Joy of the Pen 2020
The Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award: Peter Simmons for The Premium Plan
Fiction Honorable Mention: Michael Tooher for 180°
Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award: Matt Bernier for The Day Mary Oliver Died
Poetry Honorable Mention: Richard K. Williams for Growth
Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award: Cynthia Larson for Reshuffling
Nonfiction Honorable Mention: John Reinhart for Odds
Nonfiction Honorable Mention: Chris Chapman for Great Escapes
Just Write Maine-related Nonfiction Award: Shannon Bowring for Fresh Cut
Maine-related Nonfiction Honorable Mention: Lynne Schmidt for Lions and Tabby Cats: An Ode to How Snowboarding Saved My Life
TPL Teen Fiction Award: Josy Hollenbach for This is Where It Gets Better
TPL Teen Poetry Award: Emma Haims for Afraid of Humanity
TPL Kids Fiction Award: Mattheus Reinhart for The Backstory of Bagel-Grease’s Scar
TPL Kids Poetry Award: Lucien Reinhart for When the Trees Were Made of Cotton Candy
Pandemic Reflections Award: Lorraine Davis for Sylvia
Pandemic Reflections Honorable Mention: Lucien Reinhart for Covid Chronicles
Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award
The Premium Plan by Peter Simmons
Mason loaded the treats into the gift bag. Dark chocolates, a tin of Danish cookies, a dozen bright red tulips. Mother had always loved chocolates and red tulips. The cookies were new, a regression to a childhood fancy. The weekly visit was a thankless chore. Each time, Mason hoped the regular delivery of treats might inspire recognition. It had been almost a year since she’d last acknowledged him. Given the stakes, he had to keep trying.
Mother had been heir to a 20th-century industrial fortune, long since multiplied through timely investments in the digital age, all of it Mason’s to inherit. Her only offspring, he had been always been dutiful if not doting, love in a family like theirs a distant concept. She had trusted him with her care, and he had seen to it that she was well cared for. Indeed.
The home was the finest in the area, a country club for the demented. The care was first-rate, the staff attentive, the food tolerable, the cost prohibitive. But the administration was very up to date on the latest end-of-life care options. It would be worth the cost.
She was her imperious old self only within the confines of her room now. A year in, fantasy had replaced reality. The staff were her servants, the home her castle, Mason an interloper of questionable intent. For a time, she had commanded her ‘staff’ to oust him before he got through to her. But she was more timid now, hardly there at all most times. So little of her was left.
Mason had full power of attorney and, despairing of her deteriorating condition, he had, with the encouragement and support of the home’s medical staff, signed up for their premium plan.
He summoned an autodrone and took the conveyor to the street. The car arrived in seconds.
The door opened silently; he entered the comfortable enclosure, stated his destination and entertainment preferences, took a swig of the scotch he’d brought to calm him. It would only be a few minutes; he’d be ready by the time he arrived.
The car delivered him to the home’s main entry portal. He buzzed in.
“Good afternoon Mr. Davis, welcome back.” “Afternoon. How’s the ancient queen today?”
“Feeling spry. We told her she had an outing scheduled, so she consented to be washed and have her hair done. I see you’ve fetched up in a proper chariot.”
“Ah, yes, it’ll be her first trip in a driverless car. I hope she can handle it. It’s a bit of a limo, but that’s what we want, right?”
She gave him a knowing smile and turned back to her screen.
Another attendant accompanied him to Mother’s room and announced his presence. “Madame, Mason is here. He’ll be taking you out. He brought you some treats too.”
“Oh, red tulips, my favorite. How could you know, young man? Thank you.” The attendant took them into the adjoining bathroom, returned with a vase, and placed them on the dresser.
“I’ve brought your favorite cookies. Would you like them now, maybe with coffee?” “Aren’t we going on an outing?”
“Yes, of course.”
She was suddenly coy. “The cookies?”
The attendant raised the bed and helped her into her chair. They rolled down the hall as the car came around and stopped by the entrance.
“Where’s the driver?”
“Cars drive themselves now. It’s much safer; there’s no possibility of human error.” “It’s so very strange. I don’t know.”
“I think you’ll like it.” He helped her in, then got in next to her. “You can tell it to take you wherever you want. You don’t even need to know how to get there. Want to try?”
The strange setting cowed her. She was a child again. “May I?”
“Of course! Say ‘I’d like to go to the beach’ and see what happens.”
“Car, I’d like to go to the beach”
A soothing female voice said, “Which beach would you prefer?” “Oh dear, I don’t know.”
The voice surrounded her again. “The nearest beaches are Jones Beach, Cobble Beach, and Point Harvey.”
“Do I like any of those?” She looked around the interior as she spoke. Mason answered. “Point Harvey is your favorite.”
She leaned towards the ‘driver’s seat’ area and said “Point Harvey, please.” “We will arrive at Point Harvey in approximately 14 minutes.”
As the car started to move, she glanced about, bewildered. “It’s magic!” “Would you like a cookie?’
“Yes!” She struggled with the plastic wrapper. “Oh, help me.”
Mason eased the tin from her bony grip, tore the wrapping, pried the lid off, and placed it in her lap. “Here you go.” The woman seated next to him had been such a powerful presence once. She was but a shadow now. If it weren’t for her withered face, he wouldn’t recognize her. What little emotional bond they had once shared was long gone.
“Would you like to try going out by yourself in one of these cars? It would give you much more freedom. You could go to the shore whenever you wanted.”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
“I’m sure you’ll get used to it. We’ll take it every time, as long as the weather’s nice.” “That would be lovely. You are such a nice young man. I’m glad you came to visit me. I don’t have any family, you know.”
Mason flinched. She was drifting ever further away from him. And the living world. They said it was normal, confirmation that they had been right to choose the premium plan.
At the shore, they sat silently. Mason had nothing to say. While Mother was staring out at the gulls squabbling on the landing, he sipped a bit more scotch. This was a trial. Mother robotically ate cookie after cookie until Mason told her to stop. She slowly closed the tin and handed it to him. “May I go home now?”
“Take us back, please,” he said, and the car began moving again. Back at the home, Mother was met by the staff and quickly deposited for her afternoon nap.
At dinner that evening, Mason told his wife Olivia, “I think she was okay in the autodrone.
She was anxious at first, but by the time we returned, she wasn’t paying attention.” “Did you mention going alone?”
“She didn’t like the idea, but she’ll warm up to it. I’ll take her a few more times, then just put her in it and tell it where to go. That’s how they say to do it.”
“Maybe you could go more frequently?” “I don’t want to rush things.”
”The sooner the better.” “She’s my mother!” “Is? Or was?”
Over the next few months, Mother’s condition deteriorated. It was clear to Mason she had no idea who he was. As soon as he felt he could, he sent her out alone, with a fixed destination and a limited number of cookies. When she started asking the staff if she could go without him, the home’s director approached him about moving on to the next phase.
He brought it up with Olivia that evening. “The home says it’s time.” “It’s taken long enough.”
“It’s hard. I know it’s done all the time now. But it’s …”
“Inevitable.” She sighed. “Look, if you wait, you’re condemning her, yourself, all of us to a horror that’s no longer necessary. That’s why they have these plans. She’ll be so happy to be out, by herself, going someplace she loves. What could be better?”
“I know. You’re right. It’s just a huge responsibility.”
“Sweetheart, you know you have to do this. Do you want me to come along?” “That would be great.”
The next week, Mason and Olivia went together, with cookies and tulips. Mother was ready, primped and primed for her outing. When she saw Olivia, she was startled. “Oh, I know you.
You’re the one … the one … the one who took my son away.” She was agitated, wild. “Why is she here?” She looked to the attendant. “I hate that woman! Make her go away.”
Olivia turned and hurried out of the room.
“I’m sorry, Mother, she wanted to see you,” Mason said, trying ‘Mother’ one last time, hoping. She appeared for a moment to consider it, studying him carefully. Then she erupted. “Don’t call me ‘Mother!’ I have no family!” She began to whimper. “I loved him so, but he married that girl and never came … ”
She turned to the attendant again, with all the pride and dignity she could muster. “It is time for me to GO.” She looked at Mason and said, “Thank you for coming, but I don’t need you anymore. I can do this myself.”
Mason joined Olivia in the waiting area by the exit. He described the end of his visit, the strange emphasis Mother had given the word ’go’, while they watched her being wheeled out.
“It’s almost like she knows,” Olivia said quietly. “This is a terrible way to … ”
“Is there an easy way?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
The attendant placed the flowers on the seat next to her, opened the cookie tin, placed it on her lap, and closed the door. The car pulled away, Mother gazing vacantly out the window. As it turned onto the main road, the vents opened. By the time the car arrived at Point Harvey, Mother would be getting sleepy. When she reached her final destination, she’d be ready for the fire.
In 2016, Peter Simmons left a career in arts management to pursue his own artistic interests. In the intervening years, he has written several short stories and poems, completed one novel and begun work on a second, and returned to making visual art, his original entree into the art world. He also enjoys gardening, participating in outdoor recreational activities, and serving in an advisory capacity to his local food bank and land trust.
He was the executive director of the Bowdoin International Music Festival from 2000 to 2016, served as assistant director of the Maine Arts Commission from 1987 to 2000, and operated a business providing design and exhibit services to art museums and historical societies in the 1980’s.
Fiction Honorable Mention
180° by Michael Tooher
This is a tale of memory. My tale, my memories.
I was all of four when he arrived at our doorstep. Just appeared one day like the genie of the lamp from the movie. I heard the knock from my bedroom and I spied Mom answering the door from my middle stair landing spy location. She was silent for a second then let out a long squee and dove at the man standing there, hugging him for dear life and all the promises beyond.
He was tall, like you would expect a president or a TV star to be. And lean, maybe too lean. My mom noticed too, squeezing his sides and making a disapproving noise. He chuckled and when he raised his head, he looked right at me as if he knew I had been there all the time.
“Girl…” He said in a deep drawl.
I ran up the stairs. My mother’s voice followed. “Grace. Gracie! Get on down here and say hi.”
My breathing was heavy but I managed to catch it. Slowly, very slowly just in case things didn’t work out and I had to escape, I came down the stairs and, one wary step after the other, I made my way to the doorway.
“Hey you girl…”
I summoned my courage.
“I am Grace and I am four and I am a cowgirl!” “Huh. Guess that explains the boots.”
He smiled. “Your boots. You got some good cowgirl boots there, lady.”
I flushed bright red. My pink and white boots were the current and constant stars of my wardrobe.
“Like them?” I fished. “I do.”
“Me too! Wait…are you a rustler or a varmint or an outlaw?” “Yup…” He replied with a grin. “All three, ask your mother. BOO!”
I screamed. I couldn’t help myself. I would have fallen over backward if Mom hadn’t grabbed my shoulder to keep me upright.
He laughed, “Shhhh, you’re alright. Quiet yourself now, Miss Boots, you’re alright.”
With a grin he extended his hand. It was impossibly large, bony with raw knuckles that looked like swollen cherries.
“By the by, I’m your uncle David. Nice to meet you.”
I was four and he spoke to me like a human being. No gaga goo goo bullshit. Absolutely direct. Some people didn’t like that.
And that was our start. He was there and then…well…he wasn’t. He would call on occasion when he was away but never bothered to explain his comings and goings. Nor would he abide any questioning. He wouldn’t make excuses or try to distract; he just leveled a steady gaze at the questioner and enveloped them in his silence.
No one ever asked a second one. Except me.
I am Grace and I am nine now.
“Uncle David?” “Yeah, Bootsy?”
“Why is your nose so funny?”
I reached out to touch the aquiline marvel. He pretended to try to chomp my finger. I escaped with a giggle; digit intact but barely.
“Because it’s good at telling jokes?”
“No! You know what I mean. It sort of goes this way and that way all over your face…” I said, all girl detective like Precious Ramotswe, “You broke it didn’t you?”
He nodded ruefully. “Oh…a couple of times…” “How?
His answer came behind a sly pause. “By not taking any shit, Bootsy.”
I guess I knew that. By the way he carried himself. By the way he kept his secrets. Not that he ever lied, at least that I know of. He simply ignored any question he didn’t want to answer.
But I persisted. I’m good at that. Persisting. I mean.
I am Grace and I am fourteen now.
“I think when I ask you a question, you should answer!” He gazed at me for a long moment.
“No? But why? You said I was your favorite niece!”
“You’re my only niece. Boots. Do you know what the most powerful word in the world is?”
I didn’t. “No.” “Correct.” “What?”
“No. The word no.” He said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Just say it. And you don’t have to explain it. I never do. You just say no. Let other people figure it out.”
It took some moments for me to grasp this linguistic revelation. “Just…no?” “Just no.”
Holy shit was he ever right. I felt like a 14-year-old Buddha, completely full of my power and the revealed truth. I’d say the magic word then just watch the other person flail around. I even kept notes in my head about each incident like it was a scientific experiment.
And then he was gone again. But it was different this time. He was gone like my father was gone. Completely. Out the door and into the wind. No word, no nothing. Just a little package with a book in it once a month, no return address. It took me and Mom awhile to discover that the books had money in them.
I am Grace and I am seventeen now.
After almost three years of radio silence he appeared, no warning, no call, no nothing.
And he was different. Reduced somehow, diminished somehow….
Smaller. Smaller than I remembered. He seemed like a giant in my memory.
I didn’t stop to consider these things one bit because I was so fucking mad at him. It took a while to find my words. But finally, I did.
“You got some nerve, you really do.” I spat at him. “Yeah…”
“How about an explanation, how about…fuck…I dunno, an “I’m sorry?!”
“Wasn’t my fault.”
I lost it.
“I-depended-on-you!” I shouted at him, “Where were you?!” He was silent for a moment, looking down at the floor. “Busy…” he said eventually.
“Busy? Fuck you busy. And what the hell’s the matter with you? You look yellowish.
You look like a lemon.”
He looked up. “Did you get the books?” I was suddenly ashamed.
Our silence was long, painful and awkward. He was the one who broke it. “You got your license now right? Drivers?”
“Your license? You got one?”
“That’ll play. Meet me out front of the building tonight. Midnight.” I was so fucking mad at him. But…I couldn’t help myself.
He was sitting in a car I had never seen before when I stepped out the door into the cool night. I got in.
“Where are we going?”
He started the engine. “Over behind the mall.” “Why?”
“To practice your driving. Maybe learn something new.” “Learn what new?”
He glanced at me. “You’ll see…”
Fifteen minutes later we were there. Just beyond the entrance of Outer Brook Road. It was a long straight two-lane access road for deliveries to the mall.
“We’re here, let’s swap.”
I had more than a few questions but I did as I was told. That lasted for about a millisecond after I got behind the driver’s seat.
“Alright, now what?”
He looked at me and smiled. “Time to learn a 180.” “What?”
“A 180. A bootlegger 180. It’s an escape move.” “Why do I need to know this?”
I could feel his gaze even in the dark.
“Because Bootsy, you never know. Cause, you may very rarely need it. But I’ve discovered in my life that when you need it, you really really need it. You ready?”
I didn’t know if I was ready or not. Finally, I decided. “Yeah.”
“Ok, you do this right and what’s gonna happen is that you are going to spin the car a hundred and eighty degrees around and have it face the opposite way in the other lane. So, speed up to about 45 then, real fast, step on the emergency brake and spin the wheel toward the left.
The rear wheels will go into a skid. When the car lines up into the other lane and is facing the other direction, pop the brake and stand on that gas, Boots. Remember you gotta be fast. You ready?”
“Is this dangerous?”
He was silent for a moment then laughed. “Of course it is.”
“OK remember brake, spin, gas. Let’s do this!”
I was determined, I stood on the gas. The speedometer needle moved fast, too fast, to 45. “Alright now! Stand on the brake and spin the wheel!” he shouted.
I tried. I really did. But my foot missed the brake and the car spun out of control. We jumped the lane and the driver’s side rear quarter panel caught the impact of us whipping into a lighting pole. The pole clanged to the ground with a resounding crash but it slowed us enough for me to get my foot back on the brake. The car came to rest just off the asphalt, nose into a hedge row.
Uncle David grabbed me up and swiftly checked me like a combat medic. “Damn! Boots are you Ok? Are you hurt?”
I wasn’t. Thankfully. But I fell apart anyway. I grabbed onto him for dear life.
“I’m fine…I’m…Oh my god. I wreaked the car, I wreaked the car! I’m so sorry Uncle David, I’m so…”
He let me sob for a time. Finally, he spoke. “Easy, easy girl…” The tears started to abate.
He hugged me tightly. “It doesn’t matter.” “Ohmigod! I wreaked the…what?”
“It doesn’t matter.” I was confused. “Why?”
A slow smile crept across his face and transformed into a grin. “Cause it’s rented.”
Maybe it was the shock of the accident. Maybe it was the relief of a narrow escape.
Maybe it was the excitement of being alive, apparently functional and presumably in one piece.
I started to laugh.
It just happened. It was a giggle at first then became stronger. And when I looked at my uncle, who was starting to laugh himself, I lost all control. The laughter came in body shaking spasms like I was being exorcised by energetic yet cheerful priests. The power of Christ compels you!
I almost peed myself.
Slowly, I was able to collect my wits, save for a few titters and gasps. Uncle David cracked open his door.
“Hang tough for a sec Bootsy, I’m gonna eyeball the damage.”
He bounced out of the car, spent a solid ten seconds assessing the damage and popped right back in with his report.
He laughed. “Well, you did some serious damage on the quarter panel on my side but it’s not fouling the wheel.”
Not a clue. “Huh?”
“Start it up, put it in reverse and slowly…slowly…back it up and get us back on the road.”
I did as instructed. “See? It’s fine, Boots.”
“Except for all the damage.”
“And that’s why Mr. Hertz sells insurance and why I buy it. Cause you never fuckin’ know.”
We shared another laugh and when we were done there was silence for a time.
I looked down the road then off to my right where the battered remains of the metal light pole lay all twisted this way and that.
It was there, in the dark quiet, that I knew what I had to do. “Uncle David?”
I could feel his gaze on me in the darkness.
I turned to face him. “I wanna go again.” “Yeah?”
“Yeah. I do…” He grinned.
“Have at it, Crash.”
I got it on the third try. The secret? Just like life, it’s all in the timing. Brake, spin, gas. As for my teacher…I never saw him again after that night.
I was angry for awhile but then he just faded away. Life got more complex for me and he simply disappeared from it.
Maybe I didn’t need him anymore. Maybe he didn’t need me anymore.
But I have never forgotten his lessons. So now, whenever I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed or just plain lost I get into the car, gun it hard along a deserted patch of earth and just when it seems like I’m about to go too fast I brake, spin the wheel and stand on the gas.
And I slide slicker than spit into the other lane, facing the opposite direction, ready to rumble, ready to fight, ready to be brave…
Ready to live.
And the car? Rented of course. Why?
Because you never fuckin’ know, that’s why.
Michael Tooher’s full length works include The Tree of the Methodists, Hangman, Iceland, The Waiting Room, Pudding, The Undertow and the award winning The Perfect Sameness of Our Days.
His 10-minute plays have been performed all over the country. Most recently his play Hit Men was part of the 2019 edition of “Talking About It” the short play reading festival in NYC. The festival explores issues surrounding mental health.
Michael is a founding member of Crowbait Club and its notorious monthly Theatre Death Match. He lives in Portland, Maine with one wife, one son and three outrageously spoiled cats.
Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award
The Day Mary Oliver Died by Matt Bernier
The day Mary Oliver died wasn’t a summer day—
January, with Arctic air snapping into the Northeast
like a whip, stinging cheeks; frozen rivers pouring
like broken glass into empty estuaries, even
down to Chesapeake Bay, where the government clanged shut
and the Commerce Secretary tiptoed
around marble columns in velvet slippers,
a mouse looking for cake crumbs,
and I, furloughed worker, sipped coffee
as the Maine weather struggled to meet the
challenge of a sunrise, temperatures of three, four
degrees not feeling like degrees of freedom—
I hadn’t heard about Mary then, though she would
have approved, me driving to Portland, Maine
for an early morning walk in Deering Oaks Park
where a Great Black Hawk tore apart a gray squirrel
near a middle school, dissecting it the way
students pored over photocopies of Mary’s poems,
red ink spilling onto snowy white paper,
tilting their heads, smiling on their way
to the beating heart of the collection—
I imagined students learning about the hawk,
native to Mexico but then spotted in Texas,
having flown over an imaginary border wall,
past the black vultures circling children in cages,
higher and higher, until hurricane winds jacked
up on climate change smacked the bird up
to Maine, where it folded dark wings behind its back
like a cape, a migrant superhero perched in
red oak tree within view of the park’s frozen pond,
and looking east, gray Atlantic Ocean trembling
like park squirrels now missing tails,
waves breaking with pale promise
of a nor’easter, and I watched and composed
until my lips were too cold to recite anything,
and later, cappuccino in cupped hands,
I learned about Mary’s passing, thinking how she
would have loved the Great Black Hawk—
how it flew thousands of miles only to
perch near a school and learn that squirrel
tasted like lizard, how “one wild and precious life”
had more admirers than critics, even ones
who spoke in frostbite about too many
animals in her poetry and their simplicity
as they gazed upward toward a quiet place
where awe and snowflakes are born.
Matt Bernier lives in Pittsfield, Maine and works as a civil and environmental engineer, restoring sea-run fish to rivers through projects like dam removals. His poetry has appeared in The Catch: Writings from Downeast Maine, an online literary journal, and in 2019 he read his poetry at the Portland Museum of Art and Belfast Poetry Festival.
Poetry Honorable Mention
Growth by Richard K. Williams
When we perceive the world spinning out of control
Like during a pandemic lockdown
With forced social distancing
Peppered with violent protest marches
During my seven-week furlough from work
Followed by a work from home order
While views on the news and social media display
Fear, angst, anger, frustration, and confusion
I learned to cultivate patience
A slow growing crop
Which in my case is, no way
Mature enough for harvest
But I keep at it every day
Watering the seedlings
Pulling out weeds of doubt
So someday when the world returns
To whatever we can accept as a normal state
At least maybe, I will have improved
Richard K Williams has had poems published in Magnapoets Magazine, and has poetry currently published in Down in the Dirt Literary magazine. he has also had poetry published in The Sun Journal newspaper, as well as on-line in the Maine Mountain Project, Autumn Leaves. Richard is frequently performing at open mic’s in various venues around the state. Last year he was one of the featured poets at the Harlow Gallery.
Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award
Reshuffling by Cynthia Larson
My great-grandmother cheated at cards. Her peccadillos, now ancient history, were recounted each time my mother baked Russian Tea Cakes, and each time, these stories caused my child’s world to slip slightly off-center, teetering between my mother’s clear disapproval and my father’s delight in the telling.
Like many cheaters, my great-grandmother believed that no one was the wiser. In fact, my father, his two sisters, great-grandfather, the aunts and uncles—all knew of great- grandmother’s tendency to rearrange the cards to suit her hand. They dutifully remained silent as crazy eights disappeared up the arm of her long-sleeved cardigan, a black jack slipped into her apron pocket, or a wild card carelessly dropped to her waiting lap. Halfway through the game, great-grandmother would rise to brew tea. The family waited, poised in mid-game at the dining room table, and listened to great-grandmother rummage in the cupboard for her tea things, heard the clink of china, the kettle’s whistle, and finally, saw great-grandmother reappear and settle into place, laden with tea cups but divested now of all the cards she had gathered during the game’s first half. Everyone knew that from tea time on, the game would be considerably more interesting, playing as they now were with less than a full deck.
For “making tea” was partly comfort, partly ruse. In fetching the tea things, great- grandmother took her chance to hide a queen in the flatware, a king in the linens, and a wild card in the serving bowl. If her luck turned sour as the game progressed, then was the time for cookies, judiciously kept near the tea-things. And who was surprised if a lucky ace appeared in great-grandmother’s hand, still delicately powdered from the Russian Tea Cakes?
To hear my father tell it, great-grandmother had a passion for winning, a passion that stretched even to the 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles the family labored over, a week at a time, on a card table erected for that purpose. Great-grandmother would steal a bland puzzle piece of solid blue sea or sky or a bit of unmarked meadow and hide it in an empty sugar bowl or in her dress pocket. When the puzzle was finished, save for the small void somewhere in the vast sea or sky, great-grandmother would press home the pilfered piece, the very one that pulled the picture to wholeness.
Such was the ideal for great-grandmother. In reality, her scams rarely worked so well, for great-grandmother had difficulty remembering not only which cards she had lifted from the deck (the queen of hearts? the queen of diamonds?), but also where, exactly, she had hidden them.
Great-grandmother’s faulty memory, created, willy-nilly, new games for my father and his sisters. In shaking out the good linen for holidays, kings and jacks and one-color jigsaw pieces sifted to the floor. A thorough and surreptitious excavation of the china cupboard yielded a mother lode of cards and pieces from too many puzzles. Setting to rights the multiple decks and puzzles became the most challenging game of all. Over the years, losses finally outweighed great-grandmother’s small gains. The last complete deck was patched together with borrowings from several decks. The box cover offered the only view of a finished puzzle.
My own memory of great-grandmother embraces her last few years. I first remember her when I was five and she was ninety, frail and neat, a steely-white braid falling to her knees. By then her mind only sustained distant remembrances.
“Who are you?” She would ask my father. “I’m Bud, Grandma.”
“Oh, Buddy,” great-grandmother would say, with a mixture of pleasure and effort at trying to link a grown man with her grandchild of years past. I don’t think great-grandmother ever really comprehended my sister and me, born out of the time in which she now lived. “Whose little girls are you?” She would ask, over and over, genuinely puzzled at the existence of small children in her quiet house and yet pleased to see little girls, for she had raised four daughters.
This felt disjuncture between what comes to stand before us and what exists in memory is what I share with great-grandmother. For if those two little girls who once stood before her found no sure place in her memory, then the great-grandmother who so zealously cheated at cards does not fit my memory of the impossibly old and brittle woman who was my great-grandmother.
We reconcile where we can, and that, I suspect, was what great-grandmother was doing with her cards. A life begun so brightly—a banker’s wife with four daughters and two sons—was dealt losses. In the market crash and the Great Depression, great-grandfather lost everything he had—twice. The youngest daughter—my father’s mother—turned consumptive and took her time in dying. My father and his two sisters, newly bereft of a mother, found themselves orphaned when their father deserted them just after the funeral. Great-grandfather and great- grandmother began to raise a second family at age sixty, this time with no resources—only a banker’s house no one could afford to buy. When winter came, everyone put newspaper in their shoes for warmth.
And so, great-grandmother husbanded the good cards for use against bad times. She treasured up the high cards to remember what it was like to come out ahead. She prized that final puzzle piece, which, pressed into place, filled for the moment a small void and created temporary wholeness on the card table, for away from the game, her daughter’s death left part of her ever empty and incomplete. And if she won every game of solitaire, she was not cheating, but engaged in a battle to the death. The vacant chair across from her was filled with Fate, and Fate be damned if great-grandmother would give him one more game.
I’ve long since reconciled with the great-grandmother who cheated at cards. I no longer feel the off-center slip I did as a child. Rather, I’ve learned such slippages and scramblings to recover are the daily stuff of life as hard times rearrange the ways we must play out our hands. Small wonder, then, great-grandmother coveted, then hid her cards and puzzles pieces. Imagine: to open the cupboard and find a king—to reach in a pocket and, in your hand, hold a bit of cloud-free sky.
Cynthia Larson is a retired teacher, lover of words, sentences, and nature, returning to writing after many years.
Nonfiction Honorable Mention
Odds by John Reinhart
I set myself the goal – a soft goal – this summer to find a four-leaf clover.
I once had a student who could spot these lucky charms like dandelions, picking two or three in a half-hour lunch period. Four-leaf clovers occur about one in every ten-thousand clovers. I had to investigate.
The internet offered strategies: there are about 10,000 clovers in a 13-square-foot patch, which means that if you focus on that area, like any handful for scratch tickets, you should be able to locate the desired genetic anomaly and win a prize. Pick your spot, measure it, and begin looking. For the Germans, inclined to go clover by clover, don’t (one of my children took this another step: extracting each rejected three-leader and placing it aside so it would no longer distract his quest). The methodical approach might be effective, but it is far from efficient.
The human brain is wired for pattern recognition. If you sit in a clover patch, with the breeze blowing lightly, enjoying the sun on your neck, breathe deeply and try not to focus. This is your Zen moment of the week. Let your mind wander. Like those 3D eye puzzles, if you skim and scan, the odd clover will pop out.
Prepared with these tactics, I spent the summer recreationally scanning clover patches. I searched the very patchy clover in my yard, on a hill in New Hampshire, down the road in a bigger field. Nothing. I wanted this, but I knew, or at least I told myself, that forcing the matter would not increase my odds.
I completed two 1,000-piece puzzles over the summer, both slow meditative practices in letting the right pieces emerge. One seemed to be a practice in discerning shades of gray, the other blue. Puzzling is necessarily a slow process, completing the outline first, then the obvious connections, finally settling in fir or the long haul of nondescriptly similar pieces.
Both of these puzzles took weeks of here and there work to complete. Unlike looking for clovers, puzzles have a clear progression – beginning, middle, end, and al I near familiarity.
Looking for a (maybe) clover with an extra leaf that might exist in one patch or another, but probably neither felt definitively aimless in comparison.
(Perhaps that’s why I relished it as my personal quest. A little Don Quixote as remedy to the hurly bustle of everyday life.)
My birthday came. I considered asking my wife and three children to join I my quest. On second thought, an hour in a field looking at clovers with the family might not be the birthday gift I wanted, recalling days of wild blueberry picking that resulted in bug bites, sunburns, and more complaints from the children than berries picked. I also had their help with the puzzles, sweeping in at the end to place the last few victorious pieces.
Summer marched forward and I prepared for the school year. My four-leaf clover was still out there, but it remained a soft goal, and the first day of classes was a hard deadline. My to- do lists often include long term projects: pick up eggs, grade 11th grade papers, finish writing Grandmother’s cookbook, buy a kayak. I like goals, but I’m comfortable getting to them gradually.
We spent the first three days of school in a field in orientation. Between activities and meetings, there was ample time for me to stare at the ground. I shared my goal with a new student who revealed that her sister is one of the gifted four-leaf spotters, though she herself did not inherit such talent. Thirty minutes later, as our summer reading discussions wrapped up, she announced she had found a four-leaf clover.
There were too many other concerns to keep my thoughts occupied, so clovers settled into the back seat for what looked to be a long road trip. I did complete Grandmother’s cookbook, but not until a couple of years after she died, about five years after I started. The journey itself so often seems sweeter than the arrival.
I was out filling the bird feeders and paused to peruse the yard. A less dense clover patch might make hunting easier because there are fewer places to hide. But sparseness also means a smaller sample Odds. I teach humanities, not math.
I looked down. It was Sunday, the day before classes, my last official day of summer. There it was, standing out, different, obvious, four strong leaves in a three-leaf world. For a moment, I lost myself, forgot my syllabuses, readings, anxieties, protocols, and expectations. I was, for that instant, wrapped entirely into the feeling of accomplishment, an exhilaration of unexpected victory – the surprise of answering a Zen koan and knowing the absolute nothingness.
I pressed the clover between the pages of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a bottled barbaric yawp for future reference.
Goal achieved, I proceeded to tell the story to a class of senior preparing to write college essays. “Tell me a story about an ordinary object,” I instructed. “Let that object say something about you, about what motivates you, about your values.”
“I just found one,” announced one of the students, proclaiming one of the benefits of having class outdoors. Working outdoors, my wife found one the same day.
The next morning, armed with determination, inspiration, and evidence that both can buck the odds, my children set to the yard to find their own special clovers. We had all scoured the yard infrequently over the summer, but since then our collective gentle skepticism had evolved into a personal knowledge that nature blesses those who look for and find her. Even in the most ubiquitous moments and places.
Not even five minutes into their post-breakfast, pre-school search, Mattheus surfaced with a whoop. “I found one.” It wasn’t just four leaves; it was a fiver. Lucien followed quickly with one he swears had four leaves, “but one fell off.” Opal, the youngest, the only girl, so often on the outside, whined that now she was the only member of our family who hadn’t found one. It was the first week of school and not even this excitement could mask her exhaustion.
Inspired anew and spurred forward by my father’s love for his daughter, I dove into our patchy green yard, trying to forget having taken both dogs out to do their necessaries earlier, in roughly the same spot as I was crawling on hands and knees.
A summer is not a particularly long time chronologically. It is roughly two to two and a half months, eight to ten weeks, longer in the relative experience of a child. Long enough to take a class or two, travel the length and breadth of our country. Long enough to change your life, forget long division, grow out of your shoes.
Our particular summer was exactly 80 days, the same length of time Jules Verne set to race around the world in his novel descriptively titled Around the World in 80 Days. 1,920 hours, one-fifth the way to mastery if one could spend every minute in pursuit of some singular passion. Enough time to give up a thousand times on a silly goal pursued in dreams always just out of reach. Then, within the span of a week, six separate examples of reaching that peak, six clovers totaling 24 petals, one for each hour of the day.
I did not expect to find a specimen for Opal, no matter that story of mothers lifting cars to rescue children, the superhuman feats of love and adrenaline, especially since we had to leave for school in ten minutes. Eighty days and I’d found one. What were the odds?
And then there was Opal’s clover, pointing each direction of the compass, waiting for me. The fact that she hadn’t found it herself didn’t matter to her. She had a clover too.
The awe of finding my second clover in a week quickly passed. The following day Lucien found another, this time with the fourth leaf still attached. Mattheus found six more, all in our yard. Suddenly, what felt like insurmountable odds appeared mundane. This was particularly driven home when Mattheus became distracted in German class and plucked 18 four-leaf clovers in one period, while still pretending to be engaged with his work.
I like to think that we’ve trained our observations in a new way, connected new synapses that spot these special clovers, or simply quieted the status of modern life to hum a simpler tune. Virtual reality has nothing on real clover.
Maybe that’s the real story behind the odds. Yes, four-leaf clovers are one in 10,000, but so are the people who take the time to see them.
John Reinhart is part slug and part spirit animal. He works as an arsonist and professional troublemaker when not writing stories about renegade leprechauns in space or zombie tooth fairies. His work has been published internationally and in bathroom stalls at rest stops across the country. Find out more here http://home.hampshire.edu/~jcr00/reinhart.html or at various social media outlets near you.
Nonfiction Honorable Mention
Great Escapes by Chris Chapman
Growing up on a farm instills traits that seem to surface throughout your life. I think of the times I survived dangerous situations that popped up as “great escapes,” but they are probably just lucky breaks for a sometimes impulsive person.
An early memory has me in the north pasture nearest the ell running around with the cows. I loved the feel of the soft grass on my toes as I scooted around, zigging and zagging to miss the meadow muffins left by my bovine playmates. The cows seemed content to be chewing their cud as I frolicked around them when suddenly, the cows decided I was going a little too fast and stampeded after me. I was startled and sacred as panic set in; I ran like crazy, pigtails straight out behind me, slid under the gate, ran barefooted over the gravel driveway, with my feet screaming, “stop!” until I rounded the corner, shot up the stone steps and landed safely into the house.
I avoided danger many other times growing up; dodging the rooster who lusted after my little legs or the ram who liked to ram me. My most perilous foray with the cows happened after the “tie up” was built— a 100 foot long cow barn that was quite state-of-the-art for a 1950’s dairy farm. Entering through a separate milk room with a big stainless steel cooler tank, a huge door led to an upper walkway that, for me, was eye level with the cows’ heads. This was the newest design and both cow- and farmer-friendly. Each cow had her own water dispenser—all she had to do was push her nose down to get a fresh drink. Hay could be thrown down and grain dispensed into feed troughs. We all thought it was quite wonderful.
One day, I was on that walkway and the cows were eating, their heads down all around me. I was about three and I had on my winter coat. As I walked along looking at the cows eating Mabel decided she’d put her head up. When she did, her horns caught my coat. As she put her head up she felt the tug of my body and threw me over her back. I flew through the air headed for the cement floor behind her, but thank goodness, I landed in a pile of hay.
Another lucky break came years later when I was driving my mother’s car. My mother had a penchant for fast cars. I remember the time we went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to visit her cousin. They grew up together and were like sisters. Mom’s cousin, Westie, had bought a Pontiac Chieftan—two-tone blue with big curved sides on it, all pretty. Well, the next weekend we went down and traded in whatever it was we had and came home with a green Chieftan. So, cars were something my mother sort of fancied.
As time went on that car wore out and she had to get another one so she got a little Chevy 2. It wasn’t much of a car—a little black box—but it did the trick. However, it wasn’t quite enough for her. One day, Frank Gutek drove into the hospital parking lot (he was the lab tech; she was the administrator), in his gold 1965 Barracuda. Well, that Barracuda turned heads and one of the heads it turned was my mother’s. She thought that car was something, so after work she went to talk with the Plymouth dealer, and she bought a silver Barracuda. “The silverfish,” my father called it. Well, that silver Barracuda was pretty hot. I enjoyed it very much during my freshman and sophomore years in college, and beyond. One summer day I was driving it and we were all meeting at the lake for a picnic. I’d been to work and I was a little bit late, so I decided I’d better book it to get there. I drove down Belvedere Road, went around where Branch Road is now and, right after that curve, there’s a great big field on the left. Well, I was going a bit too fast at that point and I spun out and did a little bit of a 360 and landed in the field. I took a breath and drove out of the field to join the others.
Well, I’ve always had a tendency of wanting to take a little risk, go a little fast, do something a little daring. But I never thought it would continue into my later years. So, here I was the other day, finding fate directing me again. Only this time I had my trusty 2007 Subaru Outback, which is ten years old at this point. I was on my way to swim at the Bowdoin pool, going down Route 24 in Harpswell, to cut across the Mountain Road, then back up 123 to get there. It was a beautiful day, nothing on the highway, so I thought I would make it a joy ride and kind of goose it. So I’m speeding up this little hill past the Truffant Summerton ball field, and I hit 80! I thought to myself, “Oh man, that’s a little fast.”
At the same time I noticed I hit 80, so did the sheriff. The sheriff was heading the other way, going down the hill. I looked in my rear view mirror and there were his lights flashing red and blue, his brake lights bright—he was coming after me. This was not good. What were my choices: flight or fight?
I decided flight was my best option. Just ahead was Stevens Corner Road, so I just cut diagonally across Route 24, zipped down, then up the hill, and around the corner onto Pinkham Point Road. I cleared one left and then went down Hog Tide Lane, found a little side road to somebody’s house, drove up to their yard, turned around and waited. I thought, “This had better work; if it doesn’t, I’ve had it.” Five minutes later I snuck out and went back the other way.
Instead of heading south, I headed north on the road parallel to Route 24, crawled up to Brunswick, and went to swim class the long way around.
Well, I have to tell you it did scare me quite a bit. It also thrilled me quite a bit to think that I had really fulfilled that dream every teenager has, which is to outrun the police. I couldn’t believe I did it, I couldn’t believe it worked, and I know I’ll never to do it again. But, it really did show me that even at almost seventy you can be as foolish as you were at seven.
Chris Chapman lives in Maine.
Just Write Maine-related Nonfiction Award
Fresh Cut by Shannon Bowring
Today, my partner gave me the greatest gift: a small chunk of freshly cut white cedar. He handed it to me as I sat at my writing desk. “Smell,” he said, and I did—a quick hit like the obligatory tokes I used to take off my first boyfriend’s skunky joints.
After I was alone again at my desk, no longer writing, I pressed the little treasure against my nose. I closed my eyes. Inhaled deep.
And suddenly I am ten years old again, in the backseat of my mother’s Ford Taurus. I hang my head out the window like an excited puppy as we drive past the lumber mill where my father, along with half our small town, works. The road is dusty. The lumberyard teems with men in Carhartts and steel-toed boots slogging their way through ankle-deep mud. It’s springtime in Northern Maine, and mud is everywhere. I can smell it in the cold air whipping past my face, and I can smell the sharp, sweet aroma of cedar planks stacked in the muck. At the other end of the mill, freshly felled tree trunks, shorn of leaves and branches, await their fate. I wonder if the trees know they are destined to be fed into a merciless machine with biting metal teeth. I wonder if it will hurt them. The more I think about it, the more a painless ending seems unlikely.
Not far from the mill where my father still works, across the river and through the coniferous woods, there is a large, shingled house on ninety acres of land. This is where my first boyfriend used to live. And this is the house I was writing about when my partner came into my room to hand me the piece of white cedar. I was revisiting a place I haven’t seen in years. I was remembering what it felt like to be there, in that male-dominated house with taxidermy mounted on the knotty pine walls. All the rooms smelled of woodsmoke. The memory of green, living things. Spirits of trees sacrificed to a family who left their shotguns propped against the kitchen table.
To be fair, a lot of people in Northern Maine leave their guns scattered throughout the house. Most of the time they’re unloaded, or at least the safeties are on. But whenever I walked through my boyfriend’s kitchen or living room, I feared that I would accidentally touch a gun and set it off. One misstep, I knew, would alter my life irrevocably. I’d be left standing in the ear-ringing aftermath of what I’d done as his family stared at me with disbelief and smug disapproval painted on their faces.
We were together almost ten years. I never stopped treading lightly through those loaded rooms.
As I sat writing about my ex-boyfriend’s house, the window behind me was cracked open to let in the cool, forsythia-scented springtime air. I could hear the drone of chainsaws. In our yard, one man hung from a red wire in our lone white cedar. He swung his lithe body around the trunk as he lopped off branches. On the ground beneath him, another man cleared the debris and fed it into a powerful mulching machine.
My partner and I didn’t lightly make the decision to remove the tree. It grew up in the shadow of two towering hemlocks in our yard. Over time, the cedar leaned further away from the hemlocks in its search for the sun. But it never got enough. And its acrobatics meant that the back corner of our lot never saw the light, either. For the sake of the ground, where we hope to plant new life, we had to make a sacrifice.
“That cedar’s been struggling for years,” the tree guy assured us. “It makes sense to let it go.”
I took a break in my writing and watched the progress through our kitchen window. The man was a gentle murderer. He embraced the tree as he cut through its many shaggy limbs, placed his hands upon its trunk as one would caress a lover. I could imagine him communing silently with the cedar. It’s okay, he promised. This won’t hurt for long. When I’m done, pieces of you will go back into the earth and live on in other ways.
It was a beautiful dismemberment.
The house where my first boyfriend lived had a small room in the finished basement. In this room was a massive woodstove and a wall entirely covered with stacked firewood.
My boyfriend and his two brothers were expected to help their parents cut the wood, split the wood, stack the wood, feed the wood into the fire. This was a chore I’d never experienced in my own house, which was kept warm by a cantankerous oil furnace that my father was always swearing about. The chores in my house consisted of laundry, dishes, sweeping the scuffed-up kitchen floor.
I could never comprehend the chores my boyfriend was made to do. In addition to the wood, he was responsible for cleaning guns, skinning dead animals, washing chicken shit off fresh eggs, maneuvering his father’s lawnmower around the massive yard in clean, even lines. In the face of his competence, I felt naïve, alien. How could a teenage boy, someone my own age, already know how to do so many things?
Whenever I was at his house, I felt surrounded by men who understood what to do and how to do it in any given moment or situation. My boyfriend’s mother, who hunted alone and stood several inches taller than her husband, exuded the same charged masculine energy. As a family, the five of them were like a pack of wolves—fiercely loyal, ruled by the laws of nature and governed by only themselves, never swayed by an outside influence.
It was different for my family. Besides swearing at the furnace or whatever other home project he happened to be working on, my father was a passive man who deferred to my mother on all matters. Like my boyfriend’s mom, mine possessed the qualities often found in Maine women—headstrong, protective, hardworking and crafty. She made the big decisions, brought my older sister and me to our doctors’ appointments, took care of the finances. But unlike my boyfriend’s mother, ours was sensitive and nurturing. She and our father never demanded physical labor of us; neither of them felt we needed to mow the lawn or take out the leaky garbage to learn responsibility. For my parents, bringing home good grades and making smart social choices was proof enough of my sister’s and my maturity.
Watching my boyfriend tinker with the woodstove in his basement, I felt both grateful to and resentful of the structure of my own home. I hated the idea of getting dirty and sweaty as I split logs under the hot sun, and the thought of being keeper of something as dangerous as fire sent tremors of panic into my belly. But I also felt envious. As he expertly fed wood into the fire, orange glow of the flames reflected in his thick glasses, I marveled at his confidence. Here was a boy who knew what to do. Here was a boy who would soon become a man. What was I in comparison?
Nothing but a witness. A girl. An outsider.
After he was done with the cedar, the tree man moved to our front yard and scaled our Norway maple.
“This will fall down in a few years,” he said. “These trees never make it.”
I was surprised by this news when my partner later reported it to me. Every time we go outside in spring, summer, or fall, he and I pluck tiny maple saplings from the ground. The monster mother tree seems so keen to propagate. To endure. How could something so adamant upon survival eventually grow soft and topple over?
Norway maples are known for their quickly growing, shade-giving canopy of lush green leaves. But they are an invasive species. Their need for domination is ultimately what kills these maples—the shallow, aggressive roots take over and choke out the parent tree. Unintentional suicide.
One night when I was seven or eight years old, my father took me with him to the mill where he worked. We had to retrieve his tools, which he needed for a project back at home. I don’t remember much about the mill, other than the thick layer of sawdust covering the floors and walls, and the clanging metal catwalk my father led me down. On the floor beneath us were the machines that devoured the fresh lumber. I knew these saws and furnaces could maim or kill a grown man as easily as if he were made of bark and water—this happened on occasion in other towns, rare, gory news that made the Bangor Daily and was whispered about at the One Stop and the Diner. It made me queasy to imagine those defenseless limbs—tree or human—being yanked into the machines’ greedy maws.
But this was Northern Maine. Men felled mighty trees and turned them into shingles, which were sold to companies in Canada or across the United States. The money from these sales provided food, shelter, electricity, new guns to take into the forest and slay a moose for a winter of free meals. Sons fed firewood into furnaces to keep their family warm. Women went out to the backyard and grabbed chickens by their easy-to-break necks, and then these women returned inside their houses with blood on their hands and a plan for that night’s supper. Guides took tourists From Away into the woods and showed them how to kill fish, deer, bear, moose, partridge. Poachers crept into the forest and stole life from the shadows.
This was Northern Maine, and everyone profited from murder somehow.
I grew up in a family of carnivores. But we never participated in the killing. My parents didn’t hunt, and there were no guns in our ranch house. We bought our meat from the Food Mart, or we drove thirty minutes east through dense forest and expansive potato fields to get to the nearest Shop ‘N Save.
My first boyfriend’s family were killers. Any woodland creature, large or small, was fair game. Their garage smelled of damp fur, animal blood, the sickly-sweet tinge of gunmetal.
One of our biggest fights occurred after I refused to drive down to the tagging station to meet my boyfriend after he shot a moose. As we spoke on the phone, I could hear his family cheering in the background. It was easy to imagine them with him at the station, standing in the frosty, late afternoon light. So many layers of hunter’s orange and green camouflage.
I didn’t want to see or smell the blood, didn’t want to stand there and pretend to celebrate the killing. It was understood between my boyfriend’s family and me that I would never strap a shotgun to my back and follow them into the woods. When I declined to go look at the moose he shot that day, another silent understanding started to seep its way between us like the animal’s dark blood that spread in rivulets upon the cold November ground.
A couple years later, after we broke up and I was left alone in our apartment far from the town where we grew up, I found pictures of that day he shot the moose. There he was, surrounded by his brothers, his father, his grandfather. His mother was absent from the picture, but I could sense her behind the camera, directing how and where everyone should pose. Behind the men was the dead moose. Its velvety snout, slick with blood, skimmed the ground. I imagined the photo had been taken after my ex called me and I refused to witness the carnage. By the wide grin on his face, and the way he looked so at ease beside his family, it didn’t seem as though he missed me at all.
We both knew I never belonged inside the frame.
After the tree guys left and the roar of their chainsaws was replaced by the chirping of chickadees, I stepped outside to see what had been done. I walked beneath the Norway maple. The men had trimmed dead limbs and removed overhanging branches that stole sun from the lawn and from the spruce trees that grow between our yard and the neighbor’s. The maple’s bright green baby leaves stretched toward the light. White circles on the branches showed where the tree men made their cuts, exposing raw flesh to the late day sun.
I walked past our side garden, daffodils and burgundy peony shoots peeking out from the verdant earth, and headed toward the backyard. There was more sky than had been there before. With the white cedar reduced to nothing more than a three-foot high stump, the sun could now reach corners of the yard it hadn’t seen in years.
Twigs, needles, and other debris littered the ground where the tree had stood only hours before. The stirred-up air smelled like my childhood—all those drives past my father’s lumber mill, summer afternoons spent on the deck of my boyfriend’s house, surrounded by pine trees and an upturned bowl of clear blue sky.
High in the hemlock branches above our yard, grackles flicked their iridescent heads as squirrels darted up the weathered trunk. I bent down and picked up a palm-sized lump of cedar from the ground. I held it to my nose. Closed my eyes. If you breathe in long enough, deep enough, the sharp, sweet, slightly spicy aroma begins to smell of peppermint.
It’s curious—how a piece of memory small as this can be both dead and alive, all at the same time.
Shannon L. Bowring’s work has appeared in several online and print journals. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and a Best of the Net Award. In 2019, she placed as an Editorial Board Semifinalist for The Journal’s Non/Fiction Collection Prize and as a semi-finalist in the Iron Horse Literary Review Chapbook Competition.
Shannon obtained her B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Maine and is currently pursuing her MFA at Stonecoast, where she serves as Fiction Editor for the Stonecoast Review. She lives in Bath and works as a cataloger for the Patten Free Library.
Shannon is currently at work on a linked story collection based on her (very) small hometown in Aroostook County.
Maine-related Nonfiction Honorable Mention
Lions and Tabby Cats: An Ode to How Snowboarding Saved My Life by Lynne Schmidt
It’s hard to stand up tall or trust yourself when you can’t trust your legs, your mind, or yourself anymore. Following an abortion and knee surgery back to back, I relocated from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the winter wonderland of Newry, Maine to reinvent myself as a snowboard instructor at Sunday River. I shed several aspects of my life – my name, shifting from Stephanie to Lynne, my home – beach sand to snow, my hair which I cut off prior to leaving. I was like a new fawn, literally learning to walk again.
My first day on snow was two weeks to the day following my knee surgery. Prior to, I’d never been a strong rider, but I could at least stand on a board so they gave me a job and trusted that I would develop on my own. In the mornings I would attend trainings, to strengthen my legs, to strengthen my riding, and most importantly, to try to get out of my own head.
Today, Brent is the instructor. He doesn’t know that for the last several months I’ve been considering ending my life, and I’m careful not to tell anyone – you know, to keep my options open.
Brent is a few inches taller than me with short black hair and a pale complexion. Of all the people I work with and learn from, when we’re not drinking, he’s one of whom I admire most. Mainly because he’s an amazing rider, and also because there is a rumor going around that his teeth are missing from him “kissing a rail,” which translates to one day he tried to do a trick on a metal rail, fell, and smashed his teeth out. I could live a thousand years and never be that brave. But also – because he says hi to me every morning and makes me feel a little less defective.
“What do you guys want to learn today?” Brent asks the group.
We all agree, freestyle. I want to learn how to do tricks, and if anyone is going to teach me, it’s him. Brent nods, we get on the chair lift, and when we get to the top of a blue trail named Escapade. I think, He can’t be teaching us here.
But he is.
All the instructors ride better than I do. I fall less now, but I’m still slow because I can’t afford another blow to my knee and disrupting the recovery from surgery. Brent does his introduction, explains how to throw our bodies to be able to rotate 180 degrees. No one else is phased by the steepness of the hill. No one else struggles to keep up with the group.
I’m not going to learn anything today, I realize as my heart breaks. I swallow several times to keep the lump in my throat down. Maybe I can keep up, at least today.
Everyone else is plummeting easily down the hill, I lag behind, trying to maintain speed, and keeping the tightness in my throat at bay. I can’t keep up, and they’re so far ahead I lose eyesight of them. All of them but me can rotate. All of them can get into the air, meanwhile I’m struggling to finish reasonably close to the last person so that by the time I arrive, they’re not all unstrapped and looking impatient to get back on the chair.
I breathe heavy, swallowing the tears that threaten my eyes. I hate training. I hate being here. I am worthless, I suck at snowboarding, I should have just died in North Carolina.
Thankfully, the training ends without a breakdown and when we arrive for lineup, a morning lesson gets assigned to me which should help me reinflate.
It’s a lesson with four Never-Evers, which means they’ve never even seen a snowboard before. I explain the snowboard – the base, bindings, how to get into bindings, proper fitting for boots (toe can touch the edge of the boot but shouldn’t be pushing against it) and board (chest to chin, but as newbies, the shorter the better) and bindings (adjust size as needed – small, medium, large and then the ankle strap), and then we go out on the bunny hill.
We work through straight runs, where the students have one foot strapped into a binding, and another foot free. They push off, similar to a skateboard and ride for approximately two seconds before stepping off. This helps them get used to the sensation of movement over snow.
Next, J-Turns. There are two types, toe-side and heel-side. “Everyone is going to have a preference,” I caution. “One will come almost naturally, and the other you’ll have to fight yourself to master.” The group nods as I explain and demonstrate.
The three students take about an hour to master these and are ready to move on. One has mastered the heel side but continues to struggle with their toe-side. Because my knee is still recovering from surgery, I empathize with her – it is my most difficult transition, still. I am terrified of falling on my knees.
I advance the three students, explaining the next steps and have them practice on their own, so I can work with the one that’s struggling. After three more tries, she continues to look down at the snow, put her arms out to counter balance herself.
“Hey,” I call out.
She uses her free leg and steps off the board. “Try to keep your arms down.”
She tries again, the same thing happens.
I approach her. “Can I ask you to try something weird?” She nods. “I don’t know why I can’t get this.”
I shrug. “It’s because you’re scared. And that’s okay. Your brain is fighting your body.” She nods again.
“Do you trust me as an instructor? That when I tell you to do something, your board will respond the way we expect it to.”
I take a deep breath. If she doesn’t trust this, I’m not sure I’ll be able to get her to complete her turn. “I want you to close your eyes this time. I’ll be right next to you. I promise you won’t fall, or if you do, you won’t get hurt.”
Her eyes widen. “You want me to what?” “I’m asking you to trust me.”
She skates back up the hill and I walk beside her. We chat a bit more, and I tell her to take several deep breaths. “Alright,” I say. “Close your eyes and go.”
Her eyes close, she gently pushes with her free leg, stands on her board, bends her ankles, keeps her arms down, makes a j-turn, and comes to a stop. Her eyes shoot open. “Lynne!” she screams loud enough the other students stop what they’re working on. “I did it!”
We both smile and high five. “You did it!” She shakes her head. “How did you know?”
I shrug. “You needed to feel it and stop paying attention to everything around you.
Closing your eyes was the best I could come up with. You’re the one who did it. I just offered encouragement. Try five more now.”
Sure enough, they’re the best j-turns of the whole lesson.
At the end of the lesson, my student tells me they learned so much, they high five me as though I am a wonder of the world. At the end, the woman I’d asked to close her eyes lingers a bit longer than the others. “I just really wanted to say thank you. I was really scared, and…I’m really glad you were my instructor….” she shifts her weight before shaking my hand and leaving me a ten dollar tip, which I gratefully accept. “Can we hug?”
“Of course,” I say, and we do.
When I go into the locker room, I am walking tall, smiling so hard my face hurts. Maybe this is what it’s like to have self-worth. I can instruct. I reached this student. Maybe this is where I’m meant to be. I keep smiling, until Brent stops me.
“Hey, how was your lesson?” he asks.
I tell him all about it, about getting the student to close her eyes.
“And she did?” he asks, surprised. “That’s amazing, Lynne. Great job!” “Thanks.”
“Oh, how did you like this morning’s training?”
The smile slides off my face and I am brought back to reality. Until this moment, I’d managed to forget about this morning, forget about the abortion, forget about my past life. Suddenly, it’s all back and I hesitate.
“You can tell me.”
I shrug. “I mean, I’m so far behind everyone that I didn’t even get a chance to try and ollie. The entire training I spent just trying to keep up with everyone else.”
His smile slips off his face, too. “Lynne, I’m so sorry, I didn’t even….”
I shrug again. “It’s okay. It’s like you’re all lions and I’m just a little tabby cat trying to keep up.”
“Alright, let’s go. Change out of your instructor jacket, and grab your board.” “What?”
“We’re going to work together. You and me, right now.” “Really?” I ask, excited.
“Really, let’s go!”
He takes me on the mountain, on green trails, and works with me for two straight hours.
By the end of it, I can do a 180. I am thirty feet tall and invincible.
I spend every day moving forward working on jumps, working on ollies, working on 180’s until I finally get brave enough to enter a beginner level park by myself, so no one can watch me get hurt and laugh.
The first day I try a 180 off a jump, I fall so hard my pass snaps in half.
The next day, I launch myself over the three jumps, gaining height, comfortability, speed each time. In North Carolina, I hang glided to take flight. Here, I hit jumps.
I lap this park over and over and over. Until, I finally do it.
I don’t check my speed to slow myself down. I launch myself into the air, do a 180 off a jump. I recenter myself, keeping speed and approach the third jump, the largest of the set.
I keep my weight in my front leg, I exhale a board length away before the launch, and I rocket into the air, higher than I’ve ever been.
Air comes out as a woosh when I land on my board, still in motion. A 10/10 jump. I pump my fist in the air only to hear from the side, “You’re a lion now, Lynne!” and see Brent, pulled off to the side with his lesson. His arm is in the air, too. His students clap and cheer, and I smile so wide my face could crack.
I am a lion now.
Lynne Schmidt is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and mental health professional with a focus in trauma and healing. She is the author of the chapbook, Gravity (Nightingale and Sparrow Press) which was listed as one of the 17 Best Breakup Books to Read in 2020, and On Becoming a Role Model (Thirty West), which was featured on The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed for PTSD Awareness Week. Her work has received the Maine Nonfiction Award, Editor’s Choice Award, and was a 2018 and 2019 PNWA finalist for memoir and poetry respectively. Lynne was a five time 2019 Best of the Net Nominee, and an honorable mention for the Charles Bukowski and Doug Draime Poetry Awards. In 2012 she started the project, AbortionChat, which aims to lessen the stigma around abortion. When given the choice, Lynne prefers the company of her three dogs and one cat to humans.
TPL Teen Fiction Award
This is Where It Gets Better by Josy Hollenbach
TW; homophobia, panic attack, slurs
Note: Allegra uses they/them pronouns, and is one person
I breathe in, then out. It was late, maybe 3 AM. The window is open, and cold air flows into the room, leaving me shivering. The rain poured outdoors, but I didn’t mind the sound.
Although, it was too cold. I didn’t really think I could make it to the window though. That would be a lot. Allegra noticed so they left their spot on the bed to go close the window. I want to say thank you, but I know that nothing will come out. They understand though, keeping the room in silence as they lay back down on my chest. Their head is on my stomach. I watch it move in tune with my breathing.
Something prevalent left itself in the air. My feeling of dread made me sick. I tried to focus on my surroundings before I had another attack. The room was illuminated with Allegra’s LED lights on the lowest setting in blue. They had a bulletin board with photos, some that I’m in, others with friends from their old school. The thoughts of what might come next crept up in my head. I try to ignore them.
I play with their curly brown hair, which goes to their shoulders. I look at Allegra, They’re so strong, They’re black, nonbinary, and queer with two gay dads. They’re so much stronger than me, one of the things I admire about them. Their beauty can distract me, even if for just a little bit.
We lay there, but the weight of the earlier events hung heavy.
“Rory?” Allegra finally said. I tilted my head up to meet their eyes. “Are you going to tell me what the hell happened?” I wanted to, I really did, but I didn’t quite know myself.
The night had passed in a blur. I attempt to recall it, not just for them, but for my own sake.
I got home. At 6 pm as usual. I placed my backpack on the bench in the mudroom. After, I took my shoes off carefully. The house was filled with the normal noises. The TV, my mother’s humming something, and my brother’s loud rap music. It was the same feeling the house always has. A smell of the hatred we all have for each other, that we never address.
“I’m home,” I said my words hopefully thinking someone would care. I walk into the living room, my father on the couch. He had a beer in his hand, the Celtics game on the TV. “Hi.” He turned to look at me for a moment, then turned back to the game.
My mother was in the kitchen, washing the dishes. My brother, Rowan, was at the table.
He was doing his homework, something important, maybe calculus. He swiveled his head to look at me. He doesn’t pretend I’m imaginary like my parents but constantly slanders me. I’m not sure which is worse, his treatment of me, or my parents.
I didn’t have dinner tonight, but I knew I wouldn’t at this point. I didn’t wait for Rowan to insult me, instead, I turned to leave the room. My mother didn’t even bother to look up at me this time. It stung.
I was halfway out the door when my mother said, “Rory, I wanted to ask you something.” I froze in place, so confused by her speaking to me directly for once.
“What is it?” My voice was almost cracking. I made my way back to where my mother
“I heard something about you, and I thought, that couldn’t be true about my Rory” Liar.
She paused for a moment, looking me dead in the eyes. Time stood still, I could feel her glare from across the room. “I heard you’re a fag. That’s not true, is it?”
I was paralyzed with fear. My body went stiff. Things around me got blurry. I couldn’t tell if I was breathing. “Who told you that?” I stammered. I couldn’t stop from sounding petrified.
“It’s true,” Rowan added, it made me feel like I was going to pass out. “I saw her with that dyke girl, Allegra. They were holding hands.”
My hands shook. “No no it’s not…” I stuttered. I was crying. I felt wet tears stream down my cheeks. The room was spinning. I tried to grip onto the counter for balance.
“RORY! You are a sinner! You are going to hell!” My mother was screaming now. I wanted to run, but I was glued in place.
All of a sudden, I noticed my father’s silhouette in the doorway. That was when I was sick with uneasiness. “My daughter? A faggot? I GUESS I HAVE TO BEAT THE GAY OUT OF HER!” My father yelled. I felt my breath for the first time, rapid, uncontrolled. I felt the worst fear in my life, watching my father hold up the beer bottle in his hand. It felt like a scene out of a movie. The whole thing appeared to be something made up.
My senses came back, which made me bolt down the hall to my room on instinct. I slammed the door shut, making sure I heard the click of the lock. I texted Allegra, with ‘please pick me up right now. I’m in trouble.’ I tried to drown out my family’s screaming and banging on the door. I found a duffel bag. I filled it with some clothes first. Then a blanket. And a pillow. I throw in the hello kitty stuffed animal Allegra gave me for my birthday. Some food I had stashed in my room. A few pictures. My phone, some portable chargers, headphones, and two water bottles. I zipped the bag up, put on my jacket, and sneakers.
I glanced around the room. I knew this would be the last time I saw it. It was a nice room.
Pictures all over the walls. Pictures from when my family cared about me. From when I was a part of the family. I had some plants, also a neat bed against the wall. It was cozy. The number of hours I spent in the room when I had to be home was making me almost want to miss it. Almost. That’s wasn’t enough to make me stay. I don’t think I could’ve stayed even if I wanted to.
As soon as I opened the door, I was met with the enraged faces of my parents. “We don’t want you here! Get out of this house!” My mother snapped in my face. That was all I needed to hear. I grabbed my school bag, then ran to the door. My father reached for the collar of my shirt, but I realized just fast enough. The door opened with a click. I was greeted by Allegra’s car in
the driveway. I threw my stuff in the front seat, then climbed in myself. I knew they had no clue what was going on, but they had enough of a grasp to pull out quickly.
Once the house was out of sight, I started crying again. My whole body shivered, I was ugly crying. Allegra didn’t ask what was wrong, just kept their eyes on the road.
When we got to Allegra’s house, I silently got out of the car, leaving my bags there. They walked over to me, grabbing my hand. They offered a kind smile, but I couldn’t return it. Once inside, they pushed me to the couch. I didn’t offer a rebuttal.
“Did you eat yet?” Allegra gave me a cup of cold water, which I drank it with no argument. It almost spilled with how much my hands shook, but Allegra took it, setting it on the coffee table in front of me.
I shook my head no. I was still unable to manage a single word. It wasn’t like I hadn’t expected that out of my parents, but still, in the back of my head, I had prayed that I was wrong. I guess I wasn’t.
I heard the sound of the microwave, then a few minutes later Allegra came back with grilled cheese. I almost laughed, but I stayed silent, lifting my head to meet their eyes. It was my way of saying thank you. I know dealing with me is a lot. I almost choked out it as I ate, my jaw barely able to move. I lean into their shoulder, beginning to cry.
Every once in a while, I heard them reassuring me with ‘I love you’s and ‘it’s going to be okay’. Eventually, we moved to Allegra’s room, putting on I Am Not Okay With This on their laptop. I tried to manage a laugh at it a few times. We didn’t say anything though. Staying on the bed with Allegra, even if just for a night, was enough. I didn’t want to think about anything except for them. They turned their head to gaze at me inquisitively. It seemed to say anything and everything at once. Allegra didn’t seem to pity me though. They just understood, but that was all I needed.
I cried more, then we silently listened to alternative music, with nothing but each other’s warmth. The room was full of this feeling, an unspoken feeling. It was like we had a connection, and we didn’t need anything else but ourselves in the room for the night. Allegra didn’t pester me. They knew I’d tell them when the time was right. They knew just what to say, and what not to.
I take one long breath, and finally speak, answering Allegra’s question. “I got kicked out. I can’t go back home.” My voice was still scratchy. I was surprised Allegra could understand me. Allegra got all the way up, then spun to face me.
Their eyes sparkled with love and admiration. “You’re strong, you know. Don’t let your parents tell you otherwise.” They ran a hand through my hair. “You can come to stay with me.”
I sighed. “I I know. I just feel lost. Everything sucked. And it managed to get even worse.” I leaned into them, snuggling my head under their chin. Allegra stroked my head soothingly.
Allegra had a smile that made me feel better instantaneously. “Yeah, but it’s reached the bottom. This is where it gets better.”
Josy Hollenbach goes to Mt Ararat Middle School and is 14 years of age.
TPL Teen Poetry Award
Afraid of Humanity by Emma Haims
We eat around a rectangular dinner table. Lightwood,
With only four filled, but These days,
I notice the
Happy bumble bees flitting
From one excited mouth to
And eager plans for the Future from our tired,
Yet upturned lips.
Amidst the bees’
Became lost in a Gray haze,
Not just spoken
An owl’s keen senses
360-degree view of a
I am afraid of humanity.
Six feet of loneliness,
Emma Haims, and I am a junior at Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport Maine. Poetry in the last couple of years has been a way for me to take an exhale from the hustle and bustle of life. I have picked up poetry on my own time as an outlet for me to express my feelings when I need to release the busy energy in my brain. Besides writing and poetry, I am passionate about hiking and the outdoors, the wintry seasons in Maine, and my wonderful friends and family who push me to be the best I can be.
TPL Kids Fiction Award
The Backstory of Bagel-Grease’s Scar by Mattheus Reinhart
Bagel-Grease was leading the patrol. He and the Snowy Band were guarding Pwezz’s fortress that was on the seashore. A brown mouse came running. It was Donut-Frosting. He was a good friend of Bagel-Grease’s.
He was yelling something. As he got closer, Bagel-Grease heard it. He was saying, “Out there! Look. A ship.”
Bagel-Grease trained his binoculars on the object. “Yup, that’s a ship, all right,” he said. It had a red flag. It was trouble.
“Snowy, get your gunmen ready. Tom, Squiggles, Donut-Frosting, get those rockets ready!” said Bagel-Grease.
Crumbs walked over. “Bagel-Grease, you and your band need to get your jets ready, got it?”
Bagel-Grease and his team ran down to the landing pad. They got their flying gear on and got going.
“Green leader, checking in.” “Green 11 at the ready.” “Green 3, checking in.” “Green 8 at the ready.” “Green four, checking in.”
“White six, checking in.” It was Patch, Snowy’s ace flyer.
Bagel-Grease and his friends checked out the scene. “Yup, just as I thought: pirates!” Bagel-Grease said.
They flew back to report. By that time, the pirates had gotten off the ship. The captain was yelling orders.
“Get those guns ready for my word. Ready? Fire!” Six of the mice guarding the fortress fell.
“Get down,” Bagel-Grease yelled.
All the guards had their heads down in a second. A second later a door opened. Two tanks came out. One was Henry’s, the other was Snowy’s. The Snowy Band stood on the right side of the tank, armed to the teeth. Snowy gave the cue and the Snowy Band charged.
The pirates ran. They got in their ship and shot off five rockets. Bagel-Grease gave a sign. He and Donut-Frosting launched their nets.
Four of the rockets were sent slamming back into the side of the ship, but the last rocket hit Bagel-Grease in the side.
When Bagel-Grease woke up, his side felt better, and when he looked up, he saw a mouse about his age but a little smaller than he was. Strange, I’ve never seen her before, he thought. But he did not care much because she had made his side as good as new. And with that, he fell back asleep.
Mattheus Reinhart is a fifth grader at the Maine Coast Waldorf School. He loves collecting baseball cards and reading.
TPL Kids Poetry Award
When the Trees Were Made of Cotton Candy by Lucien Reinhart
Once upon a moon,
when the trees were made of
cotton candy and the grass
a raccoon sat by a stream
of root beer.
Lucien Reinhart is in third grade at the Maine Coast Waldorf School. He lives in Brunswick.
Pandemic Reflections Award
Sylvia by Lorraine Davis
“I was very friendly with the Jewish girl across the street,” Sylvia said, matter-of-factly, her rose colored lips pressed together.
“We were inseparable.”
A slight pause and twinkle of the eye, a quiet chuckle. “I was the only shiksa.”
I gazed across the frenzied patchwork of the room. Memorabilia from journeys that had ended long ago, faded photographs, books and magazines that were meant to be read, eventually, someday. Glossy ads teasing you with potential.
Having recently lost my job, I had some time on my hands. I knew instantly that one thing I had to do with this gift (burden?) of time was visit Sylvia – or, as she was known to me, Grandma.
I arrived at Sylvia’s home in suburban Long Island without issue, the six hour drive unremarkable. There was, however, work to be done, and I was getting swept up in Sylvia’s unyielding narratives. I’m pretty sure she would have talked indefinitely if given the opportunity and power to do so. It turns out, though, that even matriarchs need their rest, eventually
Autumn had just begun, slicing down the minutes of daylight and reminding us of our reluctant impermanence; every leaf falls sooner or later. The door of my Honda Civic had been rusting out for several weeks now, causing the metal to buckle and cackle roughly with each opening. I shuddered with each enter and exit.
“…. And I went to Florida, and Grandpa said, ‘what is the reason for going back? You’ve got a lot of sisters; they can worry about your mother.’ So, I never went back. And my sisters had to move my stuff to my mother-in-law’s house. Well – they probably went through my stuff.”
“—Because they threw away Tommy’s picture.”
Remembering my directives, I interrupted the recounting. This often required great effort, like trying to barricade against a tsunami using one meager sandbag.
“Grandma, didn’t you have some books you wanted to donate to the library? She sniffed.
“…And I heard that one of your hearing aids is broken.”
Always needing to veer the ship of conversation back to a steady direction. “Ah well, what can you do,” she submitted. “They’re in that bag over there.”
She flexed at her hips, trying to use some momentum to stand up from her recliner chair. (The Chair was rather utilitarian and meant for function, rather than aesthetics. The rest of the family tolerated it, eye sore though it was). Her posture was slanted, and the lower back pain she was having caused her to wince with the transitional movement. Then, remembering something, she jerked back in a turn towards me and trudged across the worn wooden floor, disappearing into the back room and returning shortly after.
“Here, this was going to be for your sister, but you can have it.”
She tossed a leopard print makeup bag onto the cluttered coffee table. (It would still be another six months until the world knew about The Tiger King.)
I unzipped the bag and examined its contents. Various samples of perfume and skin lotions, mascara (very good mascara, actually, probably the best item), lip stick.
“Thanks,” I replied. I knew these items were the armor of urban life and meant to be treasured. Like any brave young warrior readying himself for battle, I was being given the finery of feminine wile. For Sylvia, this was one of the most valuable gifts one could offer. As a present for one of my middle-school acne laden birthdays, I was given a book written by a makeup artist.
The provocative hard cover book included topics like lip liner instruction, how to groom your eyebrows like Brooke Shields, and special considerations to your head shape when applying makeup.
“Dear Lorraine,” Sylvia had written on the inside cover. “Have fun reading and doing.”
Another time my brother received a book on proper etiquette, following a visit during which he had neglected to remove his baseball cap while indoors and a guest in the home.
Sylvia was not exactly subtle.
“She really wanted to come, you know,” I said, thinking suddenly of my sister who had her own arsenal of lipsticks. “It was a last-minute thing.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” said Sylvia, trying to conceal any disappointment.
After a brief moment, she brightened again. An audience of one was still an audience. “What should we do for dinner? I know this, uh, Mediterranean place. Or do you want
Chinese? Or we could go to the diner…”
The drink was, in her words, “tepid.” We initially thought it was a good sign that she was feeling feisty enough to complain about such things. An ordinary response to an extraordinary situation. Some glimmer of normalcy – dissatisfaction with service and airing of grievances.
After all, people ought to be told when they’re being incompetent, otherwise how can they improve themselves? The mattress, so horrible and back breaking. (How many others have taken their last breaths resting on it?) The silence of the room, deafening in its expanse. Wretched isolation.
Tepid tea, an apathetic beverage. Emblematic for the disappointing and depleted year 2020. Also, the sort of thing you’d expect from the bottom floor of a hospital stuck in the still unfamiliar throes of a pandemic.
It was difficult to not know what the room looked like. Were there any windows or natural light? Could she reach her call bell? (Was there a call bell?) What if the nasal cannula of the oxygen was not in correctly, how long would it take for someone to notice? Was her cell phone being charged? Who will keep her nails painted and lipstick fresh?
Who would she tell her stories to? Who could she tell her stories to?
Social media had been a blessing to her, someone with an insatiable appetite for conversation and contact. In recent years, I had enjoyed bragging to people that my 90- something year old (91, then 92, 93, 94, 95, 96…) grandmother had figured out how to use emojis. Now we would scroll through her page to see if she had “liked” any comments recently, searching for signs of life, if only virtual.
On a whim I hit the button on my phone to do a video call with her. I had sent her a clip earlier of me singing a few bars of “Amazing Grace,” feeling the need to reach into the ether and find some way to connect across the 400 miles between us. She hadn’t replied to this video, and I was feeling both embarrassed at having done it at all, and sad that she may simply have been too tired to acknowledge it.
Almost right away, her face popped onto my phone screen, accepting the video call. I felt such a surge of relief at seeing her, actually seeing her, giving her a physical context and place in my mind. That relief was short-lived, as I then could see how exhausted she looked, her lips dry and cracked, skin hollowing.
According to the app, this call lasted one minute and 36 seconds. My last conversation with my grandmother. This time, it was she who ended the conversation early, leaving me hanging on every word.
“You’d better hope you never catch this,” she said, her voice rattling and growing faint between coughs.
For a moment I was struck by a contrast of images: her own face, pandemic scorned and jaded, and my own face reflected back to me on the video camera, having thankfully washed my hair and put on clean clothes, and having painted my face, hoping the colors I chose were acceptable. (Had I learned nothing from the cosmetic book tutorials?)
I’ve been interested for some time in the nature of grieving and bereavement, the importance of routine and habits during such times. These rituals are what give us closure and help us process our losses. They also offer the opportunity to be together with loved ones and share comfort.
Grieving during a pandemic, as it turns out, can be much more solitary. There was no pizzazz or panache of festivities to honor and celebrate a well-lived life (this would have gone against CDC guidelines, and local rules at the time would have forbid such a gathering). The tears we shed fell on our own faces, wiped away with our own hands. We offered tissues to ourselves.
There were text messages and social media posts, sure. An exchange of words and well wishes. I didn’t want to view these moments through pixels or filters. I wanted to experience it in Real Life.
“…And I’ll never forget this, and I feel so bad to this day about what I did, when I think of it, what a sweet, young man….It was down at the Knights of Columbus, they had dances. And a couple of the girls I went with, we went to the dance….there was a whole group that stayed together….There was this young man, he lived in Jackson Heights, an only child. And used to tell me he played the ‘sweet potato,” and he said ‘Oh, I have to let you hear me sometime.’ So he calls up, and I said ‘Oh, I have to be at my sister’s…..and then the door bell rings…and I didn’t answer it! And I never heard from him again.”
Lorraine Davis lives in Auburn, Maine with her husband and Siamese cat, Bowie. She has a great many interests, but the written word has always been her first love. Now if only she would do more of it!
Pandemic Reflections Honorable Mention
Covid Chronicles by Lucien Reinhart
The pandemic isn’t as bad as everybody makes it out to be. I find it pretty much like normal life except that it’s a little more complicated.
Mostly, in the beginning, back in March, there were a lot of things missing at Hannaford. We have to wear masks pretty much everywhere we go. I don’t want to be a superhero.
A lot of shops were not in business. Wyler’s was my favorite toy store. Turned out they went out of business. I was a little annoyed.
The school that I go to is going every day, full day on very strict rules. It is really nice to be back at school, but I got a morning runny nose and I had to stay home for two days.
We usually play the flute in third grade. This year we are wearing masks at school, so we cannot play the flute. So, we are playing the ukulele. It has become one of my favorite instruments.
I love to fight my dad. Sadly, we don’t have real swords so I got myself a nice jacket, pants, and helmet, and a couple of fencing swords, called foils. One is an Italian-grip foil, and one is a pistol-grip foil. Now I fence my dad as much as I can, up and down the driveway. Currently, his knee is hurting, so he is too worried to fence because his knee will hurt worse and nobody else in
our house knows how to fence. I haven’t been fencing for about three weeks.
I hope that next year I get a pet rat and there is no coronavirus, even though there will still be talk about it.
Lucien Reinhart is in third grade at the Maine Coast Waldorf School. He lives in Brunswick.