“Eternity is said not to be an extension of time, but an absence of time.” Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
Events, players from the theater of our lives and time are inextricably knotted in the woof and warp of our memory and in our character. Many of the supporting cast we met during that period we lived in Maine informs our humanity, but they seemed not so central at the time. In our encounters with them we paused on the trail like rounding a curve and sighting an unexpected vista. I cannot tell you exactly how we met them, but the vignettes of our connection are indelible.
“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. St. Augustine
Alan and Donna lived in a hand framed wood house that Alan built on a wood lot they owned in nearby Vienna (Vy-anna). They kept a large garden and goats and raised three bright children – Autumn, Oak and Brook. Oak was the boy. Alan sported shaggy hair and full beard; he cut timber, built houses, ran his own heavy equipment and made his own way in the town next to his birthplace in Mount Vernon. Early on Alan seemed just a tough, very strong woodsman who handled a big chainsaw as effortlessly as other men handled a keyboard. But it would be a mistake to miss his well honed intelligence.
He made it his business to be as self sufficient as possible, never losing his edge to grow his own food, heat with his own wood and maintain his autonomy. His drive and ability made him a financially secure land developer and builder. Alan’s tendency for Maine tall tales often led to wry humor and good natured exaggeration. Donna was a refugee of flower children from New Jersey, an authentic gentle soul, who could mask her own keen understanding of human weakness with an indefatigable willingness to help anyone who needed some. When Rita was working part time as an RN at Augusta General, Donna would bring Autumn and Oak to our house and provide an inexpensive home day care for our two little ones in the afternoon until I got home in the evening. Our children adored her.
Rita was appointed as the Health Care Officer for Mount Vernon, a title with almost no money and few defined duties. She conducted free blood pressure clinics and a mandated flu shot clinic in a year the state health department predicted a bad winter. She set up in the Grange Hall where Alan and Donna had celebrated their Baptist sunrise wedding reception breakfast. The mood was lively with the good natured gossip of mostly elderly ladies and nervous chatter speculating on the rumors that other towns had seen adverse reactions to the inoculations. When Alan walked in for his flu shot, he jammed up his T shirt, exposing a bicep as big as some thighs. Rita suspected his mischievous smile, but the free clinic was for all comers. Upon sticking him, he moaned loudly, spun around, crashed through several rows of folding chairs then face first in a dead fall onto the floor, horrifying the kind old ladies. They were more appalled when Rita headed over to kick his prone body now quivering with laughter.
“Saint Augustine was asked where time came from. He said it came out of the future, which didn’t exist yet, into the present that had no duration, and went into the past, which had ceased to exist. I don’t know that we can understand time any better than a child.” Father Crompton in The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
Bert and Taffy owned a lovely piece of land at the edge of a large field. They, too, had a big garden and a menagerie of laying hens and some turkeys. Bert convinced me that domestic turkeys were stupid enough to drown in a storm by looking up to watch the rain. I was never quite sure if he was teasing me. Their four children’s names all alliterated, starting in “B”. They looked just like their names would have you expecting them to look. Taffy tended towards long dresses in winter, plaid shorts in summer, thick glasses and effervescent laughter. Bert almost always wore bib overalls and a black full beard; he weighed close to three hundred pounds. Again it was a grievous error to judge these books by their covers.
When we met Bert, he was a real estate broker with a booming voice that filled almost any space. Instantly likeable, we came to know them and fed the laying hens and turkeys once when they visited Taffy’s parents out of state. Bert grew up on a subsistence farm a couple of towns over in Stark, but came to the attention of state educators when he won the high school science fair as a freshman. His prize winner was a study of irradiated bean seed growth. He irradiated them with a homemade linear proton accelerator he built in his dirt floor cellar with concentrically smaller circular magnets, a vacuum tube and hydrogen he bought mail order from Popular Mechanics Magazine. He earned a full scholarship to MIT but dropped out as a sophomore, bored with the classes and the city.
Twice a week he drove down to the coast to teach Maritime History to cadets at the Maine Maritime Academy. Occasionally he published academic articles and had worked for a time at the Brookings Institute. He got into the real estate business because he needed the money after struggling for years to make a living off a small bookstore he owned in Boothbay Harbor. Bert was a truly gifted story teller.
My personal favorite of Bert’s stories told an archetypical favorite theme: the city slicker made a fool by the Maine farmer. Bert’s father plowed his planting with a pair of oxen. Late one spring, when the frost driven mud grudgingly gave back the land, he was turning over the soil behind his team when a Chrysler convertible with New York plates pulled over at the side of the dirt road adjacent to his field. The wife had the camera, the husband yelled over to Bert’s father to ask him if he minded them taking some pictures of the scene too quaint for the folks back home to believe. His Dad picked his way through the plowed rows and approached the car. He removed his floppy hat, wiped his brow and told them that he would prefer they didn’t because the oxen would get spooked and he’d lose an afternoon’s work. The couple discussed it as though Bert’s dad was invisible, and the man offered to pay $20 to take the pictures to make up for the lost production. Bert’s dad thought for a long while and reluctantly accepted the money. The city folks drove off, kicking up dust, happy to have a story with which they could entertain the cocktail party.
Bert would laugh raucously as he told us his Dad quickly resumed his plowing with a weeks’ worth of grocery money in his pocket. Bert concluded his story telling his audience that you could shoot an ox on a Tuesday, and he wouldn’t fall over until Saturday. His Dad related his story to all listeners for years.
I could never distinguish the story from the story teller with Bert and the truth was asymptotic, but they were entertaining.
“Take time: apart from cosmology, where the big bang marked the beginning of time, there is nothing in physics to distinguish one moment of time from the next.” Paul Davies, introduction to Six Easy Pieces.
These stories and stories about stories are thirty years old now, but seem fresh. Some memories don’t fade; they subcutaneously assimilate until they are woven into our nature. The lessons about our self righteousness and prideful, premature judgment of others are indelible. Our preconceived notions about the shortcomings and foibles of others we learned were products of our own insecurities. Our stories and memories form us. They become us.
“For example, love is not a science. So, if something is said not to be a science, it does not mean that there is something wrong with it.” Six Easy Pieces, Richard Feynman