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  • Writer's picturePiper

A Long, Cold Winter

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

By May Davidson

Trudging the last half-mile of steep uphill while pulling the sled and groceries was less fun. There were times when keeping our footing on the ice was such a challenge that we would arrive breathless at the cabin to find that some of the grocery sacks had toppled and several items were missing. I would light the stove while Jim went back down the hill for a loaf of bread here and a bunch of carrots there. It was usually eight o’clock at the earliest before we had supper ready. Breakfast at four-thirty that morning seemed a long time ago.

It didn’t matter because we had to go to bed early to meet the next day’s schedule. We didn’t have a radio and reading was difficult by the dim light of our kerosene lamps. We had one large mantle lamp that was brighter than the others, but we learned that trim- ming wicks for an even flame was an essential skill. One evening Jim fell asleep with a book in his hand, and I was so absorbed in a novel I didn’t realize that the lamp was smoking until I stood up and could barely see through the black cloud. Jim’s nostrils were outlined in black soot, and I had a dark greasy mustache. This was a minor inconvenience compared to the smoky film that lay on the walls and other objects in the cabin. The cleanup served as a lesson in lamp care that remains with me still.

There wasn’t much time for entertainment, but we needed even a small diversion. We shared a mutual passion for cats, and one weekend Jim came home from an errand and handed me a half-grown scrawny, black cat with white nose, chest, and paws. A lobsterman friend, Alfie Butler, had been willing to part with one of his dozen or so kitties. Joe’s name had already been bestowed upon him. He had long legs, knobby knees, and a long stringy tail. He was a slouching adolescent, but he had a sweet face and charming disposition.

He was also a thief.

I made a custard pie one Saturday morning and left it on the counter to cool while we went out to cut firewood. It never occurred to me that Joe could be interested in anything but fish, meat, or milk. When we got home at lunchtime Joe was on his haunches beside the pie contentedly washing his face. His eyes were happy slits and bits of custard dripped from his whiskers. It appeared that he had eaten from the center outward, as all that remained was a narrow circle of custard around the edge. I would have been glad to give him a piece if he had left us some too, but you can neither reason with nor truly discipline cats, and we didn’t try. My pies cooled behind closed doors after that.

We had jobs, but winter is the wrong time to start living in a rough cabin if one has a choice of spring and can enjoy the gentle summer months to make improvements. Fighting snow, cold, and ice enlarges each task. Our bathroom was the great outdoors. There were miles of forest around us with nobody in it, so privacy was no concern. The weather was.

Unlike many Maine people without indoor plumbing I could not bring myself to cope with a “slop jar” or chamber pot. I’d heard of too many accidents, and cleaning up without running water was unappealing. A couple we knew followed the old tradition. Nettie and Harold both worked away from home daily. While she washed the break- fast dishes, he emptied the “slops.” They were running late one morning, and the outdoors was glittering after an all-night ice storm. Harold, slops in hand, moved hastily through the orchard to the wooded dump- ing spot. On the way he slipped, hitting an apple tree with his delicately balanced cargo, which emptied all over him on his way to the ground. It was a long while before he was fit to go to work that morning. Stories such as these are immensely funny when they happen to someone else, but my sense of humor was limited when I pictured such a mishap befalling either of us.

The great outdoors remained our bath- room until one cold sunny weekend when Jim built us an outhouse. I thought it was beautiful—bright pine boards, a roof that matched the cabin, and all just a comfort- able distance away.

Jim built it so that the f