Essay by Susan Conley | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
A writer returns to her Maine roots and finds out what still connects her to the changing state.
I grew up in a 1970s version of rural Maine, where we ate tomatoes from the garden, and watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on Sunday nights on Channel 7, and listened to Fleetwood Mac on the car radio so much that Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham became the sound track of my life. I partly blame Stevie Nicks for why I ended up leaving the state. We lived in Woolwich, a small, almost medieval-forested town near the Kennebec River, and I got my back-to-school clothes at Sears in Cook’s Corner next to the Brunswick Naval Air Station, and I loved Sears. It sold lug wrenches and carburetors and the green, boot-cut Toughskins, which were the bomb. This was 1976, and I was 9 years old, and I kept my larger desires in check.
And don’t worry. This is not going to be another story that romanticizes Maine’s filmic, dreamy past, but it is going to be a story that tries to pin Maine down. Because the Naval Air Station is gone now. And Sears is barely holding on. On certain days, I believe place shapes everything about us, so what happens when your place goes and changes? My family lived in an old, rambler farmhouse with a sagging hutch out back for our sheep and a bigger shed near the woods for our series of tragic rabbits. This was way, way before Fixer Upper, and we didn’t make a fuss over the good bones of our farmhouse or its antique, worm-wood ceiling beams. No fuss over the lobsters we ate like hamburgers (Dad’s lobstering friends put paper bags of them on our porch), or that small store in Freeport called L.L. Bean where we bought our winter boots (and where I managed to fall down the one steep staircase when I was 8), or anything else about our lives in Maine. We just lived here.
My brother and sister and I helped split and stack the hardwood in the backyard, and on Sundays if we hadn’t begged too much, we got to drive with Dad to Ron’s Superette out on Route 1 to get Sky Bars and the Maine Sunday Telegram. Woolwich was a hilly river town, dotted with tidy capes and corrugated trailers and dairy farms and redolent pine, and almost everyone I knew there seemed to work very hard to make a living and to take their whiteness for granted. Our lives were confined by the water and forest and abiding quiet, and if there was a larger, more diverse world out there, we were going to be the last to know.
Working-class people populated the town, many of whom clocked in at the shipyard across the river in Bath. There was also a smattering of family doctors and high school teachers and electricians and at least one lawyer, my father, who’d grown up in Bath and was the first in his family to go to college. I think every story about Maine and how it’s changed is in some way a story about class, and when my father finished college and went to University of Maine School of Law, he effectively jumped up a class.
On my 11th birthday, I asked my parents for a pair of red Dr. Scholl’s sandals and a Panasonic tape recorder into which I recited every swear word I’d ever heard and sang a scarily atonal version of Stevie Nicks’s torch song, “Landslide.” I’d been listening to the song on the radio almost every day, and Stevie sang to me of a recklessness involving heartbreak and mystery—both things I could barely imagine and which I came to fear Maine might never deliver on. There were no cities in Maine as far as I could see, and what I craved, I told my mom when I became a teenager, was a real city, whatever the heck that meant. Maybe a place where it wasn’t so hard to procure Dr. Scholl’s (they’d been preordered for months at Hallet’s Drug Store in Bath), or where you could graduate to pants other than Toughskins.
I drank my first underage beer at Three Dollar Deweys when Portland was an edgy fishing town and Munjoy Hill was the place not to get caught after dark, and I loved Portland like I’d loved Sears. But I knew I’d leave the state soon and it was important to know this, and that these things Stevie Nicks sang about were waiting out there for me. I saved my tips and drove to California after college, and some of the people I met out there asked if my family still used an outhouse. I hadn’t known this was a thing, making fun of people from Maine, and it took me years to form my proper response. Or to understand how pride can be the flip side of shame.
When I moved back to Maine, it wasn’t part of some larger mystical calling. My family was here. I wanted to be closer to them, and I knew land was cheap. But I never thought I’d do it until I could think of almost nothing else. My grandfather was from Bath. His father had moved to the town for the promise of shipyard work, and my grandfather didn’t go to college, but he worked his way up at the yard to become the union contract negotiator and head of personnel. He was in many ways a blue-collar citizen standing on the border of the white-collar world. A man showing his son how to begin to jump up a class.
I know that my grandfather was respected in Bath by people on both sides of the shipyard’s hard labor strikes. He never could have predicted the collapse of industries here—paper and shoes and fishing on a scale so large, it’s almost biblical. Or that there would be an actual cafe in Bath now, which for some old-timers is like an alien spaceship that’s made a surprise landing on the corner of Middle and Front Streets. You could bottle and sell the optimism inside this place and you’d make a good profit, and I’ve almost gotten used to drinking my coffee there while the shipyard’s cranes lean their industrial necks down over the town.
I meet new people in Maine now who say they had to move here—like the state possessed some kind of physical pull over them, and I wonder sometimes if Maine becomes a proxy for their lost innocence. Or if we impose our longing for the past onto the land here itself. Who knows. I don’t begrudge anyone their longings. I have them too. But there were lots of kids in my elementary school who didn’t have lunch money and came to school hungry, and this wasn’t quaint. It still isn’t.
We had a station wagon with two plastic speakers built into the sides of the way back, and I’d lie there with my cheek pressed to the music, and maybe you did this too? Dreamed of another life while your other, ordinary life unfolded around you. I asked my mom if she could please turn up the song, and she said, “First, we’ll go to Shaw’s” by way of an answer. Shaw’s was the brand-new shiny supermarket next to Sears, and we didn’t have anything like Shaw’s in Woolwich, and we still weren’t over it: Shaw’s. It equaled some kind of progress we couldn’t fully say that we were waiting for in 1976, but we were waiting. Shaw’s made my mother happy. If Shaw’s could come to our part of Maine, just think what else might come.
“And then,” my mother smiled in the rearview at me and turned the impossibly wide steering wheel, “we’ll stop in at Sears.”
Could my day have gotten any better? Maine felt big to me then. As big as the world. And on certain days, it still feels like this now. Or maybe it’s that the world has finally come to Maine. It’s still a place redolent with pine trees and also with contradiction, and there’s still a great deal of Fleetwood Mac, which my teenage boys don’t fail to remind me of before they change the station. I never want to confuse my connection to the state by misreading its hunger, and from time to time I look over my shoulder, because the past is never far behind here, and it helps keep me honest.