When I was a kid and we went to visit my grandparents in Gorham, my dad would always find a chore – shoveling, raking, repairing something – to free him from the stultifying company of his in-laws. One of his favorite tasks was taking their gigantic Oldsmobile, which usually sat idle in the barn, out onto the highway to “blow out its carburetor.”
The way he explained it always sounded terribly exotic to me. If a car doesn’t get used, he said, gunk builds up and clogs the engine. A car needs more of a workout than puttering to the IGA once a week. A car, he said, is supposed to run.
I bring this up as a way to assess my three months back in the column-writing saddle after my two-year hiatus. You could say the past three installments were my way of cleaning out my carburetor, getting all the column build-up out of my brain. If you read them, you probably noticed there was no shortage of gunk up there. But after a few verbal donuts, wheelies and spinouts, I feel a whole lot better.
I also bring up that memory for another reason. At the start of this semester, I got an e-mail from the USM Theatre Department — where I have been an adjunct lecturer since 1993, and where I spent much of my own college career — saying they are moving their offices from Russell Hall, on the Gorham campus, to 51 College Avenue. That address sounded familiar. I wrote back asking if perchance it was the farmhouse on the corner by the entrance, the one with the big barn.
You guessed it: my grandparents’ house.
Now, it’s not like they were putting Nana and Grampy Carson, who have both been dead for 30-plus years, out on the street. My grandparents sold their house and land to the university in the 1970s (Bailey Hall was built on the site of my grandfather’s apple orchard), and moved into an apartment in Bath, so my mother could take care of them. Their house had long served as the campus maintenance offices. I poked my head in there once a number of years ago, but the rooms had been partitioned off, and nothing looked familiar. Until the e-mail, I hadn’t given the place much thought.
When my dad went on his driving “chore,” I was not allowed to go along. “Stay and visit with your grandparents,” he’d say, knowing what a sentence that was: sitting in those overstuffed, scratchy chairs and not visiting. Not speaking, not moving. Not touching the china figurines – an old-timey lady’s shoe, a fancy elephant – on the table beside me. Not asking for one of those slender, 10-ounce glass bottles of ice-cold Pepsi-Cola in the icebox. Not blocking the big TV in the corner, where, curiously, my Puritanical grandfather watched Saturday afternoon wrestling. Not getting caught sneaking one of the chalky Canada Mints from the dish on the dining room table – the only candy in their house – despite how it burned and burned and made your eyes water. It’s not that my father didn’t pity my plight. I think he was just afraid that if I accompanied him, I’d blow his cover and he’d have to stay, too.
In case you haven’t gathered, my grandparents weren’t the warmest people in the world. The only tender gesture I recall from either of them involved a strawberry and a phone call. In today’s world of unlimited minutes, texts, tweets and e-mail, what I’m about to recount seems antiquated and quaint: the luxury of a long-distance call.
When I was in the sixth grade, I started going to sleep-away church camp in central Maine. My bunkmate that first year was a tough blond named Sonia, who lived in Westbrook. She and I started as rivals. We both had a crush on the same high school counselor (the dreamy Will), but I was no match for her. Sonia had older sisters and knew how to handle men. Somehow, she arranged for each of us to spend an interval alone with Will in his cabin. Nothing happened during my turn – nothing more than lying stiff-armed on his bunk with him for an electric few moments – but the experience bonded Sonia and me as friends. We exchanged a couple letters after camp that June, but I had a scheme to talk to her on the phone.
It occurred to me that Westbrook would not be a toll call from my grandparents’ house. But I would’ve been terrified to ask to use their phone even if the house were burning down. Using their phone for something as frivolous as a call to someone I hardly knew, just to say hi? Just to say hi to a girl I met at camp? You’ve got to be kidding.
One of my parents must have intervened on my behalf, because I remember standing at my grandfather’s desk (sit? hardly), paging through the phone book. Sonia had an unusual last name, and I had her mailing address with me. Finding the number was simple, but picking up the phone required courage. She had no idea I would call. It was a summer Saturday afternoon. What were the chances she’d be home? I didn’t even know what I’d say if I reached her. What if her parents wouldn’t let her talk to me? What if she didn’t want to talk to me? What if she had already forgotten me?
Still, I placed a finger in a hole on the black rotary phone and dialed, making one counterclockwise arc after another. When my finger released the last digit, the wheel spun back to rest. There was a pause, and then ringing. The phone on the other end was ringing! “Hello. Is Sonia there?” She was! She was home! And she was coming to the phone!
It turned out I didn’t have to worry whether she’d remember me or fret over what we’d talk about. She was as bowled over by the call as I was, which required a fair amount of “I can’t believe you’re calling me,” “I can’t believe you’re home,” “This is so cool,” “This is so cool” … After we had exhausted how cool talking to each other was, we settled into more serious topics. “Have you heard from Will?”
And that’s when he appeared. My grandfather emerged from the shadows of the gloomy dining room. He didn’t say anything. He just stood in the doorway. I was sure he was going to tell me my time was up on the phone, to go outside, to make myself useful. But instead, his arm rose from his side and he dangled the most gorgeous, plump, giant strawberry I’d ever seen, then placed it in my free hand. It almost filled my palm. The problem was, I didn’t want to let Sonia know, while we were having our most excellent conversation, that my grandfather had brought me the prize strawberry from his garden. And, horrors, I certainly didn’t want to eat it while we were talking. Set it down and risk leaving a red dot of strawberry juice on anything? Never.
So I stood there with the thing in my palm, trying to get back into the spirit of our call, but the moment had passed. I watched the strawberry almost compost before my eyes. Juice pooled in my palm and was surely going to start dripping through my fingers and onto the floor. (Please don’t let me make a mess, I beseeched the house gods. Please don’t make me have to ask for a paper towel.)
I don’t remember how much longer the conversation went, or if Sonia and I ever spoke again, or if Will returned as a counselor or was ever questioned about why he was entertaining young lady campers in his cabin. All I remember is the warm clot of stewed berry in my hand and the pink stain it left after I ran outside and chucked it in the bushes.
It’s amazing how, as you age, the contrails of ghosts cross across the sky and interweave: my ties to the theatre department now overlapping with the dramas of my youth. I suppose I should go to Gorham and check out the old homestead again. If I do, I’ll make sure to take the highway.
Elizabeth Peavey will continue revving her engines here in 2013. Till then, to all a good night.