Friday, October 15, 2010

The Wedding

Well, you don't do that every day. Last Saturday I had the privilege of actually marrying my son and his bride. Pretty awesome. I'll tell you how it came about. Back in the winter he gave her a diamond and she said they would have a fall wedding. Then almost as an afterthought, they said "Dad, you can marry us." Well, yes I could. Maine, South Carolina and Florida allow a Notary Public to solemnize a wedding. Forthwith I submitted the paperwork to become a notary. Paid my fifty bucks and I was "official". Like so many young people these days, the kids were not into religion and merely wanted a simple nonsectarian wedding ceremony. I thought what I would want to tell them and then I searched for some quotes and writers who might fit the occasion. They had decided to be married at our very remote wilderness cabin. That also presented some challenges as the place is not easy to get to and has no paved roads, no running water and no electricity. The wedding party would be limited. Then they had the idea to get married on one weekend and have the reception on the next. Nothing like thinking outside the box. So that's what we did. When I mentioned these plans to my sister, who by the way is very religious, her immediate reaction was a question. "Can you do that?" she asked. "Won't that be a problem? Is that legal?" "Yes it is," I told her. I called the state bureau of statistics and records just to make sure and I was right. Everything would be legal and above board. So far so good.
But you know its kind of a funny feeling to take on such responsibility. I mean, who was I that I should have any authority or moral right to pronounce these two people husband and wife? What gave me the right? Well for one thing, they'd asked me. And for another I was Jeremy's father. And Jean and I owned the camp. In a way I was in charge. I guessed if a ship's captain can perform a wedding then so could I. I wondered if my Maine Guide's License contributed anything to the proceedings? The truth is like many young people these days, Jeremy and Shannon had somewhere in their past days together made a silent commitment to each other and for all practical purposes were husband and wife. My few words and signature on the marriage license would just make it "official". I thought how, in some ways, this whole process is backward. How its so easy to get married and so difficult to get divorced, and I wondered if maybe it should be the other way around. Maybe there were be fewer divorces if more work were done up front ensuring the couples were compatible and level headed about their enterprise? Last Saturday was a lovely fall day. We assembled on the beach of the lake in front of the cabin and we all smiled as the beautiful bride came down the steps to meet her new husband. I read from Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea, and then a piece by Robert Fulgham called "Union" and then I asked them "Do you?" and "Do you?" And that was it. "By the power vested in my by the State of Maine I now pronounce you husband and wife." Then there was laughing, and whoops, and clapping and lots and lots of hugging. We'd done it. No, I warrant there aren't too many fathers who can say the did the wedding ceremony for their son. We have some friends who've done the same for their daughter. He and I commiserate over what a rush the whole thing is. Never to be forgotten. Can you imagine the story these kids will be able to tell their children? So, if you get the chance, do it. If your kids should ask you, do it. And if you don't happen to live in Maine, So Carolina or Florida; then maybe you'd move just so you could say "I now pronounce you husband and wife." I'll never forget the moment.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Floating Campfire

I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about a pontoon boat, but now that we have one, my ideas are changing. At first I thought they were just too awkward and clumsy to be much of a boat. Sort of like a floating barn door. Definitely not my idea of a vessel suitable for off shore adventures. But she persisted and I found a used one we could afford. Its twenty feet long and the first comments from the kids was why hadn’t we bought one sooner? I decided what appeals is the sociable aspect of the thing, what I have come to call the floating campfire. The outdoor campfire at our cabin is a gathering place. As the evening draws on someone kindles a fire and as it grows darker and perhaps a little cooler people begin to assemble. They automatically form a circle around the burning fire, being carful to stay out of the drifting woodsmoke. We pull up beach chairs and stumps for seats and people poke at the coals. They stir the burning ashes and throw on more limbs and the fire flares up. Then the talk begins. About the day and what we’ve done and who was where and the swimming and the fishing and the mountain biking. The kids tell stories and ask questions and before we know it old family legends and fables are being told. Someone brings his guitar and plucks a few chords. Maybe it’s a tune we know and people hum along. We draw closer to the fire and shake up the ashes and watch the sparks soar upward amongst the tree branches to take their place in the star -studded night sky. Everyone feels cozy in the circle of firelight. Well at least that’s how I see it, and now we have a similar experience with the pontoon boat. We find it brings people together. In some instances they may all be following their own interests, but for the duration of the cruise, they’re all here and part of the crowd. The floating dance floor allows everyone to come. The young wives sit in the back and read their romance novels. The teenagers sit at the table and eat their snacks and drinks. The two year old sits on the deck and plays with his toys. Three young men on the bow cast lures against the shore looking for the first fish of the day. The oldsters can sit comfortably without being scrunched up. They can get up and walk around and stretch. The engine is not overly loud so people talk and can be heard. Nor do we go fast but merely idle along the shore. The water slaps playfully against the aluminum tubes that are the pontoons. We take turns passing the mixed nuts and the drinks, netting a fish and steering. Now it becomes clear why she wanted the boat. It’s social. Like the campfire it makes a gathering place and encourages people to interact. The teens debate the merits of their favorite singers and song groups. The men laugh together when one cast his lure over the other’s line. The toddler walks back and forth between the mothers in the stern and his father on the bow. Everyone sees the eagle drop from his perch high in the top of a giant pine and fly low over the surface of the pond. We all hear loons when they take up their chorus for the evening. It takes maybe two hours to circle the lake at our rate of speed but no one complains. The girls pull on their hoodies as the evening chill descends. When we get back to the dock there’s just light enough to see the path up to the cabin. His father has to carry the toddler who is now mostly asleep. People speak in whispers as if they don’t want to disrupt the quiet of the evening and the woods. The floating campfire has done its job bringing people all together at the end of the day. Forcing interaction and conversation and togetherness. In a few minutes someone will kindle the other kind of campfire and people will gather round the fireplace. I have to admit she was right. The pontoon boat has been a good buy. It’s brought a whole new dimension to our days at the cabin and the time we are able to spend with our family. Slowly I’m growing somewhat fond of the boat. I never thought I’d like such an awkward craft, but it just proves there’s a place and time for most everything. And right now this pontoon boat is pretty neat.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I never liked playing chess. It always seemed like a very cruel game to me.
But then I’m a very noncompetitive person. I couldn’t seem to get my head
around the idea that the goal of the game was to defeat your opponent, and
yet at the same time playing was supposed to be fun. And too, some of the
friends I knew who played took the game very seriously. The press was not
encouraging either, presenting stories of world chess masters with minds like
computers that no one else could hope to understand. I smiled to myself when
they created a machine with enough computing power that could finally
defeat the world’s best players. Friends used to tell me how they loved the
game because it was a metaphor for life. I thought it was more like war. What
I hated most of all was how when the end came there were no options other
then toppling the king. Checkmate. All roads out were blocked. All bridges
destroyed. All doors slammed shut. You were trapped like a rat and had to
concede defeat. That’s how the game is played.
But now I find myself part of a real life chess game and the metaphor has come
back to haunt me. My father is living in a nursing home. Putting him there was
like finally giving up the fight and admitting defeat. It was checkmate all over
again. That’s what happens when all your options fail, all alternatives shrivel
up, and you’re left with no other choice. I find life, like chess, sometimes is a cruel game. Poor Dad had been failing for years. Every since Mom died he had continued
living alone and doing his best to get by. But the onset of dementia and physical
infirmities put him at risk. He was either going to leave the stove on and burn
the house down, or he was going to have an auto accident and kill someone.
As each week passed the pawns fell one after the other. He lost track of time.
He became incontinent. He didn’t eat. He fell in the kitchen and we had to
call the EMT’s. He went to the hospital and then rehab and then we brought
him home. The VA provided some in-home care to help with bathing and
cooking and shopping. We had meals on wheels and Dad just stacked the
unopened meals in the fridge. He could not learn to take his medications.
He passed out and could not get out of bed. We had to call the ambulance
again. Now the knights and bishops were being eliminated. The progress of the dementia
was slow but unfaltering. He tried smoking and burned his clothes. The
state finally took away his driver’s license. There goes the queen. He
collapsed again and went to the hospital. For a while they had him on death
watch. He was comatose, but he revived and the question was what to do
now? He couldn’t return home. That was out of the question. Check.
His needs were beyond what his family could provide. Check again. He
needed nursing care throughout the day. He needed a safe environment. He
needed help with simple daily tasks. He couldn’t dress himself. His needs were
so great he didn’t even qualify for assisted living. They discharged him to
the Veteran’s Home. And that was checkmate. Nowhere else to go. No
other options. No new ideas. No hope of recovery. The king is defeated.
As I said, chess and life can both be very cruel. And right now I’m not
enjoying the game.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Memorial Day at the Maine Veterans' Home

Well it's been a while. Lots going on of course, but nothing directly to do with the book. Mostly marina stuff. Putting the docks and moorings in the river, getting the place up and running for the summer. The big project was choosing and then installing a wi-fi system for our customers. That has been successful by the way, but that's not what caused me to open this screen and begin typing. No, what I would like to record is what happened a week ago at the Maine Veteran's Home. Dad now lives there. He has been there since New Years Day 2010. On Monday we were invited as family to come take part in the Memorial Day festivities. When we arrived the staff and nurses were just beginning to wheel many of the old vets out of the home into the parking lot. Those who are mobile like Dad shuffled along with their walkers. It was a sunny warm summer day on the Maine coast. Before long the sidewalk was filled with about 100 assorted old veterans and their families. When I scanned the crowd I saw caps with gold gilt names on the hat band: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Merchant Marine, Coast Guard. They were all there. And then we heard the parade. The Scarboro Memorial Day Parade was marching down US Route 1 and turned up the driveway to the veteran's home. The Vet's home was the last stop for the parade and the site for the town's memorial service. All the veterans got to see the entire Memorial Day Parade pass in review. The high school band, the color guard, the girl scouts and boy scouts, the old cars
and tractors and the fire engine. All traveled around the circle of the parking lot and then stopped. The services began with the pledge of allegiance. That's when I heard a stirring and all about us these old old soldiers and sailors struggled to their feet. Those who could stood up and faced the flag, flapping proudly there in the light breeze from the coast. Some saluted, others placed their hands over their hearts and in voices barely audible recited the oath. It took a few minutes to get them all seated and comfortable again. The band played, the bag pipers squealed, the drums beat and the guest general gave a nice short speech. The ceremony honoring those who had given the last full measure of devotion to their country, and their buddies who had made it home was almost over. The high school band members stood up from their seats and raised their horns. They began playing the national anthem. One by one, the veterans rose one more time to stand and gaze at their flag flying in the morning sun. They remained standing while the VFW color guard fired a gun salute and then off to the side of the parking lot a high schooler played taps. The aching notes echoed off the sides of the Veterans' Home. the last note faded to silence and Memorial Day was done. Family and staff began to circulate and assist the aged vets with their wheelchairs and walkers and guided them back toward the open doors of the building. I'm not sure all knew or remembered why their nurses had brought them outside that day. But some did. Dad knew. He said it was a great time. It reminded him of Memorial Days gone by when it was called Decoration Day. I kept thinking to myself, "its so little", to recognize these veterans for what they did on just one day. And now here they are, many of them infirmed and unable any longer to care for themselves. I thought, we forget too soon. I honored the day by wearing my Vietnam Service Medal. Once a year I find that token and wear it for the day. We were together helping Dad to his feet when a stranger asked if we were a family. I said yes and she asked to take our picture. Jean and me and USN Shipfitter First Class Bob Randall, age 87 years, stood in the sun and smiled at the camera. Dad was tired and ready to return to his room. It seems to me at least this is one holiday the stores and merchants will not be able to commercialize. I hope people will keep the day pure and solemn and that at least once each year we all take time to remember and say Thanks. Its the least we can do.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Gaffett's Town

Whenever we visit Dad at the nursing home, I come away discouraged. Oh don't get me wrong, the Veteran's Home is a nice facility and the staff are as nice as possible. We think Dad is getting excellent care there. But when all is said and done its still a nursing home and after a number of visits the place seems rather bleak to me. As we walk the halls and skirt the various vets in their wheelchairs and scurry past the open doors to the rooms that hold bed ridden elderly, I can't put out of my mind the elephant in the room. That elephant we all know is there lurking, but no one acknowledges its presence. That elephant that hangs over all the activities and daily routine. That unspoken elephant that says almost everyone has come there to die. For most, not all, but most of these folks this facility is their last stop before they die and move on. Even Dad remarks how almost every week they wheel someone out and then the next day a new person comes to occupy that room. Sort of like a train station where people wait, often not all that patiently, for their train. When the train stops they present their ticket and get on board and their seat at the station is taken by another traveler. I began to think along these lines and I remembered Captain Littlepage's sea story in Country of the Pointed Firs written by Sarah Jewett. In the book Capt. Littlepage spins his yarn about being shipwrecked on the coast of Greenland. While the survivors waited for rescue, Capt. Littlepage befriended another lost mariner and its from him the captain got his story called The Waiting Place. The man Gaffett told about his ship and crew being lost in the Artic, further north then any ship had ever sailed before and how they came upon this town. Gaffett went on to explain how the sailors were amazed to find an occupied town so far north and yet the people they saw on shore were - insubstantial. They were ghostly and flitted about. When a sailor would try to approach one of these souls they would vanish. Gaffett went on at great length about how they saw groups of these wraith-like people and individuals but were never able to speak to any of them. In the end they decided these creatures were neither living or dead. Gaffett told Captain Littlepage the strange town they had stumbled upon was a sort of waiting place between this world and the next. Capt. Littlepage was not at all sure about the weird town so high in the latitudes but as he grew older he wondered more and now in the book he repeated Gaffett's story, as if it might have been true. Who could say? I know the story's true. Gaffett town and the people in it are not far away in the Artic, they're just up the road in the "B" wing of the Veteran's Home.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Striking a chord

You never know when you might strike a chord that reverberates with many others. Its something many writers hope to achieve, but then we never really know because there's little feedback. Some of us might get an occasional email saying I read your piece and I liked it. That's always encouraging, even if there's only one. Or then we may bump into a friend in the grocery checkout and she'll say hey I read your book. I never knew you were so talented. And we mutter Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. So bit by bit, with drips and drabs we suck up little hints that insinuate what we have written is not trash and that once in a while someone really enjoys our stuff. For amateurs like myself we live for these little morsels of encouragement and praise. But I was not expecting the wave of feedback I got from a little piece I wrote about my dad. Dad is now living at the Maine Veterans' Home where he is getting the care that he needs, but at the time I wrote the essay Dad has just lost his driver's license. He had been flirting with loosing the license for a couple of years. Dad's dementia had progressed to a point where the neurologist reported him to the state as a driving risk. Dad received notice he was to appear for a road test and don't you know, the wily old fox charmed the examiner and passed. As the months went by though he did drive less and less and we did not encourage it. Then he passed out in his home and we called the ambulance and he went to the hospital. His license was automatically suspended. I remember the day I slipped the dirty plastic license out from the pocket of his wallet and put it in an envelope and sent it back to the state. I knew that was the end of driving for Dad and that's what prompted me to write the essay. I called it "A Man Without His Horse" and it appeared soon after in the Wolf Moon Journal. Here's the link: Writing the piece had been helpful for me in that it let me get out some of the angst and pent up emotion I felt at having to be a party to my Dad's driving suspension. Little did I realize how many other folks would read the essay and be affected by it. I did after all strike a chord. People sent me notes and caught me on the street and either told me similar stories about their parents, or about how they themselves feared facing this reality when they became elderly. The idea of loosing your drivers license seemed to strike at the very heart of people's self image and brought to light many other issues related to aging and independence. I even had one request to re-print the article for a local 55 Plus newsletter. You can read the essay yourself and see what ideas or feelings it might engender. What pleases me the most though is how it has sparked stories and thoughts from so many others. I suppose its not unlike a minister who delivers an exceptionally insightful sermon and hears about it as parishioners file out of the sanctuary. I didn't intend it that way, but it is gratifying when you write something and every once in a while strike that chord that reverberates with readers and gives them pause and causes them the think and to reflect. In many ways I think that's part of what being a good story teller is all about.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sleeping with your dog.

Did you sleep with your dog? It seems to me one of my most cherished childhood memories is having my dog sleep on my bed with me. I wonder how many kids enjoy that experience today? Not many I'd guess. Today we know too much and are too wary of all the bad things that might happen if a child were to share the bed with his dog. But we lived on an old run down farm and our farm collie was just part of the family. I don't recall we every thought too much about "Digger". He was just always there. When we kids went outside to play, Digger was always there with us. And when we were in school Digger patrolled the worn out farm fields and encroaching woods. Somehow he knew when the rural school bus was due to stop at the end of our dirt road and drop off my sister and me and the neighbor kids and Digger would be there waiting. We'd all come trooping down the road toward our homes with Digger somewhere beside us. We never knew anything different. In the evening when Mom called us to come eat supper, Digger would position himself under the kitchen table. My sister and I could rest our feet on his furry back while we ate Mom's clam casserole. And when we went to sleep, Digger would jump up and lay across the foot of my bed. I could feel the weight of his body pressing against my feet. And that's just how it was. Our parents didn't think it was strange that the dog should sleep with us, or think it was dangerous. . That is until we moved. Life on the old farm changed and Mom and Dad bought my uncle's house in town and we moved. Mother was delighted to begin housekeeping in a nice house with some conveniences. And she intended to keep it nice and clean and respectable. As soon as we moved in she declared that dogs slept in the basement not in bedrooms. Digger was banned to the cellar. My sister and I made our way upstairs to our new bedrooms and the dog was ushered downstairs to the basement and Mom closed the door. Digger had a way of moaning and sounding a little bit like a lonesome loon. We could hear him whimpering down there in the dark. This went on for a couple of nights. But then one evening after supper when we were all in the livingroom watching Milton Beryl on the old Emerson TV, Ruthie and I saw Digger get up and every so quietly nuzzle the door open and slip upstairs. We didn't say a thing. When I went up to bed and into my room there was Digger lying under the bed. You're not supposed to be here, I told the dog. But that was all. I climbed in under the covers and Digger jumped up on the foot of the bed. Just like old times. When Mom made her rounds and opened our bedroom doors to say good night, she discovered the dog curled up with me, and she did nothing. I think maybe she knew there were some things she couldn't change even when living in a new house. Or maybe she thought the change in life style was hard on my sister and me and that some things however small should remain the same. At least Digger was allowed to sleep with us from then on. I remember all that now and wonder at how intelligent or clever that collie dog was. We have a little niece who for some strange reason has a fear of dogs. She cowers and retreats and begins to cry whenever she is near a dog. She's only nine. When I see her act this way I think of my own childhood and how our dog slept with us. I hope other kids have the same experience although I'm not so sure. Today we seem so overprotective and paranoid about things that might happen, even though they seldom do. Sleeping with my dog just seemed natural and correct. I know its one of my fondest childhood memories and makes me miss that old farm collie.