Two Shores – the wands of joy and pain

monheganharbor

I left Maine behind with the DownEaster’s dream of being on Monhegan Island yet to be. Knowing how way leads on to way (Frost), I wondered whether I ever would.

Mysterious shapes, with wands of joy and pain,
Which seize us unaware in helpless sleep,
And lead us to the houses where we keep
Our secrets hid, well barred by every chain
That we can forge and bind: the crime whose stain
Is slowly fading ’neath the tears we weep;
Dead bliss which, dead, can make our pulses leap—
Oh, cruelty! To make these live again!
They say that death is sleep, and heaven’s rest
Ends earth’s short day, as, on the last faint gleam
Of sun, our nights shut down, and we are blest.
Let this, then, be of heaven’s joy the test,
The proof if heaven be, or only seem,
That we forever choose what we will dream!

“Dreams” – Helen Hunt Jackson, Amherst, MA (1830)

 

I’ll imagine Mohegan’s lure from the North Shore of Lake Superior, putting off the dream to welcome two new-born Minnesotans who might use a DownEast step-grandfather’s softened hand to guide them into the knowledge of themselves toward the choices they alone will dream.

North Shore

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 8, 2017.

 

 

The Timeless Scent of a Pine Tree

At the age of three, I wanted to be the Sawgus Man.

Driving up the steep, winding road to Signal Mountain in Grand Teton National Park, the scent of fresh cut pine trees reaches my nostrils. Within a nanosecond I’m no longer in Wyoming, and I’m not almost 73. I’m a three-year-old back in South Paris, Maine, shoveling sawdust into the coal bin of my grandparents’ big house on Main Street.

During World War II there was no coal for heating in Maine. Sawdust from the pine trees took its place. When the Sawdust Man delivered the sawdust in his big dump truck, I went out with a small shovel to “help” him fill the coal bin with the sawdust. I loved the smell and the Sawdust Man was my hero.

Seventy years later, the aroma of sawdust transports me back to the times with Sawgus Man. Nothing then or now is as sweet as the scent of a fallen pine tree. Scents and memories are as intimately connected as time and eternity.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Jackson, Wyoming, July 2, 2015.

The Human Menagerie

The reference is to Carl Sandberg’s poem.

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where; it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

After 14 years of living at home,  my cousin Alan was institutionalized. His Cerebral Palsy had finally come to the point of seizures at all hours of the day and night.

For 14 years Alan’s bed was just outside the open door between his room and his parents, my Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Bob in South Paris, Maine. His mother slept with an ear open for any change in Alan’s breathing pattern. She had come to learn the breathing changes that preceded a seizure. She would hear the change and rush to Alan’s side.

Alan required round-the-clock care. The years when my Aunt and Uncle felt secure in leaving him alone for shopping or running an errand had now become a wistful memory. My cousin Gwen remembers that their mother could no longer go outside to hang the laundry without calling a neighbor to stay with Alan for 10 minutes. Alan’s care became the all-consuming center of family life to the neglect of Alan’s younger siblings, Dennis (11) and Gwen (7) and the deteriorating health of Uncle Bob and Aunt Gertrude.

In the 14 year of Alan’s life, when things had gone beyond the point where they could care for him adequately, they made the hardest decision of their lives. They admitted him to the Pownal State School and Training Center in New Gloucester, Maine where he spent the last five years of his life with other severely disabled residents. Members of the family made the hour-and-a-half trip to New Gloucester twice a week to be with Alan at Pineland. During those next five years Alan’s friends at Pineland became friends to the entire Smith family.

My cousin Dennis describes the scene at Pownal in words of his own:

These were children with Downs Syndrome, dwarfs of all kinds, microcephalics, hydrocephalics, people we used to call morons, idiots, and imbeciles, and non-ambulatory people like Alan. All of natures mistakes in one big room.

When my mother and I would do concerts for them, they would bring Alan in on a gurney. They would sway to and fro to the music trying to sing or moan to the melody. At first their responses raised the hackles on the back of my neck. It was like a scene out of a Hollywood movie.

Some of the residents assisted in Alan’s care. In his room they would talk to him like dear friends and Alan would respond to them with his familiar ‘ah’s and laughter. I grew to understand he was in his element there with constant attention by those he knew and trusted…. I’m convinced he died a happy, contented young man who was free at last to be himself. Just another human being surrounded with friends who loved him.

The human species itself is what Carl Sandburg said each one of its members is: a menagerie.  We are all in the menagerie, the most ‘abled’ and the least ‘abled’ of us. Every attempt to engineer a species without “mistakes” – a purified race, a super race, a genetically modified species – is a mistake doomed to fail. The wilderness always prevails.

Those who have met the zoo within themselves come to understand that we all come from the wilderness just outside the castle walls and moats of human pride and self-deception:

“…it [i.e., the zoo inside my ribs] came from God-Knows-Where; it is going to God-Knows-Where….I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.”

The Forlorn Children of the Mayflower

Uncle John claimed we Andrews descended from John Alden of the Mayflower. He spent many years, day after day, doing the research that confirmed what every Yankee wants to find: a connection to the true Americans. You know. The ones who came across on the Mayflower. The ones with funny hats who murdered the Americans who were already here. The ones who make their descendants “blue bloods”.

I always wondered, though, why such an important family as John Alden’s would live in South Paris, Maine where Mark Twain, had he known about the place, would have said of it what he wrote about Cincinnati: “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati. It’s always ten years behind the times.”

I’ve lived in Cincinnati. I’ve also lived in South Paris. South Paris wins the contest hands down.

When I think of South Paris an eerie feeling sweeps over me. A kind of despair. I feel forlorn.

I went back to South Paris for my Aunt Gertrude’s memorial service. As always, I wondered why people chose to live there. My cousins grew up there. Most of them couldn’t wait to leave and did as soon as they could, and never looked back. I wondered why the others stayed. But even more, I’ve wondered why our forebears went there at all, being especially important blue bloods like the family of John Alden of the Mayflower.

The Andrews didn’t start out in South Paris, though. They settled a few miles away, before South Paris existed, in the pristine foothills of the White Mountains on wooded land with a trout streams over which they would build a red covered bridge and a paddle wheel sawmill to mill the lumber for things like caskets. The Andrews Casket Company and Funeral Home became a staple of the hamlet, the famed institution of an entrepreneurial Baptist minister, John Alden’s descendant, Isaac Andrews. The property remained in the family for over 200 years until my mother’s favorite cousin Lynwood (“Pete”) Andrews sold his home, the casket company, and the funeral home, along with the land it to some whippersnapper several years ago.

A smile always came across my mother’s face whenever she told us of playing hide-’n-seek with her siblings, Gertrude, John, Elwood, and Roy in the casket room of the original Andrews homestead in Woodstock. Imagine hiding in a casket. Maybe everyone in those woods had come there to hide from death, running from the haunting memory of the murders that followed their landing at Plymouth Rock where they once had “no property or position, no wealth, no fame, or profession, no beauties seen now or then, but … managed to have children.”*

As a child my mother and I often visited Grandpa Andrews, my great grandfather, who still lived on the original Andrews property with the casket factory, the trout stream, the red covered bridge, the mill, the funeral home, and the family home. By the time I came along, he was infirm, cared for by his live-in housekeeper. Angie was a sweet woman who dearly loved Grandpa Andrews. Angie made the best buttermilk biscuits anyone had ever tasted; no one could duplicate them, even with the recipe she shared. My mother always suspected there was a secret ingredient missing from the public recipe. There was a wink-wink when anyone spoke of Angie as the housekeeper. She was known for her biscuits. The rest was nobody’s business.

I was three and four years old when my mother and I lived in South Paris and made the visits to Grandpa Andrews. It was during the Second World War. My father was overseas in the South Pacific. Even then, I sensed the smell of death, knowing in my bones that one of the caskets in the casket room might be waiting for my father. Way back then I could smell the forlornness in the air.

Sixty years later, when I returned to Maine for my Aunt Gertrude memorial service at the Congregational Church of South Paris, I looked out at the congregation and wondered who they were and why they were in Oxford County, the poorest county in the State of Maine.

Two days before doing my Aunt’s service, I was on my way to the Mollyockett near the old Andrews homestead in Woodstock when, a mile or so before my destination – it was a Sunday – I saw a sign for whole belly fried clams. I love fried clams. We don’t get those in Minnesota. I pulled into the parking lot. A man whose home shared the driveway to the little restaurant was standing outside. “Can I help ya?” he asked. “Well, I don’t know. I saw the sign for fried clams,” I said, “but it looks like it’s closed.” “Well, it’s Sunday,” he said. “Where ya from? “Minnesota. We don’t get whole bellied fried clams in Minnesota.” “Wait right here,” he said. We’ll open up. Let me go in and get the Mrs.”

Inside the restaurant he asks where I’m from and what brings me to these parts. “I’m here for a funeral. I’m staying at the Mollyockett,” I said.

“You must be here for Pete’s funeral.”

“Pete? Pete who?

“Well, Pete Andrews.”

“Pete died? No, I’m here for my Aunt Gertrude’s service. She was Pete’s first cousin, and my mother’s favorite cousin. Pete died?”

“Gorry, he said. “I thought it was a little early. He just died yesterday, wasn’t it, Mabel? It was Saturday, right, Mabel? I thought you was here for Pete’s funeral. See that dollar bill up there? That’s from Pete. Our first customer. We’d just moved here from Rhode Island. Real gentleman, that Pete. Always had a different lady with him, a real ladies’ man, but always a gentleman. Always wore a white shirt and tie.”

I wonder if Pete carried the forlornness of the children of John Alden and the Mayflower, running from a murderous ancestral history he couldn’t identify, trying to resolve it playing among the caskets with my mother, or eating fried clams with the ladies, always the gentleman, just like Isaac Andrews, his grandfather, and all the other Aldens before him. Forlorn and wondering why.

*Quoted from Steve Shoemaker’s verse on the Mayflower posted last on Views from the Edge.

The Man Who Loved Graves

Andrews Casket Company mill in Woodstock, ME

Andrews Casket Company mill in Woodstock, ME

My great-great-great-grandfather Isaac Andrews founded the Andrews Casket Company and Funeral Home next to the trout stream in Woodstock, Maine more than 250 years ago. Isaac was a minister.Because there was no carpenter in town, he not only stood at the graves. He built pine boxes for those he buried. Over the course of time, the simple boxes became the caskets of the Andrews Casket Company and Funeral Home. You might say Isaac had a monopoly in those Maine woods.

Only recently did the Andrews property leave the family when Pete Andrews, my late mother’s favorite cousin, sold it to some whippersnapper who just wanted to make a buck.

My mother used to chuckle as she recalled playing hide-and-seek with her siblings in and among the caskets at the casket factory. The land, the mill, the old homestead,the funeral home and the trout stream that had belonged to the family all those years belongs to someone new…which means that it, like Garrison Keillor’s fictional “Lake Woebegone,” never really did belong to us and does not belong to them. It does not belong to time.

Last October my brother Bob and I stood with my cousins at the open grave of my 99 year-old Aunt Gertrude – our one remaining Andrews elders. I recited from The Book of Common Worship the prayer I have prayed a thousand times at the open grave, the one my classmate Steve and I learned as young, naive pastors, a prayer for the living that feeds me day and nigh until the lights go out. I wonder if Isaac Andrews did the same way back when.

“O Lord, support us all the day long until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging and peace

at the last.”

Here’s the poem from Steve from a few days ago that inspired the above reflection.

“The Man Who Loved the Graves”

– Steve Shoemaker, April 24, 2012

When I was just a young and naive pastor,

an old man in the congregation

would always arrive long before the rest

of the people at the grave site. He’d shun

the funeral, but haunt the cemetery…

Standing by the open grave, he’d state

his opinion of the deceased and share

with me the type, style and brand of casket

he’d told his wife he wanted when he died.

As the morticians say, he “predeceased”

his spouse, and when we met to plan, she tried

to grant his wishes to the very last

She blessed their common gravestone with her tears,

but smiled through life for many happy years…

Like the widow of the man who loved graves, I smile through tears for all the years, and I take strange solace in knowing that I don’t really “own” a thing.