10 September 2006


I'm standing in the living room of my grandparents' house. It's January 1973. I live with them this year...I asked to stay after a blissful summer here in Millinocket, and my mom agreed to let me. In fact, Mom never hesitated, and while that surprised me, it also freed me to feel fully excited about the idea. And then, Nana and Grampy's joy when I told them I wanted to stay almost made me teary-eyed...for the first time, I realized what I bring to them. That they are lonely when I'm not here. That they love me that much.

It's mid-morning, and we're still on Christmas vacation. So I'm enjoying the odd feeling of being in this room on a weekday, instead of being down the street in 3rd grade at Aroostook Avenue School. It's radiant Maine winter, with a newly fallen clean-white snow banked all around the house, and a sky of cloudless blue. The shades are up, and between the lemony sun and the reflecting snow, the room is significantly brighter than I've ever seen it. The beige wallpaper seems faded a little...which it is, truthfully. It's been here since the 1950s; it shares an air of past style with my nana's wardrobe and eyeglass frames. The furniture, too, is upholstered in a textured fabric that you would never see in a contemporary store. I treasure that nostalgia for an era that precedes me. The vivid light makes this room feel safer and more beautiful, honestly, than any place I can ever remember being.

At that moment, a distant, high-pitched whine begins outside. I turn my head towards it: the oilman has come to deliver heating oil, and in the thin winter air the sound of oil being transferred into the pipe at the side of the house is audible. From this moment ever after, I will connect that sound with warmth and hearth. Because this man is bringing us the heat that blessedly ticks out of the baseboards in these freezing months (coldest weather I've ever experienced, New York child that I am). But even more so, the oilman is bringing us something momentous, expensive. Oil costs have been all over the news this year--and yet my grandfather, my stable and loving grampy who patiently tallies finances at his desk, can afford to keep us warm. Just thinking of him triggers the sound of his desk drawer opening...I could sit and watch him at that desk all day. I adore his competent fatherliness. I hail from a single-parent household where, the previous year, I had repeatedly trudged to the unemployment office with my mom to collect checks. So being in this home is a massive gift to me: a sense of protection I did not quite realize I yearned for, until I heard the oilman outside.

Grampy puts on his jacket and hat, and goes out to the oilman. He knows him by first name, of course, in this microscopically small town. Out the side window of the house, I can see the puffs of steam that are emitted by their jovial conversation. They wear hats with flaps over the ears. Grampy hands the oilman a check in payment..glove passes it to glove. This is the year that I have become fascinated with business transactions: the peculiar green designs on checks, the orderly lines of invoices, the magic of carbon paper, the finality of rubber stamps. I play office all the time in my playroom.

Yes, in this house, I have a playroom all to myself. And on this morning, I am still excited to think of the Christmas presents that are stored there. Nana and Grampy seem to have read my mind...or at least they were watching closely while I read the 1972 Sears Wish Book. I got every Barbie gadget I could have wanted, including a few that I'd pined for secretly and never mentioned to them. Who would have ever imagined that I'd own a battery-operated Barbie kitchen, with a tumbling washer and dryer, a sink with a moveable faucet, a fridge and a stove that light up when you open their doors? And a mountain cabin with a bunk bed, so that Barbie and her friends could enjoy the winter, just like I've been doing for the first time in my life?

Still a couple of hours till lunch, I think. I will pull on my snow pants, which make that thick wish-wish noise when I walk stiffly in them. I'll find the scarf and mittens Nana knitted for me, and push my feet into heavily lined Canadian boots. And then, the olive-green parka...this year's fashionable must-have in Millinocket, Maine. I'm not kidding: it's the trendy item of choice at my grammar school. Conveniently, parkas are wicked warm and have massive hoods. Nana comes out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. She reaches up and adds the finishing touch to my winter wear: tying the scarf around the hood, across my mouth. She tells me to keep warm and stay dry; it's twenty-below this morning. Soon my cheeks will sing in the cold, and I'll squint in the glare as I pull my orange plastic sled up McNamara's Hill. A perfect day for sledding.

I always wondered why I remembered this morning with such astonishing clarity. Now I get it: on that day, I understood that my decision to stay in a small town in Maine had changed my life forever...for the better. I was eight years old, and I needed to be there. And that sheltering place, those loving people have guided me invisibly ever since.

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