Am I really from Away? I don’t want to sound defensive here, but I feel the need to defend my Maine pedigree before I begin this blog. You guys are incredibly snobby about people who are from “away.” Yes, I have lived in New Hampshire since I was six years old, but I was born in Bangor and I come from a long line of bonafide Mainiacs. Here is my Maine street cred resume:
I am told that I was conceived, for lack of a condom, in a little dormered room upstairs in my grandparent’s gray-shingled cottage in Bayside, Maine. Therefore, I believe I have Maine in my blood—I come by it honestly. Well, pretty much. Bayside was originally founded in the mid-1800s as a “spiritualist” community composed of mediums and psychics. I find it fitting that I was conceived in the former hotbed of healers and charlatans, as I grew up with maybe just a smidge of the latter.
When I was born, Bayside was an oceanside community famous for its cunnin’ old Victorian camps nestled along the Penobscot Bay, just below Belfast in Northport. Bayside had rows of colorful, quaint gingerbread cottages that stacked down to the sea. Our camp was at the top of the hill above the common green and the bandstand, with a view of the wharf and the bay.
My paternal great-grandfather, Wellington Parker, owned Parker’s Fish Market in Bangor. I have a great photo of him holding an enormous salmon in his market in the 1920s. He is packing it up to send to the then US president, Calvin Coolidge. It was his tradition to send the first salmon caught in the Penobscot every year to the White House. These glorious spring salmon went to ten presidents until Bill Clinton—who sent it back. My mother swears that Parker’s Lobster Pound was the FIRST lobster pound on the coast of Maine. She says it was on the shore just outside of Searsport, and it was very popular. My father, Parker Leonard of Brewer, worked there with his grandfather.
Family lore has it that my paternal grandfather, Stanley (AKA Gunka) walked barefoot out of the woods in Dover-Foxcroft carrying his shoes to his job interview as an accountant with R.B. Dunning Co. in Bangor because he only had one pair of shoes and didn’t want them to be scuffed up. He got the job. Gunka was a giant of a man, but quiet and shy, and was completely and miserably hen-pecked by my grandmother.
My paternal grandmother, Helen (AKA Nana) was a large, big-bosomed woman with a white beehive French twist and cat’s-eye glasses and false teeth that clicked when she talked. She was loud and overbearing but also sometimes insanely funny. She liked an occasional snoot of Scotch. Her favorite descriptive word was “elegant.” Nana bombed around in her little mint green Nash “Ramblah.” They lived in Brewer but spent as much time as possible at camp. Bayside old-timers tell this story about my grandmother:
In the forties, the locals used to have Saturday night dances on the wharf at Bayside. They would line their cars up with the headlights on and tune all the radios to the same station and blast the music. One night, Gilley, the local constable, came to break it up because someone had complained about the noise. He was standing on the wharf and Nana said, “Oh, come on Gilley, don’t be such a stuffed shirt” as she grabbed him by his belt loops and spun him around to dance. Gilley went flying over the side of the wharf. Good thing it was high tide.
Sometimes I am terrified that I am turning into Nana.
My mother, Louise Homstead Leonard McKinney, was from the Gaspar clan in Surry. My Gaspar great-grandparents are buried in the Surry cemetery. My mom was orphaned at a young age. Her father rented the Bayside Inn where he cooked and was the manager. Her mother died from cancer, in the front room of the Inn, when my mom was eight years old. Her father died from burns sustained from a commercial restaurant gas range explosion when she was a teenager. Pretty grim way to go—his brother died exactly the same way while working as a cook in Dexter. My mother’s brother worked as a cook at the original Pat’s Pizza in Orono. (Almost four decades later, after my second husband died, my mother married my father-in-law. This made my mother, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law, my stepfather…but this is another story altogether.)
My dad went to the University of Maine in Orono and was an incredibly handsome bugger. He played clarinet in a swing band in Bangor. My mom graduated from Farmington Teacher’s College and taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Moscow, Maine. Some of her male students were a head taller than she was.
My mother and father met in Bayside and were married in a little white clapboard church in Northport. I was conceived at camp about two minutes later.
As a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I spent the summers in Bayside. I remember the chicken guts from Belfast like it was yesterday. Every afternoon we would have to get out of the water and hang out on the wharf and watch all the white chicken feathers and guts floating down the tidal river from the chicken processing/soup factories in Belfast when they discharged all their disgusting effluent into the ocean. I remember there were always hundreds of tiny jellyfish traveling down the tide snacking on the chicken guts. BLECH. What an offal memory.
One time I was hanging out on the beach exploring with my friend, Sally Lovejoy. We found a gigantic beached red jellyfish. I had the brilliant idea to throw a rock into the middle of the hubcap-sized jellyfish. The goo splashed up all over Sally, and it stung the snot out of her. She screamed. I was laughing so hard that I was doubled over and slapping my knees. Sally was so mad she picked up a rock and hucked it at my head. I still have a little scar at my temple that is shaped like an X.
As I have said, my grandfather was a giant of a man but he was extremely self-effacing and quiet. My fondest memory of being at camp in Bayside was of my grandfather. Every time we had a lobstah dinnah – which was often, as my grandparents came from fishmongers – Gunka would tuck two lobster antennae between his upper lip and his teeth, so the antennae would hang down to his chest. He would stick a large lobster claw on his equally large nose and then, making a sound like a demented lobster, he would chase all us screaming kids around and around the dining room table.
My grandmother would be yelling the entire time, “Oh, Stanley, for godsake, stop it! You’re getting the kids too wound up for bed. Jaysus, deah.”
I’m pretty sure the main reason I was screaming was because it was so completely out of character for Gunka to behave in such a crazy, spontaneous manner. That is what was really scary.
Anyway, as I have said, my father moved the whole family to New Hampshire to get a better job when I was six years old. I have been away for well over half a century.
I AM FINALLY COMING HOME!