Last week I had lunch with my friend Esther at the local Barnes and Noble in Augusta. I must admit, the food wasn’t too bad. I had a cup of black bean soup that actually had a bit of a zing as well as a tasty tomato and mozzarella sandwich, all for under $10. A real bargain for lunch nowadays.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, Esther was my mother’s friend—my mother died eight years ago—and she is my friend now. I love hearing her stories about growing up in rural Maine in the 1940s and 50s. On this blog, I share her stories with such frequency that I have decided I am, in effect, Esther’s Boswell. (One of these days, I’ll actually have to read The Life of Samuel Johnson.)
I have found that stories can’t be hurried. Nothing puts a damper on the conversation quicker than “All right. Tell me some stories of times gone by.” No, the stories must come naturally in the flow of our talk. First we might discuss the weather, a most important subject in Maine. Next, we’ll inquire about each other’s families and catch up on the news. Esther, with six children, has such a big family that this can take a while. From there, we often move to politics, and we are usually in complete agreement.
Then, then, come the old stories, the meat of the conversation. Last week, after we had finished with the weather, family, and politics, Esther said, “My father had a saying that not everyone understands.”
“Oh? What was that?”
“I didn’t make a new dollar for an old one,” came the the answer.
I wasn’t sure I entirely understood the meaning.
“My father was a farmer, and he was referring to when his crops failed. There was no return on his investment. Some years were like that, and they were hard.”
I nodded. “I know what you mean. During the Great Depression, my great-grandparents lost their potato farm in Aroostook County. They owned hundreds of acres and had to go live in a small apartment in Skowhegan.” (Skowhegan, in central Maine, was once a prosperous mill town.)
Esther said, “Fortunately, my father never lost his farm.”
From there we moved on to Nancy Bown, a friend of Esther’s who was from Wales.
Esther said, “When the war started in Britain, Nancy left her post as a scullery maid and joined the armed forces. She helped plot the course of incoming aircraft from Germany so that alarms could be raised in cities and towns.”
“That was quite a responsibility,” I said.
“Life and death,” Esther replied. “After the war, she came with her husband to central Maine. She was the first war bride in Waterville.”
As it so happened, years ago, I had met Nancy, and I remember her friendly, buoyant personality. I mentioned this to Esther.
“Oh, yes. Nancy was a complete person,” Esther said.
“A complete person?”
“A whole person. Nancy had a strong personality. Nobody could shove her around. But she was not domineering, and she knew how to have fun. At Grange meetings, she used to sing songs in Welsh. We loved listening to her.”
I could picture Nancy, with her ready laugh, singing for the folks in the Grange in East Vassalboro. In my mind’s eye, I could see the Grange members, mostly Yankees but with at least one Franco-American thrown in—my mother—listening to Nancy’s songs, sung in a language they did not understand but was, nonetheless, very beautiful.