Jean, our daughter Melora, nine years old at the time, and I were fine that summer of 1969, but Jean’s oldest sister Nathalie, who like everyone else was visiting my parents-in-law at their farm in Dresden, Maine, was setting some of the bats in her belfry loose from time to time, and some of them had gotten into the attic. As to the other livestock — we had managed to give away six of the seven kittens, but grandma cat had disappeared, so all that were left were four other cats, three woodchucks under the shed, a family of raccoons who raided the garbage cans every night, a porcupine in the blue spruce, and two toms that hung around waiting for the right moment to replenish the supply of kittens.|
I decided to do something about the raccoons. I parked my car so that the headlights would shine on the garbage cans when turned on, and when it got dark I put my nephew Pete, Nathalie’s son, into the car and told him to flip the switch on my signal. I hid behind the left fender until I heard a noise, then quietly eased my .22 Mossberg around the grille, and gave Pete the high-sign.
The lights came on and I had the ‘coons frozen in my gunsight: a mother and three cubs. I pulled the trigger, but for some reason at the same moment jerked the barrel toward the ground. The animals disappeared at the sound of the shot, of course, but they came back the next night, by which time I had solved the problem permanently.
Instead of throwing our scraps away from then on, we just put them on paper plates and let the ‘coons eat their supper unmolested on the stoop. They left our cans alone after that.
I caught Melora skinny-dipping at the falls with her red-headed cousin Steve shortly thereafter. I gave her Hell, but before I could catch him he disappeared into the woods and was gone all day. Jean’s third sister Ann and her husband Curt, Steve’s parents, were worried, but they shouldn’t have been, because Fate never allows anything too bad to happen to him. In the evening he returned with a turtle he’d found — I was hoping it would turn out to be a snapper, but of course all the luck was with Steve. The family was so relieved he came back that they wouldn’t let me kill him.
My father-in-law John Houdlette and I had started tearing out the old chicken house partitions in the barn, and we’d nearly finished painting the house. The last time, we had run out of paint. Since we did the house in sections over a period of summer seasons, at that moment there were four shades of white on it. Not that painting it did any good anyhow — to save money Jean’s dad had thinned the paint of the first coat with so much linseed oil that the house on the river side had turned yellow.
There was a family picnic out in the river yard on the Fourth of July. Uncle Ed, who was almost perfectly round, wanted a ride on the river, so I tied up my aluminum boat at the cedar that stuck almost horizontally out over the water, and I helped him down the bank as best I could, but he wound up sitting in the mud with one leg up on the cedar and his head caught in a young hemlock. We managed to get him untangled at last, and he enjoyed the boat ride.
Later on he fell out of the hammock. I heard him talking to himself, but I just turned around and lit my pipe, pretending not to notice. Nothing was broken but his pride. His cocker spaniel Lucky really enjoyed the potato salad.
Aunt Ruth was recently back from the State Hospital. She had committed herself the previous winter, but she declared that she was all right now, though none of us could see a difference. She and Uncle Ray, who loved his beer, had recently celebrated their fortieth anniversary, and we threw a picnic celebration for them.
The red-headed cousin broke the hammock, threw one dart up into the elm and another onto the roof, tossed the frisbee into the raspberry patch where it will be found by archaeologists ages hence, stole a box of BB’s and shot them out of Melora’s pop gun, which I found later after I’d passed over it with the riding mower. He finally left to return to Connecticut with his parents, and things became a bit calmer.
Melora kept some of our picnic steamer clams alive in spring water full of table salt and corn meal. Which reminded me that I couldn’t get a fish to bite in our muddy Eastern River — I don’t suppose they could see the bait — but a five-foot sturgeon jumped and broke water right in front of us as Melora and I came around the bend in the tin boat that summer. There used to be sturgeon in the Kennebec and its tidal tributaries many years earlier, but this was the first one anybody’s heard of in a year of blue moons. The Eastern used to be clear water, too, until carp got into it and ate all the plant life off its bed.
Then there was the weekend of the Walk on the Moon. A cousin of Jean’s, Joe Packard and his wife, who also happened to be named Ruth, showed up from Long Island in their hand-built camper. I’d met Joe only once before, and he was a very interesting guy, but accident-prone. They stopped first at Uncle Frank’s and Aunt Harriet’s house down by the bridge — it used to be the toll house, so that’s what it continued to be called. Then they came over to the farmhouse, and I invited Joe to go out mackerel fishing on Sunday morning, before the Moon Landing.
Uncle Frank was Ed’s fraternal twin brother, as thin as Ed was fat, and they didn’t like each other much. They were nearly eighty, or just over, so I couldn’t say no when Frank heard of our expedition and invited himself along.
On Saturday I went into Wiscasset to get some cleats for my fiberglass runabout, which I carted around on a trailer because it’s bigger than the tin boat. When I got back home I spent the evening getting together fishing tackle for Joe and Uncle Frank, and early the next morning we headed out for Pemaquid Bay. When we got there the tide was out and we had some difficulty floating the boat. The first thing Joe did was fall while he was shoving the boat off the trailer. He smashed his shin.
We managed to get Joe into the car, and I pulled the boat back up onto the trailer with Uncle Frank getting in the way and threatening to smash himself up, too. I finally hollered at him to get the hell out of the way, which hurt his feelings, but it couldn’t be helped. We took off for the nearest hospital, which was in Damariscotta, but by then Uncle Frank had persuaded Joe, who was nearly unconscious because of the pain, that there was better service to be had in Augusta, considerably farther off. I drove there, cursing all the way, and we got Joe x-rays and treatment, finally. As it turned out he had only a hairline fracture, but it was painful enough and put him out of commission. We brought him home, put him to bed, and began nursing him.
On the following Monday Uncle Frank came over with a few mullings — it had occurred to him that he had been trying to go fishing with people for quite a while. The last time he had attempted it, with a lobsterman, his host had fallen and hurt his back. Could it be, he wondered, that he was a jinx? We just kept watching TV — the astronauts planned to leave most of their gear behind. I wondered whether, when we looked at the moon from then on, we’d think of it as an extra-terrestrial land-fill.
Just then old Aunt Ted — my father-in-law’s, Ed’s, and Frank’s eldest sister whose real name was Jessie, but no one called her that for reasons I never understood —phoned and wanted to talk with her nephew, Joe, son of her younger sister Annie (there are lots of duplicate names in my wife’s family). He got up on his crutches to go in to the phone, which was in the middle hall.
There’s a high threshold where the ell attaches to the main house, and Joe’s crutch brought up on it as he was passing through the doorway. We all turned around to see him poised in mid-air, going over backward — it was like a stop-action shot on TV —and then he followed through to land on his back among the splinters of one of his crutches. Everyone’s heart missed a beat, but amazingly, he didn’t hurt himself again. We picked him up and he decided to go stay at the Toll House with Frank and Harriet. Shaking badly, I drove him over.
That same day, July 21st, was Melora’s birthday as well — she shared it with her crippled older cousin Audrey. Owing to all the hubbub and the Moon stuff, which I’d stayed up to watch late into the night, we put off celebrations till the next day, Tuesday. We’d been planning a boat ride at Boothbay for Melora and some of her summer friends, but my ulcer was kicking up so badly I took to bed myself, and Jean and Nathalie took the kids down.
Joe’s Ruth couldn’t get the camper started to go back to Long Island (she was going to have to drive), and we found out, after we tried jumper cables and whatnot, that she’d forgotten to put it into neutral to start it. Joe felt much better after a while. I spent the evening arguing with him, Ruth, Uncle Frank, and Aunt Harriet about Sasquatches, Abominable Snowmen, UFO’s, and the Vietnam War (they were all Bomb China hawks). Melora had turned nine; I was thirty-nine going on a hundred and four. I hoped God would spare the yetis, the aliens, the astronauts, and the boys trapped in the jungles of Asia.
Cousin Joe and Ruth stayed for a week, as it turned out, instead of the weekend they’d planned on. The trouble was with the camper, not the leg he banged up. He had built that camper entirely by hand in his basement. He must’ve had one helluva big door in his basement, but even at that he had to make a folding roof on the vehicle so it would be low enough to get out of the cellar, and whenever anything went wrong with it, it was a federal case to get it fixed. It needed a new bearing in the right front wheel and a new set of mufflers and tailpipes, all of which had to be made to order. The inside of it was amazing.
Joe was an engineer, among other things, and there wasn’t one single inch of space in the camper that was wasted. Many years later, in 1979, after the death of Dad Houdlette, he would come back to the farm and we would spend another summer putting his engineering skills to use in turning the ell into an efficiency apartment for Mom Houdlette and Nathalie who were by then living there year-round.
We spent the extra evenings, while he mended, arguing and talking. Two of Joe’s pet topics, as I have mentioned, were abominable snowmen and flying saucers — he believed in both strongly. I consider it’s just barely possible he knew something the rest of us didn’t, he was such an odd bird. To judge from his camper van it could be that the Martians had him working on their space vehicles.
Most of the time he talked about strange footprints and sightings in Upper Michigan, Northern California, and the Himalayas. He wanted to build a boat out of reinforced concrete in our barn. Dad said the boat would make a fine giant set-tub that would look good sitting on one of the mud bars in the middle of the Eastern River. I suggested that when it was finished we crew it with sasquatches and yetis and equip it for interplanetary travel.
Uncle Ed who, when last recorded, was falling out of his hammock, decided to sell his house in Augusta because the shopping district on Western Avenue had grown up around it. His house used to be handy to his pharmacy before he retired. He was quite proud of having been an old-fashioned apothecary. On his front lawn he had placed on display an ancient piece of pharmaceutical paraphernalia. A big sign in front of it said, “DRUG MILL.” Uncle Ed was gratified by all the interested young people in blue jeans, long hair, and love beads who stood around on the sidewalk, but he didn’t understand why they stared at the house instead of the machine.
Ed kept calling us up and asking us to come out to look at various houses in which he was interested. The first three times we went out we had to prowl around outside because Ed hadn’t gotten the keys from the agent so we could get in. The neighbors wondered what we were up to — we could see the curtains moving in their windows.
For a while it looked as though Ed and Aunt Sally were going to take a house just outside Wiscasset. It was the first one we’d looked at, and it was advertised at $19,000. Uncle Ed wasn’t buying at that price, but once the owners raised the ante to $25,000 he thought he’d take it.
Scalawag the kitten got a tick in his head. Evidently nobody had ever seen a tick in Maine before. We tried to get it out with cigarettes and mineral oil, but neither worked. Finally Dad took matters into his own hands and pulled it out with tweezers. Naturally, he got only the bloated abdomen — the head’s still embedded.
I keep having weird fantasies about the cat having two skulls, one feline and the other insect.
That weekend Dad and I mowed the field out in back of the barn. I rode the tractor and he followed along behind with a pitchfork to unfoul the cutter bar from time to time. I was going along all right until I looked up to see what Dad was doing. He wasn’t there. I looked farther and there he stood, clear across the field. His mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear him over the motor. As I started back in the direction I’d come, to cut another swath, Dad came up rather charily and hollered. I cut the engine to hear him and he yelled, “Bees!” He pointed to the ground ahead of me —sure enough, there they were buzzing up a whirlwind. I’d cut through a nest, and (fortunately) they’d taken out after Dad instead of me.
The incident got him mad, so next day he went out to give it another try and maybe finish the field. The bees were still there, though. He had to let go of the wheel and flail around like a windmill while the tractor went its own way over the ruts.
Fortunately, barn swallows looking for an easy meal came up behind him to pick the bees out of the air, and he was finally free of them. I’d gone out to look and one chased me a good distance before it headed back to the nest.
She had been calm for a while, but at last Nathalie blew her lid again. She was supposed to go to Waterville for an appointment with her psychiatrist, but Mom was having a bad time talking her into getting into the car. In my opinion there wasn’t anything actually wrong with Nathalie that she hadn’t willed upon herself. After her divorce — which she wanted and, in fact, needed desperately, for she and her former husband Larry had fought like the Furies — Nathalie decided her life was over and went into a permanent depression which was relieved only by fits of self-pity and rage because everybody had it in for her and everything was everybody else’s fault. To hear her tell it, she and Larry used to live like lovers in the primal Garden.
Instead of getting into the car Nathalie broke loose and came tearing upstairs shouting and swearing like a bo’sun. She slammed the door to her room. I was trying to read in the bedroom across the hall, and I got mad. We started yelling at each other through the wall. I went into her room. She shoved me out and went to slam the door in my face, but I poked my shoe in the door and it swung back. She aimed a couple of roundhouses at me and connected once, so I spun her around, picked her up, and threw her onto her bed.
Just then Mom came up and got between us. Nathalie had somehow gotten hold of the book I’d been reading — I guess it was in my hand — and she sat on the bed fuming and tearing it up. I kept trying to get past Mom to rescue my book, but Mom thought I was trying to reach Nathalie to belt her, which I felt like doing but wouldn’t have done, being of the old school. When Mom finally saw what I was after, she stepped aside, I bent to pick up the book (in three pieces), and Nathalie belted me in the nose. I warned her I’d slap her silly if she didn’t cut it out. She started hollering that she was a member of the family too, and had in fact gotten there first, and we were all out to get her. Mom and Dad finally got her into the car and off to Waterville. The next day she didn’t come out of her room which was a great relief to all concerned.
Before the summer ended Jean, Melora and I took a trip to The Glen, a hunting and fishing resort on the First Connecticut Lake in New Hampshire owned by my sister-in-law Betty, Jean’s second oldest sister. We had fled there to escape the red-headed cousin who returned over the weekend with his brother Jamie and his parents. Some nice weather there, and one day of torrents, but I got out in my runabout a fair amount. Caught no fish, though, as usual.
When we got back we attended an auction at our neighbor’s house next door (across several fields). Aunt Ted bought a box full of odd items just to get a particular piece of bric-a-brac, and she gave me the rest of the stuff which included, as it turned out, a real, framed Gibson Girl. I planned to hang it in my office when I get back home — give the place some tone.
Nathalie rescued a gull that had a broken leg and a broken wing: some local kid had shot it with a .22 and left it alongside the road. The folks and Jean and I finally pried it away from Nat who had put it in the shed where it had fouled everything. We took it to Boothbay to give to the wildlife people — they indicated they intended to put it out of its misery.
Nathalie nearly had another breakdown. She pointed out to them that the gull was learning to move around very nicely by balancing on its one good wing, its unbroken leg, and its beak. She is very soft-hearted and loves her pets.
Uncle Ed maneuvered Dad and me into a position where we had to borrow Rod Jefford’s old pickup truck that had tie-rods so loose it steered like a boat (Rod was a ship’s engineer, and he seemed to like the way she handled). We drove it up to Augusta to move some furniture for Uncle Ed.
When we’d delivered the stuff, Uncle Ed decided he wanted to ride in the back of the truck, like a kid. He’d had enough after half a mile, and we had to pry him out: he got his foot stuck up on the freeboard of the truck, just as he’d done on the cedar trunk by the river. I’ve never met a more undignified old man.
On August 27 I got back to the house from the post office where I made out our change of address cards. The summer was about over: The blackberries were huge and ripe, and the milkweed was podding. The hot August weather had broken, and we were tasting fall-in-the-summer while the flowers of our garden were just starting to break into huge blooms. They always did that just as we were about to leave. I’d mow the lawn once more, and then we’d start packing. We planned to leave on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day.
Every year I vowed not to return to Dresden and go through the things the family did, but by May we were always itching to get back to the farm. And now we are retired here. Melora and her family live in the farmhouse, Jean and I live up the road on the same property, and I have a store in the barn. The Mathom Bookshop was established the summer of 1979, after Jean’s dad passed away. Her mother followed in 1996, the year I quit teaching, and we took care of Nathalie until she died in the spring of 2002. But there’s always a bright side: We get to see our granddaughter, Jessima, just about every day.