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I Remember .. (A Bay, Ten Acres, and an Old Farmhouse)

by  Anastasia Walker


“I rather miss my wild girl...”
                                                Little Women


I remember the walk on summer days from our old farmhouse: we would cross our large backyard, pass the wild apple tree at the northwest corner onto a path through a brief stretch of woods, the matted black soil blanketed with orange spruce needles, then walk over a dirt road into a field owned by our neighbors the Rays that was flush with wild blueberry bushes, and down to their small beach.  I remember splashing in the cold bay water, and the magic of crouching, putting my face in the water, and opening my eyes.  The pebbles look like jewels, mom promised.

I remember the promise of miracles in the tide pools on our own beach.  Hovering, plastic pail at the ready, to scoop up minnows when they emerged from under the sheltering rockweed at the pools’ sides.  Probing the pail’s muddy water until their anxious tails tickled my palm, then cupping them and dropping them in clear jars.  Watching them gulp water and flush it through the small slits behind their eyes, mesmerized by this alien iteration of so familiar a need.  And at other times: watching the antennae of crabs twitch like a cat fixated on a feather at the end of a stick—watching the feathery arms of barnacles trawl the water for invisible prey—pausing to squint at the sunlight dancing on the bay like a million diamond will-o’-wisps, and imagine the lives of the creatures living beneath the waves.  I remember when we needed to poop, mom instructed us to cover it after we were done, and to wipe ourselves with a fistful of rockweed.

I remember summer days when we visited our maternal grandparents, who lived a short ways up the road from us, grandad would sometimes take us down to their beach, and at high tide we would swim off the dock he had built many years before.  It was a sturdy structure, maybe 20 feet long (in my child’s mind, it seemed much longer), of weathered gray planks on log pilings, filled in underneath with hundreds of large rocks he’d gathered from the surrounding beach.  I remember swimming out at high tide to a large boulder on the Rays’ beach and diving off it again and again.  I remember paddling through the rockweed on our beach at mid-tide pretending to be a seal, loving the wordless feeling of wildness and possibility.  I remember grandad telling me he had once captured and killed a small seal, cleaned it, and cooked some of its flesh.  As I recall, he said he wasn’t that taken by the taste.

I remember the jungle gym my parents set up for us near the northern edge of the backyard—the cool, rough feel of its rust-pocked green and red segments of pipe, the joy of hanging upside down by our knees and squealing like little orangutans.  I remember how in the summer the sunlight fell in soft warm shafts through the nearby spruce.  I remember the bitterness of spruce pitch, which mom told us the Native American peoples who once lived there chewed like gum, how it was mixed with flecks of moss and bark, and how hard it was to clean the residue from my fingers.  I remember turning over rotting logs to catch salamanders, dark brown with dull red stripes down their backs, and putting them in jars to bring to school for show and tell.  I remember when I was very young seeing a large garden spider on her web near the edge of the backyard, picking her up because she was so pretty, and being pinched.  I avoided them after that.

I remember walking on summer days with my brother Bill to the meadow just south of our house to pick wildflowers.  It was down this same stretch of road, I learned many years later, that dad would take me on walks when I was three or four years old and talk to me about not playing with mommy’s things.  I remember walking home one time with a large bundle of flowers and being harassed by some older boys who passed me in a car.  I remember I sometimes took advantage of the road’s gentle downhill slope and skipped to the meadow, loving the sensation of the warm air rushing past me, and of the harmony of my body in fluid motion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Built in the 1800s, the two-story farmhouse was on the Bayside Road a few miles out of Ellsworth, my hometown, and about a mile from the line with the tiny town of Trenton to the south.  I remember Bill and I when we were young would gambol like puppies down the stairway adjacent to our bedroom and through the large kitchen, hook a right in the dining room, then a left when we entered the living room, scamper up the other stairway and through our little sister Portia’s small back corner bedroom, weave between the tub and sink in the house’s only bathroom, dash past our beds, and then repeat this circuit, ignoring mom’s admonishments to slow down, again and again, until we were winded or made to stop.

There was a patio with a painted concrete floor, a later addition, connected to the house and accessible via a door in the back corner of the kitchen.  The wall facing the front yard was solid with a door, but the back wall was of wire-mesh screening hung on a slender wooden frame, and a screen door opened to the backyard.  A fourth door opposite the kitchen accessed a one-car garage.  Entering the garage, you stepped onto a raised wooden platform in the back corner, and a couple of steps took you down to the concrete floor.  There was a small enclosed workroom on that same wall.  I remember one or two years when I was very young, dad kept Calpurnia, our black lab, penned in the workroom when she was in heat.  I remember how frantic she would get when male dogs from the neighborhood approached outside.  Against the garage’s back wall, there was a low platform of boards on which two large trash cans perched.  I remember once or twice entering and seeing rats big as cats (to my child’s eyes) scurry under the platform.

 

I remember once being in the patio on a summer day, and dad came to the screen door, which we kept latched, and told me to open it and let him in.  He had been mowing the backyard lawn, and I could see a swarm of insects around him that I quickly recognized as bees.  I asked him why he wanted me to let him in.  He repeated his request more firmly—I don’t recall that he yelled—and I jumped up and unlatched the door.  My dad was a loving man with a playful side, but he could also be stoical and aloof.  He taught Bill and me how to play sports: baseball, basketball, football (though our school system didn’t have a football program).  He used to tell stories about his exploits as an athlete in high school, most of which I learned many years later weren’t true.  I remember him explaining to me when a baseball hit my arm and I cried that crying was not a reaction to the pain but an emotional response.  He told me that I should suppress those emotions.  I resented him in those moments, and feared him, and desperately wanted to please him.

 

The house’s main front door was in one corner of the kitchen.  When you entered, the stairway to Bill’s and my bedroom was to your left, and in front of you was a wooden chest of drawers.  I remember the day we brought home a yellow tabby kitten my parents named Tallulah’s Rabbit—Rabbit for short.  Tallulah was our basset hound, named absurdly after the actress Tallulah Bankhead.  The kitten’s name was a joke based on the presumption that since the dog liked chasing the rabbits that regularly grazed on the clover in our backyard, she would also go after the cat.  As I recall, this prospect was not just a joke to mom.  I don’t remember dad being concerned.  All five of us were on hand in the kitchen when the kitten was first placed on the floor near the dog.  Tallulah waddled up to Rabbit, and while I don’t recall what happened next, I remember that the kitten soon had the dog pinned under the chest opposite the front door, and periodically swatted her nose with one small paw while she howled.

I remember sitting at the kitchen table with a babysitter around that time doing homework, and being moved by something I did or said to declare myself the smartest person in the world.  Her rebuke was swift.  A couple of years before, I think, I remember sitting at the table one weekend afternoon in fall watching dad make apple sauce from wild apples we’d gathered in the backyard.  I remember the conical aluminum strainer he used to mash the cooked apple into pulp with a large wooden pestle, and the tang-edged smell of cinnamon that filled the room.  I remember I used to like to eat spoonfuls of white sugar from the tin, and handfuls of dry cat and dog food from the bag.

I have a fuzzy memory of an episode involving Bill and me one summer day when we were very young.  I was, I learned later, chasing him through the kitchen.  The front door was open, but the storm door, which had a large pane of glass in it, was closed.  As he approached the door, I either lunged for or pushed him, and he went through the glass onto the concrete doorstep beyond.  Miraculously, he wasn’t seriously hurt.

The dining room was used only for holiday meals and other formal occasions, so I don’t recall spending much time in it.  The room’s main draw for me was the bird feeder dad set up in the backyard outside one of its windows.  I remember a couple of years the feeder was inundated with evening grosbeaks, which with their beautiful black, white, and bright yellow coloring seemed to me like visitors from some otherworld.  (Though they’re native to Maine, I don’t recall that we saw them before those years, or subsequently.)  I remember sometimes watching Rabbit crouched motionless under the feeder staring up, waiting for him to spring.  I don’t remember ever seeing him catch a bird.

We set up our Christmas tree each year in the living room.  I remember the ache of anticipation Bill, Portia, and I felt on those mornings, awake before dawn but not allowed to go downstairs until mom and dad were ready to get out of bed, which was never early enough, and our efforts to rouse them, and our trips down the back stairway to the second or third stair, trying to force our parents’ hands, and wanting to peer around the corner but fearing that doing so would somehow rob the ritual of some of its magic if they weren’t with us.  I remember Bill and I sneaked down before they were up only one time, using the front stairway outside our bedroom, and were found out.  The stairway’s old wooden planks didn’t lend themselves to stealth, even in footie pajamas.

I remember a summer day sitting on the living room floor sneezing nonstop for an hour because of my hay fever, and accumulating a pile of tissues that in my mind’s eye was a foot high.  I have a brief but vivid memory from when I was quite young of coming downstairs one weekend morning before anyone else was up and curling up like a cat in the morning sun under a window in the corner of the room opposite the TV.

On a couple of occasions when I was very young, dad came down with serious cases of pneumonia.  I remember just one glimpse of him from these illnesses, and how strange it felt to see him lying in bed during the day.  Like him, I suffered from asthma as a child.  I remember one time when I was struggling to breathe, our family physician, Dr. Lambdin, made a house call.  I was in my bedroom, so he came upstairs, and after assessing my condition, he told me to sit “Indian style” on the bed and lean forward resting my chest on my folded legs, I presume to open the air passages.  As I recall, this helped.  I remember Dr. Lambdin as a kindly, slender man with a beard.

I remember the joy of bouncing on my bed.  Sometimes I would bounce back and forth between the head and foot of the bed.  I think Bill and I would sometimes try to synchronize our bouncing.  I remember nights when we were in bed and dad would appear in our doorway, hover for a moment, then slowly hold up his right hand and bend his index finger, his upper lip curling in mock-menace, and begin to walk towards us.  The “rib hook” was something Bill and I anticipated with delighted dread, and our squeals pierced his triumphant “Dahhh!” as he tickled each of us in turn.  I remember nights when I lay in bed worrying about dying in my sleep, and trying to imagine what nothingness would be like.  I remember going downstairs on one occasion and sharing my fears with mom and dad, though I don’t recall what they said in reply.  I remember grinding my teeth in my sleep from a young age, and occasionally doing so while I was awake and enjoying the sensation, and the creaky sound it made.

I remember the day I did a pencil drawing of Bill, and how proud I was of it.  I remember the hours Bill and I spent on the floor of our bedroom under the room’s one window playing with wooden blocks.  I remember the large closet next to the window, over the stairway to the kitchen.  It had outer and inner sections separated by a thin wall.  Our blocks and other toys and games were stored in the outer section.  The narrow, deep inner section, as I recall, was given over to mom and dad’s out-of-season clothes—mainly mom’s.  I have a vague memory from when I was small of crawling into the closet’s inner section and hugging my knees under the clothes.

Many of the memories I have of being in my parents’ bedroom center on my deep-seated need to express who I knew myself to be—to feel congruent, though I didn’t have this or any language for that need at the time.  I don’t remember the first instances I “played with mommy’s things,” or my parents’ reaction.  The few glimpses I’ve retained from those early years are already infused with fear and disgust.  I remember a few times when I was left at home alone as a pre-teen rummaging through the drawers of mom’s chest, putting on one of her bras and a pair of her stockings and reveling in how affirming it felt despite how terrified I was that she might come home early and find me—how the sound of each car that passed outside set my heart racing.  I remember one time when she did return earlier than expected and I was in her side of the closet.  There was a window beside the closet, and she must have seen me exit and close the door after she pulled into the driveway because she came into the house as soon as she parked and confronted me: what had I been doing in there?  I stonewalled.  Fortunately, it was late autumn, and she then asked if I’d been looking for my Christmas presents.  I tried to suppress the relief in my guilty smile.

The farmhouse’s basement had a concrete floor and rough walls of stone and cement.  There was a bulkhead on the back wall opening onto the backyard.  I remember a large model of the “beautiful pea green boat” from Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” resided there for a short time after Bill and I outgrew it.  It was a prop from a local theatrical production, I recently learned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The driveway in the front of the house was, for a country road outside a small town, a baroque affair.  There were entrances to the road at the north and south ends of the front yard, with a semicircle of asphalt connecting them.  The rationale for this, I suspect, was that the north entrance was near the crest of a small, blind hill, making it a potentially dangerous point of egress.  (Then as now, people often drove too fast that far out of town.)  Towards the southern end of the semicircle, there was a short spur that connected it to the garage.  I remember the school bus used to pick us up at the southern entrance because we had to cross the road to board it.

At the point where the two parts of the driveway met, a large sugar maple created an island in the asphalt.  I remember one or two years dad tapped the tree in early spring, driving a couple of spigots into its thick, crinkled bark and hanging small aluminum pails under them.  The amount of sap we collected was modest, and I recall only a few tablespoons of syrup remained after it was reduced, but the syrup’s sweet, smoky flavor was infused with the joy of discovery.

When Bill and I were quite young, dad mounted a basketball backboard and hoop on the tree, and I remember the two of us struggled to heave an object one third our size a couple of feet above our heads.  When we were older, the backboard migrated to the wall above the garage door.  I remember when our older cousins from Connecticut, Evan and Donald, would visit in the summer, the four of us would play horse, and Bill and I would exploit the only advantage we thought we had by standing almost directly under the rim and banking the ball in from that difficult angle.  Bill soon lost interest in sports, but I continued playing through middle school and into high school, though my struggles with my gender identity prevented me from excelling at team sports.  I remember spending many hours on the driveway spur practicing my shot, often into twilight, and how frequently I had to chase the ball over the small rock garden beside the spur and onto the patch of lawn below.

A short stone path connected the driveway spur to the front door.  I remember one winter day when I was very young walking through a trench dad had dug in the snow along the path, and how magical it felt staring up at the trench’s walls and the bright blue sky above.

Like the backyard, the front yard was quite large.  Besides the patch below the rock garden on the south end and a semicircular stretch between the driveway and the road, there was the main part of the yard that spanned the length of the patio and house and extended another 20 or so feet to the north.  There was a weeping willow in the middle outside the living room.  Opposite the house abutting the semicircular part of the driveway was a long flower garden that was one of mom’s joys.  I remember seeing her on her knees weeding on summer days while we played.  On summer mornings, I remember marveling at the small spiders’ webs that seemed to have congealed out of the humid air overnight, and catching butterflies, grasshoppers, and even bees (with jars) as they went about their business among the dandelions and white clovers.  I always ran about barefoot in the summers, and remember once stepping on a bee, who I’m sure got the worst of the encounter despite the sting she gave me.  At the southern end of the semicircular stretch of lawn was a patch of tiger lilies that blossomed every summer.  I remember how impossibly exotic they seemed compared to the daisies, buttercups, pink clovers, and Indian paintbrushes that grew in the meadow down the road.

Off the north end of the front yard was a grassy path that passed through alders, chokecherries, and other bushes to the dirt road and the Rays’ field beyond.  There was a wall of rhododendron bushes on the right as you started on the path, and I remember once telling my cousin Heidi not to pick their flowers because they were ours, and earning a scolding.  Heidi and I were the same age, but she, her little brother my cousin Sterling, and my aunt and uncle lived far from us (in Wisconsin at that time, I think), and we never traveled further than Boston, so I didn’t see them often.

I remember when I was quite young seeing our lab Calpurnia attack the Rays’ poodle in front of the wooded lot across the road from our house.  I remember dad was home, and managed to stop the attack by (I think) dousing Calpurnia with water.  I learned afterwards that she had almost killed the poodle, and that the attack had been spurred by distemper.  She was put to sleep soon after.  I don’t remember how I felt about that.  We then got a basset hound my parents named Margalo (after the canary in Maine resident E.B. White’s Stuart Little, I think), who was hit by a car and died a couple of years after.  Tallulah followed her.

The only part of our ten acres that I remember having ambivalent feelings about was off the back corner of the garage at the south end of the backyard, where the leach field was.  This area was overgrown with brambles, and smelled faintly of poop, and I could find nothing of interest in it.  Near it, just outside the patio, was a second wild apple tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After I finished drafting this essay, I emailed mom questions about a few details, and in her reply she included scans of a half dozen old photos.  All but one of them were in color, and looking at them, I was struck by how barren my memories of the farmhouse were in comparison to the bay, yard, and surrounding woods.  Notably, while I remembered the rich dark brown paint the outside of the house sported, almost every memory of the house’s interior was scrubbed of color.  An image of my sister sitting at the kitchen table drove this home with particular force: the orange wall behind her might as well have been photoshopped from a movie set.  My memories of the house we lived in when I was a teenager are by contrast far more vivid.

My childhood was shadowed from as far back as I can remember by a persistent need to be something everyone and everything around me told me I wasn’t.  The relative barrenness of my memories of my childhood home tells me something about my relationship to that shadow.  Through those early years, I managed to preserve a place for her—myself—in the broad, generous swath of androgyny that a tolerant family-centered rural life afforded me.  And that place was outside the home.  It was in the embrace of the fleeting summers and cold winters, dark and sparkling by turns, of the soft grass and fragrant spruce and evergreen water and cool sea winds with eyes of salt spray, that I sidestepped the hard limits I slammed up against elsewhere, and grew partly into myself before puberty and the increasing pressures of life among my peers imposed their gray, icy grip on me.  That fugitive cub was a creature half magical, half wild, and I’ve guarded the traces of her feral magic like a precious birthright.

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Maine native Anastasia Walker is a queer essayist, poet, and scholar living in Pittsburgh, USA. Her essays have appeared in several journals, and she is currently working on a book collection to be subtitled "A Memoir in Shards." Her first book of poetry, The Girl Who Wasn’t and Is, was published in 2022. She has also blogged on politics, social media, and trans/LGBTQ+ issues for both Huffington Post and Medium. She's on the board of her city’s PFLAG chapter, volunteers for the Transgender Law Center’s prison mail program, and is a passionate amateur photographer and musicologist, and a lover of long walks and (when she visits home in the summers) swimming in the ocean. Blog. Instagram.

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