Monday, September 26, 2011

Harvest in Aroostook County

Harvest in Aroostook County has a long-standing tradition of making honest young men out of gangly, pimply-faced boys and strong, hard-working young women out of teenaged girls. Harvest in Aroostook County can be a turning point for many young people, a serious of pivotal moments, usually occurring just as the sun rises above the foggy river to the East, when they learn exactly how much Mother Earth will demand of their time and bodies. They may greet the prospect of a potato harvest job with enthusiasm as joyful thoughts of spending their own money parade in their heads. Or perhaps they revel in the break from school, imagining how much better their time spent outside the class room will be, not solving algebraic equations or deciphering dangling participles, instead kickin’ around a few potatoes.

The rude and often bleary-eyed 5:00 A.M. awakening is that nobody really prepares them for the reality of working the potato harvest in Aroostook County. You can warn your eager teenager about how terribly their back is going to ache and throb after awkwardly leaning at a 60° angle for nine hours as a moving harvester belt rushes by, although they may not heed your experienced caution. You can scold them to bed by 8:00 P.M., encouraging them to “get some good sleep” as they roll their eyes at you and unwillingly plod to their bedroom, mumbling about not being tired. You want to remind them of how the darkest hours of morning always arrive too soon, but you don’t. You will tell them to dress warmly and to always keep a spare chap stick in their pocket and an extra box of band-aids in their cooler, but the invaluable minutiae of potato harvest experience will come to them much the same it came to you; the hard way.

There is no time to flat iron your morning bed-head hair or apply perfect mascara and make-up at 5:00 in the morning. The discomfort of reluctantly crawling out from under the warm blankets and fumbling in the dark for flannel layers and long warm socks is frigidly humbling as you barely find time to wipe the crusty sleep from your eyes and pass a toothbrush through your mouth; hopefully with toothpaste. A warm woolen hat pulled down to your ears proves difficult for a good hair-do, even if your hair normally falls in just the right places when you toss your head. Your usual routine of careful wardrobe selection and meticulous grooming is suddenly exchanged for grabbing ratty, mismatched tops and bottoms and reaching for whichever pair of gloves smells the least like a dead animal. And after just one day of cold mud and the chill of rotten potatoes seeping through your very pores, you learn the valuable potato harvest lesson #612: clothing choice based on warmth and practicality is far more important than wearing the jeans that make your butt look good.

Even when you’ve learned to dress warmly and in layers, you still greet the early morning with a thread of hope that you’ll see raindrops against your bedroom window pane as you open the blinds. You flip on the TV to The Potato Picker’s Special on WAGM-8, squinting at the bright screen in the dark living room, waiting, hoping to see your farmer’s name scroll across the bottom of the screen followed by “not digging today” or at least “late start 10:00AM.” Seven days a week, all hours the sun shines and so many hours it doesn’t, you sort, dig, pick and handle potatoes.

And despite it all, the dust in your eyes from the harvester fan, the dull ache in your lower back and the seemingly never-ending sea of un-dug potato rows, you accept and complete your job. This is harvest and there’s work to be done, but also there’s fun to be had. You never have quite heard a whoop of joy until you tell a tired bunch of teenagers in the potato house that the harvester has “broke down.” Those are the moments we reveled in, flipping open our lunch pails, eager to see what special foods our mothers had packed us that day. Our hands were dirty as we reached into those small tin cans of Vienna Sausages, wiping the salty gel onto our pants and feeling around for the dish of mustard we hoped she didn’t forget to pack. We wallowed in all the Twinkies, Nutty Bars, Pringles, Potato Stix and cans of soda our hearts desired, loving every bite of our harvest lunches and knowing our usual healthy diets would return along with our usual sleep and school schedules all too soon.

We learned a few life lessons no class room could ever teach us and we heard jokes our mothers would have definitely disapproved of. But we were growing up and a stretch of the bridge that took us from kid to adult was on a potato farm.

We met and bonded with new friends from surrounding towns, our less-than-glamorous working conditions setting the stage for loyal friendships to grow and remain, even when we would face one another on the basketball court five months later.

There was something about working the potato harvest that set us kids apart from the rest of the state. We had the inside scoop on what sustained our local economy and we lent a hand, albeit a muddy, blistered hand, in helping to bring another local Aroostook County tradition to completion and we were stronger, healthier, wiser and richer kids because of it.

I’m the mother now and I’m the one packing the lunch pail for my 14 year old son. I now understand how my mother must have felt when her grocery list included the junk food mine currently does. And the dial on my washing machine will stay on “2nd rinse” for a few more weeks. I somehow forgot exactly how many pair of gloves a 12 hour shift requires and I also forgot that one pair of harvest work boots can stink up an entire garage. I smile when he complains about being tired and I just hold my breath when the stench of rotten potatoes follows him through my front door. But mostly, I’m proud to see that despite so many differences between his generation and mine, some things really do stay the same and I’m thankful my kid is part, truly part of Harvest in Aroostook County.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Yes, cupcakes again.

I’ve only got them for a short, fleeting few years before college acceptance letters begin arriving in the mail and they’re chucking their packed bags into the back seat of a beat up Volkswagen bus with a bunch of floppy-haired college freshman and I’m left with empty bedrooms, walls of old Johnny Depp posters, small fingerprints and no idea how I even got there. He’s almost 15 and for the love of Pete if you think three years is a long way off, you’ve never had children. It’s about as long as one of those extra-long blinks you have in your 3PM afternoon budget meeting. The one where a 3rd cup of coffee would keep you up all night but if you don’t close your eyes for just a few minutes you’re likely to slide under your desk. Your eyes are closed just long enough to exhale and it’s over. I’m almost on the exhale. I’ve almost mothered them to that safe place where they’re expected to make good choices without me hovering over them singing “remember your good choices.” I’ll exhale a both a sigh of relief that I helped them reach adulthood relatively unscathed and a sigh of regret that I didn’t have them longer.

She asked for cupcakes on her 13th birthday, which also happened to be her first day of the fabulous 7th grade and a home soccer game. Then she asked for cupcakes for the rest of her soccer team. Then those adorable little punks asked for more cupcakes at the next game. Then, of course, they wanted more. Who wouldn’t want more cupcakes when you’re 13 and already covered in sprinkles? Isn’t sugar and spice and everything nice part of what makes being a middle school aged girl fun, sweet and not-yet a full blown teenaged catastrophe? I love her and I adore the gaggle of girls who keep asking me for more cupcakes.

“My god why do you keep bringing them cupcakes?” “That’s a bit much, isn’t it?” “Are you going to do this all the time?”

They’re not for you.

They’re for the sweet daughter of mine who is growing, changing and crossing over into her own world full of battles, decisions and conflicts that sometimes pull her in the opposite direction of me. It may be temporary, but it’s a rough few years and if bringing her special cupcakes at every game is what brings us close together that day, I’m all over it in that checkered apron my grandmother made for me.

My intentions always come from a place of love. If you’d like to treat my child to brownies or ice cream sundaes, please do; I don’t think there can ever be enough loving adults in a kid’s life. Anyway, I’m under qualified for the Best Mommy Award because I sold my mom jeans in my last garage sale and I don’t even own a pair of Keds.

Besides all that, a good portion of my days are spent scrubbing toilets, sorting laundry, taxiing to swimming or music lessons and reading Frog & Toad books with a six year old. Being able to bring a heaping pile of frosted joy to some hot, tired, soccered-out kids is a welcomed highlight to my otherwise wonderful, but very routine life.

I don’t mind if my cupcakes annoy you.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I can't forget.

I don’t need to re-watch footage of terrified people falling hundreds of stories to their horrific deaths. I don’t want to see the Boeing 767 planes heading straight for the World Trade Center towers, holding my breath that they’ll somehow miss, even though I know they won’t. I don’t want to watch the backs of those brave first responders as they unknowingly run towards their death. I can’t listen to the desperate screams of emergency phone calls for help, as phone operators tried to keep the victims calm, not knowing they would be the last person to ever speak to them.

I don’t want to look at the mug shots of the al qaeda terrorists, their dark, sinister eyes reminding me that not everybody is capable of love.

I didn’t lose my husband, child, parent or friend to the rubble, but somebody else did and I wonder how it feels to have an entire country reminding you.

I remember what happened on September 11, 2001. I remember where I was, exactly what I was doing and how I felt the moment I heard the breaking news. I remember my curly-headed toddler in the red wagon with me that morning. I remember the confused McDonald’s workers, staring blankly at the television monitor instead of making breakfast sandwiches and pouring hot coffees. I remember my boyfriend’s frantic phone call to me, his voice crackling with panic as if the dreadfulness was somehow also in our town.

Respectfully, silently and with less blustery patriotism, we can show those who lost that we still remember. This is not the time to whoop and holler. This is the time to turn off your television and hug your kids. This is not the time to damn the terrorists to hell. This is the time to shake a soldier’s hand and make a donation to your local food pantry. This is not the time to commemorate the ten year ‘anniversary’ of the attacks by spreading virtual flags and flowers around Facebook. This is the time to exercise your right to vote and send a care package to a soldier. This is the time to say more by saying less.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

lunch money

I am suddenly stuck with the notion that perhaps they are becoming something more than just my children. They are growing into themselves, soaring above my expectations. They are running past my outstretched arms towards their own visions of the good life.

He was just five when I met him, still excited about nightly bubble baths, sword fighting and smitten with my homemade pancakes. She was the dimpled shining star who took hold of my soul and breathed new life into my family, coming into my world the exact moment she was needed. And him, the smallest one of them all, is the child who reminds me there will be no more. He is my last child. He is the last to learn to tie his shoes, the last to stop believing in Santa Claus, the last to let me rock his small sleepy body. I can never kiss or smell the top of his head just once, as if the scent of “last baby” is somehow more bewitching than any other.

The years pass as if I’ve wished them away. He goes off to college in less than four years and she is a teenager tomorrow.

And him? He’s still happy to hold my hand.

Another back-to-school morning awaits my teenagers; the backpacks are stocked, the lunch money checks are written and they’re eager to find their way. I never thought I’d find my way to mothering teenagers but somehow, some way, here I am. And there they go.