Nonfiction from Suzy Rigdon
Notes on a Whiteboard
Rita Johnson Kenway, a woman of arts, letters, music, and an all-around good sport died at age 80 on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011 at Collier’s Rehab and Nursing Center in Ellsworth. — The Ellsworth American, February 11, 2011
You know you’ve arrived when you see the bright yellow canopy of Thurston’s Lobster Pound, known less for being blown to smithereens in the 1999 Stephen King film Storm of the Century than for their buttery lobster roles. You sometimes buy a crate of shedders here after the eight-hour slog up the east coast with perhaps a stop for homemade fudge along the way if the tides are good and you haven’t had to rush.
The car is always weighed down by kayaks, books, enough food for three months rather than just a week or two, and clothes for every type of Maine day.
The weathered boards of the Bernard dock bounce the car’s tires and you feel the eyes of the equally weathered lobstermen watching you, TOURIST stamped in infrared ink across your forehead despite spending each summer of your life here just off the coast. But you skip the driving snows of January, the bitter winds of March, so you must be a tourist. A summer person.
Even from the dock, the rock bar with three small homes and the rounded meadow of Gotts Island is visible, and you jump ahead thirty minutes to after the loading of the boat, the trek across sometimes flat, sometimes choppy, and often foggy strip of water separating the island from the mainland. You picture your feet in the grass, pretending you have been bare footed all summer. You walk over the tiny stones in the road soaking in the slight pain because that is the only type of pain there should be in life.
The Island. It’s a common term for anyone who has ever spent time on an island, whether in Maine or elsewhere. You call Gotts “the Island” in conversation with friends who spend time on their own Islands further south. You are proud you are so far north in the shadow of Acadia.
You look forward to your grandparents’ house on the hill, in the middle of the “town” although it is no more than that stone road and a few houses. From the kitchen window, you can see the sloping hill, the graveyard, the wide expanse of ocean that sparkles each sunny evening around five. You often stand there while preparing supper and wish you could have this view every day. That you could be here forever.
That spring [Northwood] proposed to 19-year-old Rita in the rose arbor of her parents’ garden. They were married Aug. 20, 1950, just six months later.
As a new bride, Mrs. Kenway found the second love of her life, Great Gotts Island, a woodsy island about a quarter mile due south of Bass Harbor Head. — The Ellsworth American
Notes for a poem:
……“On this site in 1897, nothing
Picnic table, stained
Mail house, one room
……“For lobster, call the Snow boys”
Fresh cut lawn
Sea glass, common
Sea glass, rare
Painting of the shoreline
Blueberries: pies, muffins.
Pencil sketch: uprooted tree
……Electric, circa 1980
……Pump, circa 1904
Wooden high chair
Sea glass, common
Wallpaper, dining room
……Gott’s Island, Maine:
……Its People, 1880-1992
In my home office sits a 5×7 picture of me and my older brother on Gotts. We’re young, in elementary school. I’m all in pink, my curly hair pushed back in the breeze. Matt, my brother, looks like Spiderman, all in red and blue, with his bright red hair. We’re sitting on a white fence with the paint chipped off in places from the years and salty air. The sky is a cloudless blue and behind us, the ocean is a darker shade of that blue. In the foreground there is a tombstone, gray and marbled, nearly as tall as we are. It’s one of the oldest in the cemetery, the newest plots marked only with plaques.
This is how you build them:
 Gather materials. Suggestions include sticks, pinecones, sand dollars, sea glass, mushrooms, moss, lichen, buoys, and general nautical detritus found along the rocky shore.
 Choose a time when no one is on the path. When you hear people coming, you and your brother or mother or grandmother must hide. The houses are only magic if no one sees them being built.
 Get elaborate. Swimming pools made from lichen, balconies and canopies made from chunks of moss or spare bits of bark, and even small hammocks strung from old fishing nets will be appreciated by the tiny tenants. Bonus points if you can build into the side of a log or in the shade of large tree-fungi.
 Make them visible. You want travelers to see your handy work, so keep the construction close enough to the path that walkers will see it. However, they don’t have to be too obvious, because there is joy in finally spotting a good house or compound after the tenth time walking past..
 Keep building. There haven’t been studies done yet about this, but anecdotal evidence suggests it extends life by at least 100 years.
Inch along. Two inches then fingers, pale under black push deep, wriggle and place a seed, tiny and white, to be covered. The dirt is rich and dark, packed and crumbling. Moist.
From one, Rita moves on. Wriggle deep, cover—next line. She works, back bent under cool sunshine, while salted air bristles the fine hairs along her nape.
Flicks of her wrists pull sprouting weeds, their white bodies dropping flecks of dirt from truncated roots. Then she places them, one among others on the mound to be removed— flung into woodland piles, shaded by firs. Her body bows and twists, back convex as rows clear, rows emerge.
In June, the greens reach her knees. Soft swaying asparagus caught in a rippling wind. The velveteen fronds tickle as she roots around their bases. Fingers working; always working. Spires inverted in the rich earth, pulled free and shaken. She stoops, gloves on and works roots free, smacks bodies against her thigh to shake off the excess, places them in woven baskets.
The greens reach her chest by late summer, cats lazing in their shade, fur gray against the verdance. Soft motions in afternoon haze, still digging, pulling. Coaxing. She kneels among giants, her spine now concave.
“Mum and dad would come up on Memorial Day to plant it,” says Ms. [Nancy] Rigdon, “And when we’d all arrive in July there’d be lots of weeding to do. But it was an enormous garden and produced way more than we could eat. Mum wanted to give the vegetables away but the neighbors didn’t want to take advantage of her so she brought out this old white scale and would charge something like 25 cents for a pound of tomatoes or beans or anything.” — The Ellsworth American
Sometime when I was in high school, my mom bought a small, square whiteboard to leave on Gotts for my grandmother. It had painted shells around the erasable surface and a pale wooden back. We used a black marker to leave notes for each other and for her.
Gone for a walk
Dinner is at 5:30. Don’t eat.
Down at the shore
For the longest time, Grandma assured us that she had a cameo in Storm of the Century. She swore up and down that she was the old woman in the rocking chair, watching television as the storm closed in. We paused the tape, rewound, strained our eyes, but were never quite sure.
We knew something was wrong in the way her eyes unfocused, in the way words didn’t quite make it out right, in the way thoughts wouldn’t coalesce as they should. We knew something was wrong when she no longer recognized our faces in a photo only three years old. We were bigger, but our shapes remained the same.
Make her laugh.
My dad loves telling the story of Thanksgiving on the Island, before I was born.
There’s no hardwired electricity, just solar power and gas lamps in the house, or anywhere on the Island for that matter. In the kitchen, there are two long lights fixed vertically to the wall above the sink, bordering the clock. At night, their light doesn’t quite reach the far corners of the room.
It’s surprising how many dishes four people can make, so after cooking all day on a (then) wood-fired stove, my dad and grandma would stand for an hour or more at the sink, one suds up, and the other drying. Glassware would go first, then plates and then pots, all hand-dried and carefully put away. Probably my grandfather had the radio on, tuned to a classical station.
As the hour wore on, their fingers turned to prunes, and my dad recalls how hard they’d laugh at everything and anything.
The best thing to do on Gotts, besides read, is write. I don’t know exactly why this is, but as soon as my feet touch the ground, words start fighting to get out of me. Stories creep into my brain as I walk wooded paths, and I have to race to get them down. Every summer, I bring at least two notebooks, and now my laptop, which I charge during the middle of each sunny day. I often fill a backpack with paper, pens, snacks and a water bottle, and set out to find a quiet piece of rock. My newest spot is just off the aptly named Eastern Neck Cove. (The Island is shaped like a bear without any front legs or paws.)
I walk down a steep path, marked by slick stones, and cross a pebble beach. Then I wipe off my shoes so I don’t lose my footing, and climb up the large, granite slabs. There’s a nook shaped like a seat which overlooks the ocean, the passing lobster boats, and the mountains of Acadia beyond, including what hikers call the Wonderland Trail. Hearing the water lap against the shore, and feeling the breeze after it skims off the waves, seems for me the best source of inspiration.
Others have felt this, too. My grandmother wrote a book about the Island on the Island. Many other writers have spent lifetimes of summers composing there: the late Ruth Moore, our neighbors Christina Gillis and John Gillis, me, Ted Holmes, the late Ben Weinberg, Kathy Weinberg, John Baldwin.
Ruth Moore, one of the most famous of the many writers to have lived and worked on Gotts, said about the Island: “That was the place you were homesick for, even when you were there.”
Most of my memories of her are about forgetting: the way she’d repeat herself all day, the way she looked right at me and told me (a much younger version of) Suzanne was playing upstairs.
I see the photos of her from when I was small, or before I existed, and in them her eyes are bright behind her glasses, or she’s geared up for a hike across the Island.
At first, I was too young to appreciate her, and then I grew too old to retrieve those happier memories, instead languishing in unfocused looks, half-finished sentences. I still have stories of her, though.
Make her laugh
One of the peculiarities of my grandmother’s dementia was her fondness of and dependence on tissues. In every pocket of every shirt, jacket, or pair of pants, crumpled white wads were stuffed and hoarded. It became a ritual before any jaunt no matter how short, to first check to make sure she was well-equipped for even the runniest of noses.
Whenever my mom would ask, “Got your tissues, Mum?” she’d pull them out, overflowing from her fingers, the display causing tremendous laughter from the two of them.
Don’t turn on the stove
……taken your medicine
……eaten a banana
She made it more than half a mile down a path and through the woods. In my imagining of the story it’s raining. Night. She’s alone and clinging to a tree, not sure how to make it back to the house. Not sure where she is despite knowing every rock of the Island by heart. When I think of it, her hair is always whipping across her face as though in a gale. Yet I’m sure that what really happened was that she wandered off during the day and the path was well-enough traveled that someone spotted her and brought her home.
For the first time, we locked the doors.
On the inside cover of her book, Gotts Island: Its People, given to my mother as a gift:
……….May the love for Gotts Island, which developed in the girl you were, stay alive in the woman you have become.
We named it—That Silence. Uncomfortable silence and repetitions and lapses in memory and self. “I hate gardening,” she said. “I hate classical music.” We named it and it grew swift and black, weighing down and down upon us.
The Home had a large wooden porch out back with four picnic tables in the shade and flower boxes on the railing. Inside were long tables for group lunches, and as we crossed through the main visiting space, a baby waddled by with the help of her mother.
Early August in Maine is beautiful, even when not on the Island. Even when on the mainland surrounded by strip malls and L. L. Bean outlets. We sat outside, sunglasses shading us from sun, shading us from her vacancy there.
There and not there.
Hand on pale windowpane. Pale, too, palms pressed and white. Face blurred through the glass, but the voice is still clear.
Despite the sunshine and the flower boxes, despite babies gurgling and nutritional lunches, we couldn’t stay. Her hand, white against the front glass, pressed through to us.
“Don’t leave me here. Don’t leave me here, please.”
When you walk into the wide open of the meadow, the ocean stretches out before you, all the way to Tremont Harbor, where we depart for the Island each year. You can even see the tiny yellow speck of Thurston’s Lobster Pound. But closer, on a granite outcrop of the mainland is the red flashing bulb of the Bass Harbor Head Light.
The path winds its way from wood, to seaside, back to woods. Near dawn the deer emerge from the firs and nibble at the dew-laden flora, and some of the wild blueberries, which are buried under sharp fronds of juniper and golden-hued grass.
In the morning before the crows have begun cawing, the steady thrum of lobster boats cocoons you; heartbeats in utero. The sky is a deep blue and low wisps of fog hug the mountains beyond.
The only thing you can break are silken webs, intricate decagons strung between trees.
Each clear night after dinner, we stack the dirty dishes by the sink, put on our shoes and jackets and head out the barn door. Even in August the air cools considerably in the evening, and I usually pull my sweater tight. We walk through the lawn, cross the small “Town Road” which is nothing more than an unpaved dirt and stone path, and walk toward the cemetery. Its white fence has been repainted and looks bright in the dimming light. We stand on the grass just behind the open gate and watch as the sun drops lower and lower into the sky. It’s inevitable that someone jokes they can hear the sun sizzling against the watery horizon.
The colors are brightest after the sun disappears. The bottom of the clouds turn liquid gold first, and then morph into sherbets—raspberry, orange and grape. The colors widen and reach above our heads and behind us in this place with more sky than land.
We have hundreds of photographs taken of sunsets from this exact point, framed by the fence and the tombstones, and the one American flag planted in the southeast corner. We look down over the sloping hill to the view my grandmother and my uncle have, the view my parents will eventually have as they rest.
In the trust started by my grandfather, my mother and her brothers now own the house. They may not sell or rent it out, as per his directive. Eventually my brother and I will claim ownership.
During the winter term of my senior year of college, I wrote a novella for my thesis called The Widow Porch. It takes place on the barely fictitious Rainier Island, off the coast of Maine. The grown son and his wife and their two children travel to the Island to take care of his mother, Miriam, who is suffering from dementia.
There were too many elements plucked straight from my life for this book to have worked. The details were too close. I was too close.
I handed in my completed manuscript and met with my two advisors on a typical winter day in upstate New York: cold, snowy and gray. I felt satisfied that I had accomplished my longest piece of writing to date.
My mother rang me the next morning around nine, just before I set off on the four-hour drive home for the weeklong break prior to the spring semester. My grandmother had passed away early that morning, she said, around two.
There was only one limited printing of my grandmother’s book. Practically anyone with ties to the Island purchased a copy and shows it to those who come to visit. At least once a summer, my mother encounters someone who mentions how much they love it, or someone who tells her a fun fact they learned by reading it. We own two copies: one at my parents’ house and one on the Island. I want to have one down here in Maryland, to be able to flip through and see the picture of my mother’s christening in front of the barn—the first event of this nature on the Island in 35 years—and to read about the messy histories of all of the tangled families on Gotts’ shores. The only copies available online are fetching $125. How much is too much?
Who is selling it?
February 19, 2011
A Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of Rita J. Kenway
Songs my mother played:
Sinfonia from Cantata No. 156 by J.S. Bach – flute
Air from Overture in D by J.S. Bach – flute
The summer after she died. Silence in the house, freshly opened from a dormant winter. Instead of the usual foggy landscape of early June in Maine, the water glittered in the afternoon sun.
Upstairs, in a room shared for over fifty summers, I imagine my grandfather stood quietly. Two pairs of her shoes, gray, were lined up under the musty linens in the closet.
On the bureau is a glass hand mirror with a pink-carved rose on the back. A gold-plated brush sits beside an old perfume bottle that belongs in the nineteen-twenties, with its little beaded pump. I squeeze it sometimes and believe I can smell Chanel No. 5.
Three button-up flannel shirts hang in the closet in my room. I always wear one of them: it’s the color of eggplant with yellow and blue stripes down the breasts. I’d never wear it on the mainland. Grandma wore it gardening.
Her books line the shelf above my drawers—lessons on drawing and watercolor, the encyclopedia, a dictionary, a bird guide. Her artwork—self-taught on long summer days—hangs around the house: a seascape, the tall August grass parted in paths. Her book is tucked on the bookshelf behind the stairs.
We still write notes on the whiteboard we bought when her dementia started worsening. The last one I wrote says, “Picking blueberries. Back soon.”
Suzy Rigdon holds an MFA from George Mason University where she manages the Fall for the Book literary festival and teaches undergraduate English. Her debut novel Into the Night was published in 2014, and her short prose has appeared in Coldnoon Magazine, The Northern Virginia Review, Bartleby Snopes, and The Albion Review. Visit suzannerigdonauthor.com for more information, or follow her on Twitter: @SuzyRigdon
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