Lew’s Country Store ran tabs for local residents in a spiral notebook, which we would pay every couple of weeks or when we got around to it. If the tally got too high, Lew Flewelling would quietly signal us over when we came into the store. No beer and wine could be put on the cuff: state law required cash only, and Lew assiduously complied. Lew was trusting, but not uniquely so.
Once, when Rita did her biweekly shopping in Augusta, the total came to over fifty dollars, which now 35 years later would be inflated to nearly $200. She went into her purse juggling two kids and found no checkbook. Debit and credit cards were not an option, and she didn’t have nearly enough cash. The IGA was a large chain, and she didn’t know anyone nor did anyone know her, Augusta being nearly thirty miles from home. The register clerk took her name and town, and then casually sent her home with the groceries, “Don’t worry about it. Pay us next time through.” He didn’t even check her driver’s license.
The street level of Lew’s store had canned goods, boxed cereal, sugar and bags of flour, spices, fresh local vegetables, dairy and eggs, household goods like clothespins and paper towels, paperbacks, magazines, newspapers, postcards, wheels of cheddar, a coffee counter (one flavor – dark and fresh, cream and sugar only), snacks, gloves and some work wear clothing – mostly warm; downstairs held a large selection of hand tools, axes and hickory or ash axe handles, splitting mauls, shovels, rakes, sheet metal wood stove parts, snowshoes, hardware, nails, nuts, bolts and miscellany – a classic, “if we don’t have it, you don’t need it” establishment. Lew’s was a clearing house for information, and a venue for impromptu conversation.
We learned, among many other things, how to prepare our old barn of a house for winter: at least six cords of wood, 8 mil black poly secured with nailed lath strips about 10 inches up from the foundation and draped down to the ground with bales of hay pushed up against the plastic to insulate and protect from the wind. Dry, cut-last-year maple, oak, ash and some apple wood would be delivered to our house for $25 a cord by Ray Hall, a local dairy farmer who also sold us raw milk. A generous cord measure would come either in log length or 4’ pulp length. Several weekends were consumed cutting it to fit the stoves and splitting it. A decent supply of kindling in bags from the dowel factory, mostly kiln dried birch dowel ends, sufficient oil for the lamps, and clean chimneys set us up to persevere. We squirreled up canned pears and tomatoes from our trees and gardens; from our garden we froze peas, corn, and squash. We kept a potato bin and some frozen black bear steaks. Well, maybe not the bear.
Winter nights occasionally brought Northern lights, undulations of color that had a soft sound difficult to describe. Without the interference of city lights, on a cloudless night, no moon was needed to walk; the stars were sufficient with the January constellations like Orion, Taurus and Gemini bright against the backdrop of countless stars that are muted near towns. The illumination that hit our eyes began its journey from some of those points of light 100,000 years before man walked, putting our infinitesimally small scope, reach and understanding into stark perspective.
Summers in the lakes and rivers and garden were close to paradise with warm, sunny days and cool evenings, but that was after we got through the snow up to the windows and frightening cold of winter, then mud season with frost heaves that could send the unprepared airborne in their pickup trucks, and then followed black fly and no-see-um season until the misty dawn over the lake echoed again with the 10,000 year old haunting calls of the Common Loon. (click link to hear)
Society and social life exposed a sometimes desperately needed relief from cabin fever, and a darker side of country living. Pleasant communal Grange Hall pot luck suppers, occasional amateur locally written and directed theatre (e.g. the Mount Vernon “Abu Dubai” musical review, with elaborately painted camels, tents and palm tree sets – so woefully abysmal, it was very entertaining) and regular house parties. Witty repartee was held in high regard. Parties ranged from fairly sophisticated wine and cheese affairs with side entertainment of a shared nude wood fired sauna to Tunney Leighton’s annual barn party in late February with many smoking homegrown weed and tapping into the previous fall’s apple cider kegs. The barn party started Friday night, and continued with momentary respite through Sunday afternoon as people came and went and came again.
The seventies were experiencing the full onslaught of the ‘sexual revolution’, and rural culture, especially relocated back-to-the-land culture, was not exempted. In fact, to some degree the nature worshipping, almost pantheistic, setting was ground zero. Many marriages hit the shoals. One indelible memory of Tunney’s barn party was a mixed couple (by mixed, you may infer a male and a female both married to other people) openly making unrestrained love in a snow bank with the temperature a balmy fifteen above. Apple cider is subtle, sudden and devastating.
Two of the mavens of “upper” society in town were a couple who frequently entertained. He was a psychiatrist, and she a part-time professor of English literature at the local campus of the University of Maine. Much time must have been spent tweaking the list of invited callers. Their gatherings were of the wine and dope variety with particular and skilled attention paid to poking the visitors into untoward personal revelations and conflicts, then lighting up the pipe and watching the fun. Like a good game of “Get the Guests” from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.
Our own marriage barely survived the third winter. Only a kindly neighbor and a return to the faith of our youth saved us. Country life is or can be idyllic, but it does not provide a panacea to cultural ills, urban stress or inner demons. The beauty and peaceful surroundings benefit only so far, then we must learn, mature, love, mutually sacrifice and deepen our faith. Lacking spiritual healing, stunning mountain and lake vistas or moonless, starlit nights become commonplace, and merely pleasant, momentary distractions.
‘In Maine, there is a deeply ingrained sense that you can always get a little more use out of something.” Tim Sample