbaric manner…they take the wives and young daughters as sexual partners. They kill any who refuse to hunt sea otters.”
Perched at the edge of a vast, cold wilderness, and fearful of retaliatory attacks, the Russian traders built fortified settlements and later brought the Dena’ina inside their walls where they introduced them to the Russian language and religion while training them to become servants. Smallpox and flu epidemics shrunk the Dena’ina population as well.
By the mid-20th century, the Dena’ina culture was fading. The elders still spoke their language but the young people grew up speaking English and lived among the burgeoning population of immigrants who settled in Anchorage and the Cook Inlet.
In more recent years, a cultural revival has focused on reviving the Dena’ina language and culture. Working with the Smithsonian Institute, native Alaskan people have recorded their stories and traditions. They have also created the Eklutna Historical Park.
In the overgrown Dena’ina cemetery in Eklutna, one can almost feel the life of those buried here. Each spirit house tells a story, with the names of the dead painted on wooden panels and plastic flowers or hand-painted tributes written on stones.
William Bryan Walters Sr. died at age 38 but the red-checked curtains in his spirit house and the row of red stars across the roof bring a part of him to life.
Before contact with the Russians, the Dena’ina people cremated their dead and buried their ashes. After becoming Orthodox, the bodies were interred in the ground. The spirit houses at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna provide a resting place for the spirit on its journey from the grave. Friends and neighbors left personal belongings for the departing soul.
After Walter’s burial in the plot beneath the spirit house, the elders held a potlatch in the nearby community center to celebrate his life.
Traditional Dena’ina potlatch ceremonies featured a song composed for the deceased that immortalize their talents and works. Family members give gifts to those who attend a potlatch, a way of repaying any debts to the community.
The impermanence of life is overwhelming at the cemetery in Eklutna. The Dena’ina people believe that the spirit resides in the little houses for 40 days before moving on. Once the spirit leaves, they see little reason to maintain the now empty tiny residences, letting the grass grow up around it and the paint to peel.
It took 23 years but I finally made it back to McCarthy, Alaska, a town deep in the Wrangell Mountains. When I was first there, the place was a virtual ghost town, no sign of the thousands of miners who came seeking fortune in the Kennicott copper mine. From 1900 to 1938, an astounding supply of high-grade copper ore kept the mines working full steam. When the ore was gone, the owners abandoned the mine, the mill, the bunkhouses and kitchen. Hardly anything had been touched since 1938.
In 1995 I flew into McCarthy with my husband and toddler son. The small plane carried us above expansive ice fields and glaciers in the Wrangell Elias National Park about 250 miles from Anchorage. Two glaciers still flow within walking distance of Kennecott and a fine day hike will bring you close enough to touch the icy surfaces. This video of an ice chunk moving down the Kennecott River past our campsite will give you an idea of just how cold it is there in July.
The Richest Copper Mine in the World
On our first visit, we walked Inside the Kennecott mine buildings and could see abandoned furniture, medical supplies and other detritus left behind when the mill closed. Our guide, Chris Richardson, described how men slept in the bunkhouse beds in shifts, one man taking over when the other went to the mine. He told us how laborers endured temperatures of fifty below zero to build a railroad over a grueling mountain terrain to transport the copper to market.
A Deadly Day in McCarthy History
Most of all, Richardson talked about the winter day in 1983 when a local resident massacred six of the 22 people in McCarthy, part of his futile plan to stop the Alaska oil pipeline. Richardson was shot in the head by the assailant and lived. Richardson relived the details of the attack daily, haunted by his survival while good people died.
As we walked the mine’s crumbling ruins, you could sense the ghosts of copper miners and laborers. But when I looked into Chris Richardson sharp dark eyes I could feel the trauma he experienced in this isolated mountain town. I knew I wouldn't see him on this second trip to McCarthy as he died in a house fire more than a decade ago.
Restoration of Mine Buildings by the National Parks
Today, most visitors to McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine appear to be unaware of the massacre. They come instead to see the glaciers and the mine facilities that have been restored by the National Park Service.
Where Chris Richardson once led a handful of visitors around the ruins, park rangers roam. Kiosks describe the mine and the living conditions and tourists pose in front of newly painted structures in Kennecott. This June, the park service opened an interactive exhibit bringing to life the workers and the families who lived in Kennecott during the mining operation years from 1911 – 1938.
The McCarthy Road
We took it slow when we drove into McCarthy. The 60-mile dirt road is notorious and we didn’t want to bust another tire on Alaska roads. The road runs along the bed of the old railroad and old wooden ties and spikes still surface. We picked up a CD disc available at the National Park Service visitor’s center and enjoyed its account of the monumental challenges and heroic efforts that went into building the railroad.
Once it snows, the road is not plowed and stays largely shut down through the winter. We arrived in early July and the sun was out all day. We parked on the banks of the Kennecott river and took the footbridge to cross into McCarthy town.
History, Hiking and Honky Tonk
The local museum focuses on daily life in this isolated community that sprang up to offer liquor, women and other amenities to the men in the mine. The mine administrators brought their families and a small professional class tried to lead ‘decent’ lives amid the ribaldry. Today, behind the Old West-style façade of a few buildings, you can find hand-made jewelry and crafts, burgers, salads and beer. While we were there a country band from Tennessee got people dancing at the local saloon.
You can walk or talk a local shuttle five miles up the mountain to the Kennecott Mines and from there hike to the Root Glacier (3 miles). Or, weather permitting, hike up 3800 feet to the Bonanza and Jumbo Mines.
Just outside McCarthy we hiked to a moraine field with mounds of glacier ice covered in gravel. Ice cool pools of water with chunks of ice floating in it dot the landscape.
We spent four days in McCarthy before heading back out the road, which we traversed without
Valdez: Vistas to Die For
At the main road we took a left and swung down to Valdez, a port on the Prince William Sound. The ride down was astonishingly beautiful: massive glaciers and ice fields on one side giving way to towering waterfalls on the river side.
A fishing town and the terminal of the Alaska oil pipeline, Valdez is a thriving community that is tied to the sea.
We only stayed a few hours then retraced our steps. The clouds had disappeared and the sun was shining, exposing the majestic snow covered Wrangell Mountains, including Mount Blackburn, the 5th tallest peak in North America.
The grassy hills and valleys of southern Montana stretch to the horizon. Atop the knoll where General George Custer made his famous last stand, I can see for miles in every direction and imagine the U.S. Calvary troops snaking around the perimeter of a flat riverbed where a large Lakota nation settlement was on the alert for a possible attack.
The rows of rectangular grave markers testify to the failed offensive by Custer’s calvary.
The U.S. leaders badly underestimated the size and strength of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters they would face on the Little Bighorn river. The attackers were out maneuvered and largely annihilated over two days of fighting.
The Native American warriors fought fiercely to defend their way of life. which was threatened by settlers. In a short-lived attempt to end hostilities eight years earlier, the U.S. had signed a treaty that gave the Sioux Nation exclusive access to the Black Hills to the east of Little Bighorn. But when gold was discovered in 1874, miners rushed into the Black Hills and General Custer lead an expedition against the Sioux.
The battle at Little Bighorn two years later proved to be the Sioux’s last triumph in the war.
As a child, I learned about General Custer’s last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn against the warring Sioux tribes. Scant, if any, attention was paid to the broken treaties that fueled the hostilities. After his death, Custer’s widow published accounts describing her husband’s heroics and the site became Custer National cemetery a decade later. In 1946, the National Park Service renamed it Custer Battlefield National Monument.
For 25 years, the site attracted visitors to the cemetery where more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers who served throughout the region are buried. Then, in 1972, Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) began protests to demand recognition of the Sioux who had fallen there. Debate raged for nearly two decades until Congress voted to rename the monument and create a memorial to the Native Americans who fought and died in the battle.
The memorial was conceived to express the theme of “peace through unity” and to provide a place where Native Americans can celebrate and honor the memory of their relatives. The design was chosen to express the spirit of the Plains and other Native Americans who played a decisive role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and to rectify the historic imbalance of the Indian role and sacrifice.
The memorial was only partially completed when it opened in 2003. It took another decade for the 17 Native American tribes tied to the site’s history to develop the text and images that would be inscribed on the interior granite walls. Today, the memorial honors the Native American ancestors who took their own stand in 1876.
Walking through the memorial, I was struck by its beauty: The warriors on horses galloping against the great blue sky and the smooth granite walls carved with stories that told of the celebration of victory.
Rarely have I been in at a war memorial that succeeded in honoring both sides of a battle and I saw hope for this nation to overcome its deep divisions. The memorial has achieved its goal to honor those who suffered and died in conflict and to help heal the wounds first opened some 150 years ago.
We just made a 17-day trip across the U.S. to Alaska, driving from Bangor, Maine to Bellingham, Washington, then by ferry to Haines, Alaska.
It was a journey across a continent, through vast farmlands turned a lush brown by the recent passage of the tilling machines. Interstate highways.
Along the way, we visited friends and relatives and squeezed in a bit of sightseeing.
Margo and John, our sibling and in-laws, put us up for three nights in Minneapolis in their hip downtown loft.
In South Dakota, our home state, we dropped by to see Mount Rushmore and the four presidents enshrined there, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt. and Lincoln.
We climbed around in the Badlands…
…and re-visited the drama of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site. (Read my post here about The Man Who Saved the World during the Cold War.)
The Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming are sacred to people of the Great Sioux Nation who were forced from their land by the U.S., then defeated after the Battle of Little Bighorn. We visited the battlefield and walked the hills where Custer’s men made their last stand…
And where Sioux Nation now celebrates what was to be their last victory.
Further north, through undulating brown hills in each direction, we crossed Montana. A three-hour traffic backup in the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state let us know that we were approaching a major city. We spent the night at Roaring River B & B where we could hear the water flow.
One night in Seattle gave us a chance to visit with our niece, Molly and her wife, Allegra, who are converting their own vans so they can enjoy time on the road.
Our stay was marred by thieves who broke into our car and stole all of our clothes and jewelry. The thought of it still makes me ill.
Our old friends Jill and Alan helped us recover from this catastrophe with their warm hospitality in their new home in Port Townsend.
A dash to Bellingham, Washington then a long wait for a departure on the Alaska Marine Transportation ferry to Haines, Alaska.
For three days we wove through the Inner Passage, once a stronghold of Northwest Native American culture, always a lush haven for foliage and wildlife, including the white Spirit Bear.
From Haines we drove north through the spectacular heights of the Kluane Mountains, past Kluane Lake, where steam arose from below the earth’s surface. The ice is only now melting from the shores.
Finally, we descended into Alaska, our home for the next three months.
It’s impossible to get a fair view of a city in 14 hours, and that is my disclaimer. When we decided to stop for the night in Janesville, Wisconsin, I remembered that Paul Ryan hailed from there, but everything else was a blank. Industrial warehouses dotted the roadside and trucks rumbled by.
On a brief walk the next morning through sprawling housing developments, I kept my eyes open and found a few clues to the local culture and history.
I. DWINDLING DAIRYLAND
First, I came across a plaque on a rock at the edge of a tiny meadow and pond. It recorded the story of a couple who ran a farm there during much of the 1900s. The inscription evoked nostalgia for Wisconsin’s glory days as “America’s Dairyland.”
"In summer months, their dairy herd grazed in the woodlands beyond and every afternoon gathered at this pond to drink. Homes and streets have replaced the farm, but this park remnant preserves a special place, when, in days gone by, the sounds of frogs, cows and birds filled the air.”
Behind me, a quiet neighborhood of houses spread out. Jarringly close, the Interstate created an inescapable wave of noise.
I thought of the words, “in days gone by, the sounds of frogs, cows and birds filled the air” and could only regret that nature is so often subsumed by industry and progress.
But within the neighborhood I found activity: a man raking leaves on the second warm day of spring, young wives jogging, dogs chirping at every passer-by.
II. POLITICAL FISSURES
Outside one house, a sticker demanding the recall of conservative Governor Scott Walker reminded me of the harsh measures the governor had taken several years ago to strip state employees of their unions. I can see now that the high-stakes drama between union members and the governor should have been a bell weather of the ideological warfare now pushing our country to new extremes.
III. IMMIGRANT AMERICA
Before we left, I saw a different side of Janesville, a side that revealed the diversity of America’s heartland. I knew that Puritan New Englanders and German immigrants had settled the area and guessed that their descendants still predominate. Yet when I returned to our hotel, I found three or four women from India, one middle-aged and the others barely out of high school, cleaning the rooms. A grandfatherly man carried towels slowly, moving with a stiff gait. Two young men in tight t-shirts worked their smart phones.
They stood together in a group and I was certain they were a family and the hotel owners, their success another example of immigrants who are realizing a new life in America.
Check out a version of this essay on Medium.com
Where else but in New Orleans would people decorate their clothes with beans and parade through town?
We never knew that Mardi Gras was not just one day but many until we kept running into New Orleans residents in small parades around our neighborhood beginning on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Where we are living in the Bywater, every afternoon we heard the local high school bands marching around the neighborhood and often ran out to see them pass by.
As the days passed more and more people donned elaborate costumes and handmade floats in large and small parades through the local streets. In January, the Krewe du Vieux marked the city's 300th anniversary in its very irreverent style.
On Lundi Gras, that’s Fat Monday for you non-French speakers, the Red Bean Parade got underway with people wearing clothes they decorated with elaborate patterns of beans. A couple of brass bands heavy on the drums kept the party moving. The fun started at the the Marigny Opera House then paraded across town.
The parade snaked through the Marigney toward the French Quarter...
accompanied by a bean-encrusted buggy.
Could they be outdone in their creativity on the actual Mardi Gras day? You bet. We opened our front door in the morning to find hundreds of locals ready to have some fun.
Happy Mardi Gras!
Our first month in New Orleans hasn’t turned out exactly like we had expected, but taking life in stride is essential to enjoy living on the road. We left our van in Alaska in September and have been living in short-term furnished rentals until we return there in May.
Most surprising has been the cold weather, culminating (I hope) with the snow and ice that is on the sidewalk outside my window as I write. The Interstate was shut down last night and black ice has been causing accidents all day in the area. We’ve got a new heating system where we are living, thank goodness, but the lack of insulation in this early 20th century cottage doesn’t keep the heat in.
We’re living in the Bywater section of town, a hip district where historic single- and double-wide houses are still cheap enough for artists and musicians to live there. Street art is everywhere. We live just two streets from an abandoned warehouse that the graffiti artist bmike2c has turned into an art gallery.
When it is warm enough to go out, and yes, despite the freezing temperatures, the majority of the days here have been mild, Mark and I roam the streets on foot from the Lower Ninth Ward to the Garden District. Before Christmas, the houses were decorated, New Orleans-style.
On Christmas Eve we went out to the levees along the Mississippi river to take part in a Cajun ritual, the burning of bonfires. Teams of men and women build these towering pyres lined with firecrackers that explode in a noisy burst of flame when it is first lit. Fireworks add to the festivities in the dark.
New Year’s Eve is marked by a parade through the Marigney and the French Quarter, with high school bands from around the country that come to play. This color guard led the band twirling wooden guns.
Mardi Gras season kicked off the next weekend on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Purple, yellow and green beads started appearing on neighboring doorsteps and the photos of the Kings & Queens at Masque Balls of the Krewes filled the news each day.
In our neighborhood, Mardi Gras preparations mean that the local high school band takes it to the street. Every afternoon, at the end of classes, the students grab their instruments and batons and march around. Here’s a peek at one of the beautiful aspects of New Orleans outside our front door.
Stay tuned for the next two months while we explore the Crescent City close up.
Some of you may have noticed that I have not posted here for many weeks. A few knew I had headed to Bangor, Maine, to spend time with my mother and help celebrate her 100th birthday. For three months we visited, making small talk in her antique-filled room or cruising the assisted living residence she calls home.
If you have never experienced someone with memory loss, let me say that it forces one to practice patience like never before. I had to stop my own annoyance from mounting when every minute or two my mother asked for the date and time. My job, and that of her aides, was to distract her from what she doesn’t know and to focus on enjoying the here and now. That was easy with my mother who propels herself through life with a relentless cheerfulness, determined to deny the complicated emotions that rivet the rest of us.
My mother loves to do crossword puzzles and would try to engage anyone who enters her room. She remembers the old stars and literary names and solved all of the Latin clues. She and I did the New York Times crossword and together we dissected the tricky clues in search of double entendres. One of her aides makes crossword a social activity, gathering a group of elderly women to solve the puzzles from a paperback book.
Some days, I pulled out boxes of old photographs and described the people and scenes that her failed eyes could no longer see. We laughed as I read old diaries written when she was a young girl in Augusta and Portland, then looked up her old friends to see if any of them survived (none had).
My mother’s 100th birthday celebration stretched over several days starting with a shared birthday cake in the assisted living dining room, then a small party put on by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and one arranged by a former students and teachers at Waterville High School.
The major get-together for family and friends was held at Lucerne Inn, a place first settled by her ancestors in 1810.
My mother talked endlessly about her birthday for the weeks leading up to it and thoroughly enjoyed each of the parties that honored her but when they were over, she forgot it all. I printed a large photo of the attendees and would name each of the people standing behind her on that day and she agreed that it was a ‘wonderful event,’ speaking from habit rather than actual memory.
Throughout my visit, my mother always knew who I was, drawing on her still vivid old memories. She recognized my dear friend Lizzie and recalled our experiences together as teenagers 48 years ago.
When not with my mother, I lived in Orrington, across the Penobscot river from Bangor. For the first time in 25 years, I was living alone. To stay busy, I volunteered with a solidarity project to purchase food from farmers and donate them to laid off workers and others who have fallen on hard times. I served as the liaison with the small farmers and helped to publicize a benefit concert by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary.
The long, unseasonably warm autumn allowed me to take long walks around Fields Pond or in City Forest.
A couple of times I made it down to Acadia, to feel the flung spray and the blown spume and hear the seagulls cry (thank you, John Masefield).
I also had a chance to research the local history of my ancestors, including Thomas and Martha Cowing, two children of Revolutionary War soldiers who settled nearby.
My most precious time, however, was spent each day with my mother, days that washed over me, erasing any lingering grievance or guilt about my long absences roaming the world. I was thankful that I was able to take care of my mother, knowing that it healed a damaged part of me.
When the snow started falling and in the chill set in, I hid my tears to say good bye. I knew my mother was in good hands, tended to by caring aides, but I could have easily stayed by her side.
As I drove south, I decided to give my mother a call. I knew immediately that she had forgotten that I had been there. She sounded surprised to hear my voice and acted like it had been a long time since she had heard from me. I told her I had just left Bangor after three months there and she said ‘oh,’ embarrassed by her loss of memory. Within seconds she had forgotten again and moved on to her favorite subject: when she would see me again.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.