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Happy 4th by Westbye
Happy 4th, a photo by Westbye on Flickr.

The eleven mile stretch between my grandparent’s farm and the town of Gardiner, Maine had several farms that featured their name on the barn. There was the MAPLE TREE FARM, which had a plank sign above the barn doors. Then there was the Chip Off The Block Farm, which was a red barn with the name and an Amish seeing-eye design painted on. But my favorite was the LENTY TO DO FARM. I never thought about what it meant to have Lenty to Do, or what it took to accomplish Lenty, and it certainly never occurred to me that perhaps a “P” had fallen off somewhere. It was the LENTY TO DO FARM, and that was that. No questions, nothing to see here.

As my grandpa whipped us past these farms in the Oldsmobile, I always wished we had a finger bar mower, just like the one on the tractor, attached to the passenger side. Grandpa would attach the mower to the tractor, lower it so its gruesome, pulsing teeth spread out six feet from the tractor and a foot above the ground, and drive out into the fields to mow the hay. I always pictured the mower on the car, destroying everything in its path: mailboxes, telephone poles, all the detritus of the sidewalk decapitated and laying in a swath of rural destruction at the hands of the Rocket Delta 88.

A trip to Gardiner meant a haircut for grandpa and getting toys at Wilson’s Department Store for my brother, grandmother and me. We would park next to the Kennebec River and walk up the stairs of the Arcade to Water St. The Arcade was narrow and rickety, and always smelled of musty river water, greasy paper plates with pizza slices in some form of forgotten decomposition and occasionally urine.

The toy section was upstairs at Wilson’s, and it was a magical world of Hot Wheels cars, car and airplane model kits, Diff’rent Strokes and Dukes of Hazzard coloring books and my favorite: Topps Baseball Sticker Albums with shiny stickers. And of course whiffle balls and bats for games on the lawn of the farm.

After doing our trading, as grandma would call it, grandpa got behind the wheel of the Olds and floored it home.

Some grandfathers sit on the porch and tell grandiose fishing stories. Some grandfathers play Bingo at the VA and volunteer for bean suppers. My grandfather drove like a maniac. Yelling at everything and nothing, dropping cigar ashes, eating…driving never deterred him from any of the above. Why so crazy? Temperament and more lax traffic enforcement, I guess. Why the hurry? Probably to make it home in time for the start of Another World. We always seemed to make it just in time.

I would sit in the back of the Delta 88, driving my new Hot Wheels across the bench seat, breathing in that wonderful cigar smoke, and plotting the destruction of rural Maine by hay mower as we pushed 60 in a 35. Anything that existed within six feet of the road was a goddamn goner. I probably would have spared the LENTY TO DO FARM, though. Whatever Lenty was, I didn’t want to have it to do.

The furnace always kicked in with an F above middle C, with the undertones forming a Bb Major chord, and if you stood on the grate by the front door, you could feel the warm air wafting up. We were the third ring (also in Bb Major) on a three-party line, and the light left the sky by 4:00 PM in the most brilliant sunsets you could ever imagine.

These will always be the sound and feel of Christmas in Maine.

Throw in my grandfather’s cigar smoke and my grandmother’s donuts, freshly scooped from a vat of Crisco melted on the woodstove. Toss in football and tobogganing by the barn light on brutally cold nights and the lights of the Christmas tree by the front door guiding us back up the hill. Picture, in the piano room, the scrawniest tree ever, cut down with a hand saw and dragged out of our own woods by tractor (and remind me to tell you about the time I broke my collarbone by sticking my moon boot on the tire). And imagine going to sleep under layer upon layer of home-made blankets after a kiss from grandma.

This is what I waited for and dreamed of all during the years in Florida, from when I was nine to thirteen; the week of Christmas vacation and our return to Maine and the farm. Yes, it’s bargain-basement Currier and Ives in retrospect. But when you’re ten and missing home like crazy, it’s everything that matters in life.

And I’ll never have another Christmas like those again…

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