My Two Maines
The Maine of my childhood was two Maines. Not north/south, rich/poor, or rural/urban, but inland/coastal. I grew up in Rumford Point, a tiny village in the western foothills where Abbotts went back at least seven generations and generally stayed put. But Aunt Ruth, my father's sister, married a local boy and headed out for the coast, where they set up housekeeping in Boothbay and split the family geography in ways my family would never forget.
Around harvest time, we inlanders often headed for a day at the coast, a pilgrimage that must have required multi-stage advance planning.At the time, our invading army included my grandfather; our family of five; Aunt Dot's family of thirteen (though some of the kids must have stayed behind to tend the livestock); and Uncle Norman's family of seven. If you add in Aunt Ruth's family of four, that makes nine adults and maybe twenty kids.
The house that Aunt Ruth and Uncle Ray lived in through summer's end was the smallest structure of any kind I have ever seen used as a dwelling place. It was called the Binnacle, and was originally a boat shed for the large house up the hill where Aunt Ruth worked as a cleaning lady. In the winter they would rent an actual house, where visiting family could get in out of the rain if necessary, but in the summer, it was the Binnacle.
The Binnacle consisted of one real room, which acted as the master bedroom, kitchen, dining room, living room . . . well, everything. My cousins David and Arthur slept in a loft that I remember as similar to the space above a garage used to store storm windows. It is just barely possible that all of the adults could fit into the house at the same time, but I don't believe that ever happened. It would certainly have been impossible for the kids to all get in at once.
But why would we want to? At home the horizon loomed close, formed by mountains and rivers. But at the Binnacle, we had the ocean literally at Aunt Ruth's door: a set of granite steps disappeared into the ocean and led down to Uncle Ray's dinghy. As the fire burned down the coals for our family feast, we gazed across at Indiantown Island and imagined being able to step into a boat and journey to any place on earth. We feasted on food from our two Maines: garden vegetables brought from Rumford Point, mussels collected from the Boothbay rocks, and lobsters from Uncle Ray's traps, dipped in butter my mother had churned in our kitchen at home. After the feast, Aunt Ruth arranged us into small crews for a turn in Uncle Ray's boat. As little kids, we were required to wear a "Mae West": a kapok-filled monster that hung to our knees, and that might not float itself, much less our meager weight, but it gave my uncle something to grab when he set us onto the base of a large buoy so we could run over and ring the bell.
At some point - food gone, boat rides over, kids worn out from the sun, the running around, and the inevitable encounter with a hornet's nest - my favorite event would take place. Aunt Ruth would bring out a box of her molasses cookies, and we kids each got a whole one all to ourselves. These cookies were a work of art - round, high, soft, strongly scented of molasses, and like none I've found since. To this day, the smell of molasses always reminds me of Boothbay.
Aunt Ruth was the kind of aunt who made each of us feel like her favorite, and when I left home for college, she sent me cookies regularly as a reminder of the two Maines I missed. They arrived by the dozen - twelve beautifully formed shapes, individually wrapped in cellophane, with a note: "For you and your friends."
Even after I got married and Aunt Ruth was widowed, the cookies kept arriving. One time the postman tried to deliver a package from my aunt when we weren't home. I went to the post office the next day, but they couldn't find the package. They couldn't find it the next day either, nor the next. We always suspected a weak-willed postal worker who also couldn't resist the scent of molasses. As it turned out, that was to be the last batch she ever sent us. Even now, twenty-five years later, I sometimes hope for another notice from the post office about a package in the mail, miraculously found during a renovation, carrying news of my childhood, of my aunt, of a time gone by, of my two Maines.