Anna and I had managed to get away for three whole days and were finally on the road, heading up the Maine coast and on to Monhegan Island. We planned to spend a quiet overnight in New Harbor and to catch the first ferry out the next morning.
Maine’s mid-coast region has a number of peninsulas that sprout from the mainland like fingers and reach towards the sea. Driving up from Portland we passed a succession of signs for small towns: Brunswick, Topsham, Bath, Boothbay Harbor, Wiscasset, Georgetown, Damariscotta, Pemaquid, all known and loved by my brother-in-law Charles, who had just died right here, much too young, after a long and painful illness. It felt strange for me to be in his old haunts, while he himself was gone. When he was with us, Charles almost never left Maine; he was ill at ease anywhere else.
Passing through the little community of Bristol (formerly Pemaquid), only a mile from our destination, we noticed a handmade sign announcing an “Artisan’s Reception” in a barn next-door to a tiny public library. My sister-in-law Vera has worked in the Maine public library system for years, most recently in Brunswick’s Curtis Memorial Library and prior to that in the children’s room of Bath’s beautiful Patten Free Library. No doubt she knew the Bristol Area Library as well. We stopped on a whim, thinking to browse for a few minutes and perhaps buy a gift or two before checking in to our lodging and going out for dinner. But as it turned out, we were not to emerge until two hours later.
We did browse the collection of handcrafted work by area artisans: weavings, pottery, fine printing, feltwork, handmade clothing. We bought letterpress-printed cards from Saturn Press on Swan’s Island, and I found a felt bird’s nest with two small felt eggs to go in it for my friend Cylla, whose two daughters had miraculously made her a double grandmother in the space of four days just the previous week. Then we moved outside to the generous reception in the garden, and a series of encounters that made me see why Charles and Vera loved this part of Maine so much.
We met a young dress designer whose clothes, we had been quietly telling each other, were outrageously expensive. But then we met her, modeling one of her creations beautifully, and so open and vulnerable as she spoke of her struggle to market her clothing. Her boyfriend was an artisan, too, she said, a skilled worker in metal and wood, who always sold himself short though he did wonderful work.
We had a long talk with an earnest and articulate young writer and editor at Maine’s Down East magazine, who had recently relocated to the area from the Midwest with his wife and baby. He talked about the upcoming issue focusing on the islands of Maine, and said that they themselves had almost moved to Isle au Haut, which was encouraging couples with children or of childbearing age to “build a sustainable year-round population” and keep open the school, whose “enrollment ha[d] fallen to the single digits” (Town of Isle au Haut Comprehensive Plan). This story recalled my favorite Isle au Haut Lullaby, and also Two Thousand Acres of Sky a British television series I used to enjoy about an odd couple who did just that, moving from inner-city London to a tiny (and fictional) island in the Scottish Hebrides.
But for me, the most astounding encounter was with the young woman whose ancestral origins were here in Bristol, but who had been born and raised in Bangladesh. As we were talking to her, her mother came over and introduced herself, and we learned that she and her husband still lived and worked in Bangladesh, running a school for slum children and a music academy. When I told them that I had grown up in West Bengal, they began speaking to me in fluent Bangla—who would have thunk it, in the wilds of Maine? But that was not all; the daughter had just returned to Maine from a stint of teaching at the recently-established Asian University for Women in Chittagong, which I had intended to visit during my sabbatical last year, but had not managed to get to. She even knew my dear friend Sartaz’s sister, who is AUW’s Vice-Chancellor. We exchanged email addresses—we will surely reconnect—and I came away abuzz with energy and ideas.
When Vera first moved up to be with Charles—since Charles would never have dreamed of leaving Maine—she found it a cultural wilderness, without the diversity of the Boston area, whose universities draw so many international students. But after they married and she committed herself to the place, the region began to change, and she herself was probably one of the agents of that change. There was an active Japan Society in Portland, and she served on its board, helping to organize cultural events and hosting visitors from Japan. She promoted international education and awareness through her programming at the children’s library, and became deeply involved with a growing and multigenerational network of peace activists, many of whom lived spartan and sustainable lives in houses that they had built themselves. Charles and Vera themselves lived off the grid for several years on a tiny island, having to hike three-quarters of a mile to the cabin from their car in the winter, lighting the way with headlamps and carrying their groceries in backpacks.
The young editor told us that in the past couple of years the area had been experiencing something of a baby boom. As I cradled Cylla’s little felt nest in the palm of my hand I thought of Charles, with his deep respect for the land and tidal waterways preserving the best of the local traditions and of Vera, with her delight in international cultures teaching children and adults alike that nobody is an outsider. Their work and examples surely helped to make this cultural renaissance possible, and nurtured the loving community of friends who had stood vigil for peace at President Bush’s summer home in Kennebunkport and kept vigil at Charles bedside throughout the last weeks of his illness.
In New Harbor that evening we lodged in an old house that had belonged to the proprietor’s great-grandparents and had fish stew for supper. As I lay in bed, I couldn’t fall asleep for some time; I was too wired. What connections we had made—and in a spot that didn’t even have cell phone or internet service.
Rest In Peace, Charles King.
May Love comfort and sustain you, dear Vera.