Monday, December 9, 2013

Darkness and Light

Presque Isle Historical Society's Molly the Trolley in holiday finery

These northern reaches where we have chosen to live are breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly hard.  The population here is sparse and aging. Employment is scarce, and what is here is hard, grueling work in farming or timber. Young people flee early for climes that are warmer and offer greater opportunities, and those who do not are, for the most part, bound to this place by birth and duty, habit and happenstance, and we hunker down, bracing ourselves for snow and cold, and longing for spring.  We are blessed to be here by choice, loving the capricious of weather, adjusting our routines to snowstorms and temperatures that routinely plunge well below zero.  Our days are marked by work and responsibility: wood to split, walkways and roofs to be shoveled, elderly neighbors to check on. It is a hard place to live, but it builds in us a resilience and resolve that carries us through. 
The holidays are often hard, as they are for so many others, and filled with memories, both good and bad, and Rockwellian expectations: families gathered joyously together, children waiting hopefully for Santa, the peace of an evening Christmas service.  Most of the children who came through our house as they grew are far from here, and we no longer hear their laughter regularly.  More years than not, I move past Thanksgiving and into December filled with apprehension, a habit born of years when, whether by circumstance or choice, I found myself spending Christmas in a manner far different than what I had hoped. 
But holidays are what you make them.  Over the nearly four decades that we have been married, Bruce and I have built our own traditions: a fresh tree, hundreds of dozens of Christmas cookies made and scores of breads baked frantically and furiously so that the whole house seems to wear a dusting of flour and smell of cinnamon and burnt sugar.  There are nighttime drives around a hushed and darkened village to see the Christmas lights, and gathering boughs for homemade wreaths during a furious snow storm, and there is the practice of always reaching out to someone less fortunate than we were, although some years it could be argued that we might well have been the ones needing help.  Kasey recalls me puling a five dollar bill from my wallet and giving it to a homeless person who needed it more than we did, although she remains convinced there was little more than five dollars in my wallet. We pulled names from the Giving Tree at the mall, and more than once, we set an extra plate at the table for someone whose Christmas plans had been thwarted. Over the years, as the number of children in and out of our house – permanently and in-transit – grew, the traditions did too. Our holidays were filled with laughter, friends, and children coming and going. 
But children grow and as they began their own lives and families, the holidays changed.  The tree became smaller, the clan stopped gathering around our table and we began traveling to theirs.  Some things we continued – the fresh tree, the making of wreaths, a million Christmas cookies, goodie trays and loaves of homemade bread dropped off to friends and neighbors, but there were fewer new traditions added, until this year. 

Every year, Northern Maine Community College, where I teach, begins gathering children’s books in November. Cardboard donation boxes wrapped in Christmas papers pop up all over campus and soon the books begin appearing too, filling the boxes.  A thousand, two thousand, five thousand books – the number always varies – donated by students, faculty, local institutions and businesses.  The books are cleaned and sorted, then students, faculty and staff come together for the Light Parade, always held in Presque Isle the first Saturday in December, and give the books away to the children who brave the darkness and cold.
There are two things that are certain about this parade; it will be bitterly cold, and Main Street, Route 1 that runs north to south from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida, will be lined shoulder-to-shoulder with parade goers.  I don’t know how long they have held the Light Parade, ten maybe twelve years, but I do know that it is one of the favorite events of the year, and despite wind chill temperatures that often dip below zero, thousands of people from tiny tots to stately seniors turn out.  Local equipment companies, hospitals, banks, utility companies, potato farmers, and car dealers all enter floats bedecked with Christmas lights. The college always donates books, handed out along the route by dedicated volunteers who run alongside the NMCC float for the nearly two-mile route in frigid temperatures. Although the idea fascinated me, I had not volunteered.  This year was different.
For some time I had been contemplating eight-year-old grandson Silas who is nearing that dangerous age of cynicism about Christmas.  He’s an accomplished young man with a dry eight-year-old sense of humor and an intensity that can be intimidating.  He plays violin and loves it, has read all the Harry Potter books at least twice, is moving through the belts of To Shin Do, loves Lego robotics, and would rather be running and playing in the woods than doing most anything else – except reading.  He’s also an old soul given to quixotic changes of mood that range from totally self-absorbed to struggling to understand how the world can be such a terrible place.  Although he wants to believe in magic and possibilities, that faith is slipping just a tiny bit, pushed by friends and schoolmates.
At eight, it’s easy to be self-absorbed, and even easier to forget how magical this time of year can be, so I decided that if his parents agreed, Silas and I volunteer for the Light Parade together. It would be a big undertaking for an eight-year-old, walking two miles in the cold darkness, handing out books to strangers. Like his mother and me, Si is convinced that one doesn’t buy books, one adopts them.  Sharing his love of books seemed fitting.
A Light parade float (Mark Shaw photo)
In some ways, walking the two miles between North Street where the parade began and the University of Maine campus where it ended seemed daunting, so I worked out the details carefully.  We would walk for as far as we could and then could hop in and ride in the truck that would be towing the NMCC float.  Shawn Lahey, a kind of NMCC McGyver who is the guy to go to for events, parades, and logistics in general, worked with assuring me that we would make it work.
            The parade began at 6 p.m. so Silas and I headed off to Presque Isle at four, well before supper which is a necessity for a growing boy.  We grabbed a quick chicken sandwich and fries from McDonald’s, that in itself a treat, then headed to the huge North Street parking lot that was already filling up with floats and volunteers, who were arriving better than an hour before the parade.  The chug of generators and rumble of diesels filled the night. There was music and lights everywhere and people hustling about, adding last-minute touches to floats. Silas couldn’t take it in fast enough.  This was everything magical that Christmas should be.
There was a brisk wind out of the west and the temperatures were heading down with every passing minute.  Would we really be able to help with the parade or had I been wrong in my judgment?
“Are you a good driver?” Shawn suddenly asked me. The question startled me. I’d been staring around me, watching hundreds of volunteers appearing out of the darkness to help as we got closer to the start time. 
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Good. You’re driving the truck,” he said.  And that was that.
Some volunteers for the NMCC float had been unable to come, which meant responsibilities were shifting. I was being pressed into service so Shawn could walk the route, help hand out books and keep an eye on everyone.  Shawn gave me a few brief instructions and then hurried off to finish organizing other details.
 I can drive a truck as well as anybody. I regularly take our pickup truck on errands, but it had been a long time since I’d driven anything as big as a Ram 1500 – a one-ton, my husband assured me later – but I figured, what the heck, it’s like riding a bike.  I grabbed the bar over the driver’s door, stepped up onto the running board and hauled myself into the cab.  Silas climbed in on the passenger side.  A few minutes later, the Presque Isle police moved into place at the head of the parade and we were off. 
Some of those who volunteered this year. Silas and I on the far right front.  (Shawn Lahey photo)
I had a few minutes of panic, but as Silas settled in and began waving to people along the roadsides, I relaxed. There were crowds of people waving and smiling as we passed. Christmas carols filled the air, lights twinkled. Silas’s eyes were huge, taking in everything, and he couldn’t stop grinning.  We inched along at barely three miles an hour while the volunteers pushed the grocery carts and handed out books to delighted children. 
About half a mile into the route, Silas decided he wanted to help hand out books, so we signaled Jess, Shawn’s wife and nursing student at the college, and I brought the truck to a halt. Si slid out and scampered off with Jess.  I kept an eye on him via the mirrors and peering out the windows, expecting at any minute he would have enough and want to climb back into the warm truck. But he didn’t.
He walked the whole way to Gentile Hall, giving out books, talking to young and older children alike. I watched him as I drove, always keeping him in sight. Students and colleagues from the college – Jess, Sheldon, Bob, Anjie, Shawn, even the college president – kept a close eye on him, passing him off one to the other until at last we arrived at the University of Maine Presque Isle campus where the parade ended. Silas found me and together we went inside for cookies and cocoa.  Shawn, relieved of herding volunteers, took back the truck. 
We helped with the cleanup – taking the few leftover books and the empty cardboard boxes back to the NMCC campus – and then we were dropped off at the car in the North Street lot and we headed home.
“Did you have fun?” I asked Si as we walked through the now nearly empty lot.  His head was nodding, eyes drooping.
“Yup,” he said, “but I could eat a real supper, and I really need something cold to drink.” It was after eight o’clock, and the half bottle of milk from McDonald’s wasn’t quite enough.  I promised I’d get him milk and supper at the grocery in Caribou, ten miles away.
We drove through the darkness, headlights picking up the remnants of snow along the side of the road, the Big Dipper glinting in the dark sky.  By the time we got to Caribou, Silas was nearly asleep, so I was in and out of the grocery in record time, but when I returned to the car, he was sound asleep.  I drove him home in near silence, a Celtic show softly playing on the radio. It had been a wonderful evening spent together and giving to others, a good lesson to learn even at eight, a night that restored my faith in the power of magic and the joy of giving. 
There are some people who don’t understand why we live here, how we could give up so much.  While it’s true that northern Maine can be a tough place to live, it is also generous, and people find joy creating magic that enriches all our lives and brings us together as a community to share this special time of year.  We’ll be back next year. 
All is calm ...  

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