September 12, 2010.
The signpost read “Oakfield, 20 miles.” In that instant, the time between my last visit and this one (33 years to be exact) vanished as if it had never existed.
This is the town where my mother grew up. Located in Maine’s Aroostock County, mere spitting distance of the border with New Brunswick, Canada, Oakfield is where I spent two weeks of every summer as a kid, traveling with my parents twelve hours north to visit Gram and Pop at their camp on Spaulding Lake.
In its way, that was something of a special time for me. Being a kid, I was free of the onus of packing and driving, cooking and cleaning. I was left pretty much on my own provided I kept quiet and didn’t cause any fuss (a not-unusual situation given the general lack of interest in kids displayed by the adults in question). I spent my days reading, fishing off the dock for white perch and the occasional baby pickerel, picking field berries, and swimming. A short hike up the hill brought me to the dairy farm belonging to my mother’s cousin where I helped bring in the summer’s harvest of hay, played with the barn cats (a hundred diseased felines with the sweetest dispositions), and petted the calves.
While this annual pilgrimage accorded my mother the opportunity to visit with friends and relatives she hadn’t seen in a long time, and gave my father an excuse to “wet a line” and over-indulge on homebaked goodies, for me it provided a rare opportunity to interact with the many cousins I would otherwise not have known.
Looking back, they must have found me an odd duck. Raised as an only child by parents who (let’s face it) weren’t all that interested in being parents, I was a cripplingly shy kid used to playing by myself. To be cast haphazardly among a rollicking band of seemingly wild cousins and expected to interact was agony for me. I had no clue how to join in on their rambunctious fun and I was constantly worried about getting into trouble. My profound shyness made it almost impossible for me to even carry on a conversation with them. Those I felt safest among were younger than me and equally as shy.
Still, I had an enormous affection for Oakfield. In a way I did not fully understand, it gave me a connection to the past that my family lacked. There were no traditions handed down on either side of my family, nothing to ground us, no stories of the past. But in Oakfield, I felt that tenuous connection, the brush of ancient and ghostly hands checking out this latest addition to the long line of Crandalls that stretched all the way back to Monmouthshire, England and beyond.
(Did I say no stories? Well, that’s not exactly true. My Uncle Darrell was a repository of family lore, a fact I discovered too late, not much before he died in 1996. I lament the tales I missed hearing, but treasure those I know.)
I last visited Oakfield in October 1977 when Pop died. (Gram died three months later, but I did not attend the funeral.) Despite the loss of the old folks, my parents continued their yearly visit so Mom could see her remaining family and friends. I was 20 years old by then and it had been three or four years since I’d been to Maine, having lost all interest in vacationing with my parents. Family may be family, but you’re still strangers if you only interact for a few days or hours once a year with no clue what to say to each other beyond “Hi, how are you, how you’ve grown.” Never close, we were off on different paths — college, marriage, children — with little hope of reconnecting. I made the attempt to stay in touch with a couple of cousins, but the exchange of letters never last longer than a month or two. My Aunt Peg (a truly wonderful woman shackled — that’s the correct word — to my Uncle Bill, a miserable son of a bitch) was the one relative who stayed in contact. Her letters to me were not lengthy; often they were little more than a few lines inside a greeting card, but the fact that she took the time and trouble to do so meant the world to me. I miss her to this day.
Time passed and people passed with it. The longer I stayed away from Oakfield, the easier it became. I talked about going back, but never did. For some reason, it never occurred to me that I could actually visit there on my own. I’m not sure why it seemed impossible. I don’t believe I was afraid of traveling alone. It was more as if I couldn’t separate the place from my parents, that enough other things had occurred between us that I didn’t want the association. It was their place more than mine.
So what happened? Why the trip now? Blame it on Facebook.
My cousin Becky (daughter to Aunt Peg and Uncle Bill) found me there. Found? Well, it wasn’t like I was hiding, but it was she who took the initiative to seek me out. (I’m glad she did. I’ve always liked Beck; she’s a class act.) Through her, I rediscovered other cousins — Cindy and Clair, Darrell and Ross. Clair owns the camp now and it was his offer of it’s use that sparked the desire that put us on the road to Maine in mid-September.
So it was that around four in the afternoon on 9/12 we exited the Maine turnpike, entered Oakfield, and the time-line of my life rolled back. You know the saying “The more things change, the more they stay the same?” That’s Oakfield. I’m sure to those who live there year-round and long-term there have been many changes — a new post office built outside of town; the closing of the hardware store; the arrival of an alpaca farm. But for me there was so much that was still the same that it seemed I had hardly left — same homes; the building that once housed the post office AND hardware store still stands; the little grocery remains and is hardly changed at all. The road to my grandparents’ house was as familiar as if I’d just walked it.
But change does come and there was plenty of it, much that was not good. Oakfield is a dying town, the population slowly withering. Children grow and leave and do not come back to settle. My grandparents’ house, once the tidiest of homes, is wrapped in a shadowy litigation and being allowed to rot, to slowly sink back into the earth. Standing there looking at the gaping cellar doorway, the spots where the stone foundation has crumbled inward, the peeling paint — remembering the home that was my grandmother’s pride, recalling the one Thanksgiving we spent there when Pop took me to the back door in the night and showed me an ermine tracking through the snow between the back porch and the shed — it broke my heart. A day will come when uncaring hearts will deem that good home unsafe and declare it condemned.
I don’t even want to think about it.
So many changes…a wonderful old home at the intersection of Ridge Road and Spaulding Lake Road where we used to buy the daily paper has fallen into disrepair and neglect. A lovely of farm succumbed to fire and now its gaping barn lists into the wind. The dairy farm is gone, the house renovated into a beautiful home. Even the camp has changed.
Well, really, what did I expect? Time does move on. But I’m grateful I’d seen pictures earlier, so I knew in advance that it was no longer cardinal red but a sedate green; knew that the old wooden dock had been replaced with one of aluminum; knew that most of the original furniture was gone, replaced with things made to be functional for the summer-time visitors; knew that the extension that Pop had built out into the water had crumbled and washed out the spring after he died (as he had predicted, by the way).
The lake is there, in all its remembered beauty. Many of the same trees remain (the birches in particular are old friends). The sandy bit of shore I once called my “beach.” Pop’s shaving mirror still hangs, although in a bedroom now instead of in the living room where he shared it every morning with Gram’s parakeet Pretty Boy. In a living room end table I found their old Guest Book. Paging through, I recognized my mother’s handwriting, Gram’s, even my own childish scrawl.
Names came to me then and faces: Colby and Kenneth Crandall, Philip Sherman, Aunt Presh. Uncle Guy and Aunt Elma. Minnie, whose granddaughter Jackie and I corresponded weekly for two whole years before we drifted apart. Billy and Bully (pronounced Buh-lee). Kitt Small, bright-eyed and agile-fingered (I wanted her for my grandmother), who sat me on the ground and filled my lap with newly hatched chicks, bright yellow and fuzzed like dandelions. I watched her hold her dog’s muzzle in one hand while with the other she gently tweezed porcupine quills from his nose.
At the local cemetery, I visited Gram and Pop’s graves, and the graves of my blood-grandfather Abel Crandall (my mother’s dad, dead the month before she was born) and my first step-grandfather Paul Sherman. I paid respects to Aunt Peg (who was born Norma Shields) and her sons William, Jr. and Richard. I found the grave markers of both sets of great-grandparents — Asa Crandall and Estelle Drew; William Shorey and Minnie Crandall.
And I found a bit of myself that I didn’t realize was missing.
So…thank you, Clair for giving me the impetus to make this trip. Thank you, Becky, for finding me and putting me back in touch with something I had lost, and thanks to you and Ross and Sally and Uncle Paul for taking time to come out to the camp and visit with us.
I’ll be back.