A short story from: Coastal Maine in Words and Art: Gallery Fukurou’s Reflections by Maine Writers, 2019.
© John Holt Willey, 2019
Embrace, photographic art by Ramona du Houx
While she kept racking up miles and years in her blue-striped uniform as a State of Maine public health nurse, my mother took lessons from—and painted alongside—her Fairfield friend Peggy.
Years later, she said it was probably the companionship as much as the new experience; in her own estimate, she got the principles down pretty well, but she never really saw her work grow “better,” or what she judged to be better, while Peggy’s canvases grew and flew to friends and paying customers. No matter: My mother absorbed knowledge and experience from all, young and old and books and was not in the least discomposed by a teacher, at any age.
Well . . . yes, she was, once. In her eighties, she told me that while a student at Colby College, she had a crush on her German professor, “Dutchy” Schultz, and tried to impress him in class by sitting in the front row wearing a bright red hat. Professor Schultz failed to respond, so far as she could see, so the hat returned to her dorm room and stayed there. She had a C at the end of term, her lowest mark in any of her classes.
Understand, please, that this was about 1925 or ’26, so it was a fashionable hat, a complement to her lovely brown curls. I have a photo of her taken about that time, wavy hair close to her head, a smile that might or might not be “come hither,” and mischief in the eyes.
Her history? She had her degree in 1927, an accomplishment uncommon for a young woman in Maine. She promptly wrecked the Model A her father gave her as a graduation gift, driving rural roads (read “gravel”) between Clinton (her family home) and Dexter village, where she taught, after graduation and a few clerking jobs. A local farmer, merchant, sheep owner and optimist (what farmer is not?), acquainted with adversity by raising Mother’s three brothers—my grandfather Arthur Holt—had the Model A repaired, got himself better insured, advised his daughter more firmly in how she ought to drive, and to my knowledge, she never again drove into a wreck.
Clinton had a corn cannery, a woolen mill, two churches and a tannery, many small farms, but not much to inspire a well-educated young woman. At Dexter, one of her high school English students adopted her as mentor, nearly foster mother. Ruth Haseltine and others of her Dexter classes still came to visit fifty years after Mom left Dexter High to marry. I knew she was a good teacher, for without her coaching in my times-tables and long division, I would not have survived Clinton Elementary, let alone my later schooling at what now is Good Will-Hinckley. She started reading Lewis Carroll to me while I was a baby and kept on until I entered first grade in New Bedford. Her voice, a clear, gentle alto, danced when she read Carroll. I can still quote bits of Jabberwocky.
Mom shed her husband, my dad, when she found he was cheating with one of his father’s clerks at Willey’s Apparel, in the best block in downtown New Bedford, Mass. I must’ve been six or seven when she filed, got custody and her divorce—and remained friends with my father’s mother for the rest of that long-suffering lady’s life.
Addie Frances Wells Holt, my mother’s mother: I recall seeing her only once, from my father’s arms, smiling back at me from the bed, where she would die in a few days, silent. Addie painted farm life, wrote the finest Spencerian script I’ve ever seen, and cofounded the Arcana Club, Clinton’s most advanced effort at culture, after the Masons to which her husband belonged. The Arcanas met monthly, to teach and learn from each other things beyond Clinton.
For years in San Francisco, Barbara and I kept in our Mission District dining room Mom’s rendering of a lithe cluster of fence-line birch. You can feel the breeze stir each leaf.
We got back to Maine to find Mother active but seldom painting. She is gone now, and of course missed. I keep in my writing place a little piece of her making. One of the very few she liked well enough to sign.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Coastal Maine in Words and Art: Gallery Fukurou’s Reflections by Maine Writers, 2019 was published after a contest for writers to create stories to accompany art photography that depicted Rockland and the coast in its myriad situations, moods and emotions. This story was published in the book along with 27 others.
An overwhelming 88 stories were submitted for the contest. In the end seventeen writers were chosen. Their stories are told with depth, insight, candor, irony, wit and humor. Anyone who has every visited Maine’s coast will be able to relate to them. They’ve put humankind’s instinctive emotional connection with the sea into words.
A gallery exhibit/booksigning was held at Gallery Fukurou in September 2019. The contest was held by Polar Bear and Company, of the Solon Center for Research and Publishing.
The Maine Humanities Council provided a grant for our project that enabled the Solon Center to donate books to libraries across Maine. MHC is a statewide non-profit organization that uses the humanities, “as a tool for positive change in Maine communities.”
Please ask your local bookstore to order it in for you or, if need be, purchase it HERE. All photographic art is available through Gallery Fukurou at info(at)soloncenter.org.