Homage to Milbridge
Last week, Jerry and I spent two whole days in Milbridge, Maine, bookended by travel days of which (the return trip) the less said the better.
About the state of Maine, I smile when, looking down, I can see Maine from the plane as it descends to the Bangor airport. Milbridge has a special resonance with my whole soul and body.
Why do I feel that way? It’s a real feeling, not an imagined one. Let me go over its layers, the mille feuilles of the feeling.
First, my parents purchased the house in Milbridge, with its view of Narraguagus Bay, at a long-ago time when I was in what you might call a dismantled state, far away in a fishing village on the Portuguese coast. My mother said:
“Someday, Abigail will be herself again and she will want a place to come to.”
This indeed came to pass, as did many of my mother’s visions of life-in-the-long-term. It was not precognition, I think. It was her loving, intuitive sense of the directionality of a life. In the years when my parents were alive, I would come to recognize the house as a summer place of refuge and renewal for me.
When the complete cast of characters that made up our world in Milbridge was alive and well, it was a landscape of gaiety and country adventures: outdoor games, picnics, trips to the State Fair and Maine rodeos (in which friends competed), cantering through the grassy fields, sailing, canoeing and shared town events. The triumphs of life and the fun.
The trials as well. The last illnesses of my parents unfolded there and my father died in the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth. After my first marriage ended in divorce, a local sage reassured me:
“There’s lots more fish in the sea,” possibly thinking that it was time I looked over some of the local mariners.
It was in Milbridge that the long-distance call came from New York that my seven-year job fight had been won. I went promptly to tell old friends Frank and Ada Graham and do some cartwheels on their lawn.
After the deaths of both parents, I was pretty much alone, without mother, father, husband, child or sheltering siblings. There was a person, then in my life, who spread defamatory fictions about me in the circle of my New York City friends – and was believed! – by people who personally knew no evil of me. It led me to discover one of Abigail’s Adages: “Slander is always believed.”
Not in Milbridge.
There people know you in the round. If you want to do something you don’t want the whole town to know, don’t do it in Milbridge. By the same token, if you want to make up a damaging story about someone of whom the town knows no evil:
Don’t do it in Milbridge.
After my job was secure, I could turn to getting my father’s posthumous philosophic manuscript published. Once the book had appeared to favorable reviews, I felt that the house was no longer the sole visible evidence of my parents’ presence in the world. Since the house and its obligations also tied me to my ill-wisher, I felt the time had finally come to sell the house.
As I began to gather the needed proofs of ownership, some unforeseen problems surfaced. My parents had been pretty smart people but, when it came to buying a rural property, they were babes in the woods. My father had bought the shore strip for $500 from a neighbor — who didn’t own it! There was also a right-of-way that we didn’t own. So the rectangular half-acre of land continuing on the other side of the road and abutting the Bay that they thought they owned was actually a triangle that stopped short of the road on the near side. A property of that size and shape is unsaleable.
I learned that the right-of-way was owned by a man of about 99 years of age who had myriad descendants. If I couldn’t get him to sign off on the sale, I’d be spending the rest of my days tracking down his heirs. But who knew how to find him? The shore strip turned out to be the property of a couple who lived in Massachusetts. They too would not be easy to find, much less do business with.
Enter Shirley Kennedy, a local friend and champion barrel racer. Shirley knew the who, the when, and the whereabouts of everybody in the locality. Leading the way on horseback, she tracked them all down: the aging shore strip couple from Massachusetts and the old man with the right-of-way. If you can picture the scene, it sure didn’t hurt that we were on horseback when we found them.
These days, our house has become unrecognizable to me. It was purchased by two southern ladies who’ve filled it out with stepped gardens, patriotic bunting draped over the porch, and the porch itself reconfigured to appear more mansion-like and imposing than it ever looked in our day. I stop by the house when we’re in town, to peer at it, trying to see if I can recognize one molecule of how it was when it was ours. Nope. Not even a ghost of it is ours now. It’s all theirs — but I’m always relieved to see it well taken care of with its new air of splendid permanence.
There are other ghosts, as the tally of people I still know thins out. After my parents died, when I first drove up from New York to uncrate their things, now shipped from their vacated New York apartment to the house on Bayview Street, I worried how it would be, getting all their forwarded possessions set to rights, working alone in the now-uninhabited house. Would it feel scary? No, I said to friends. It wasn’t as I’d feared. It wasn’t bad. Instead, I reported:
The silences are friendly.