And Then We Said Goodbye
An Excerpt from Hauling by Hand: The Life and Times of a Maine Island by Dean L. Lunt
I don't know when my grandmother forgot who I was—when those fiery eyes, once as clear as an autumn afternoon on the bay, completed their Alzheimer's journey from knowing through cloudiness to unnerving blankness. I don't know because I never asked. I could never bring myself to mouth the question that haunted the final years before her death: "Hi Gram, do you know who I am?"
My grandmother, Vivian Davis Lunt, was born churchmouse poor on a wharf in the fishing village of Frenchboro in April 1915. She grew to become the family matriarch and an undeniable force in preserving the community traditions she loved while also pushing the island forward. It helped that she was blessed with a relentless energy to get things done and a sharp, inquisitive mind. During her ninety-three years, she helped start the annual lobster festival, brought ferry service to the island, and created the historical society and museum. She also wrote two island histories, served as leader of the church for decades, and helped run the family lobster business.
She was prim and proper and neat as a pin. She placed clean, folded clothes for my grandfather outside the front door; he was not allowed into the main house until he washed and changed out of his fishing clothes. She might even step outside to flip a hamburger so she didn't splatter grease on her stove. She was dynamic and always, always, moved with purpose. She could also be stern and you crossed her at your own risk—her mind was not easy to change.
In November of 1936, she married an island fisherman, Sanford "Dick" Lunt, who would also become an island icon, and they moved into a one-bedroom house that was once a shed. It was there, in that tiny house, across from a cemetery filled with generations of ancestors and mere yards from the home of her beloved sister Lillian, that she raised my father and lived for more than sixty years. The small house grew only a little. Bigger wasn't necessary and for Vivian Davis Lunt, necessary was nearly always more powerful than want—thrift served as her second religion. Time moved along. Little changed.
And then my grandfather died.
Sanford died of cancer in the fall of 1999. My grandmother would leave their home for good a short time later, some bounce already gone from her step. She immediately seemed older and smaller and more frail. I remember the first time I realized what lay in store. It was a fall afternoon on the island, the family, including my wife and two young children were sitting around the kitchen table at my parents' house. My grandmother, for the most part, seemed fine, but she eventually looked at me across the table and said, "Well, now, isn't it about time you settled down and started a family?"
In the years after I graduated from college and roamed New England, and again after September 11 when we all wondered what would happen to our world, I often thought the safest place I would ever know was my grandparents' kitchen. In old coastal New England, the kitchen, just inside the door was the official dining room, sitting room, meeting room, and living room rolled into one. Their kitchen was small, warm in the summer, stifling hot during winter. More than a half century of island history and people and decisions passed through that kitchen.
My grandmother would sit in her rocker, just under the black wall phone, look at me and say, "Sit a spell and tell me just what you're up to." Every vacation and every island visit I sat in that kitchen. If it were evening, my grandfather might walk through. They would bicker, he would hand me a piece of dried cod fish, maybe ask me to fill out some sweepstake entries he had saved or cut a sea urchin spine out of his hand, but soon my grandmother would usher him out. He would lay down on the twin bed in the hallway to sleep. If it was night, the scent of cold cream lingered in the air, and I might hear Lawrence Welk or “Wheel of Fortune” or the Red Sox coming from the television. It wasn't so much that the kitchen was lost in time, it is just that nothing else seemed to matter there. I can still see it all. The Archie jelly jars she used for drinking glasses, the old gas stove where she burned many a meal, her "smock" shirts hanging on the door, the free insurance company calendar, the plastic table runner and the ceramic centerpiece, the ever-ready deck of cards, the varnished moulding. It never seemed to change. It was good. It was safe.
And then she left the island.
My grandmother moved to Southwest Harbor to senior housing and I watched the painful, slow ebbing of her mind. I talked to her in short loops of conversation that repeated themselves in ever-shortening cycles. Her apartment always seemed somewhat sparse and lifeless. Alzheimer's was exacting its brutal toll. Aunt Lillian, who lived just down the hall, just as she had lived just up the hill at Frenchboro, would whisper to me, "I don't think she is doing well." She wasn’t.
Soon we disconnected the stove.
I’m not revealing any secrets saying that my grandmother was one of my bigger fans. And it is barely an exaggeration to say that some people who visited the Frenchboro Historical Society—a place where my grandmother and Aunt Lillian held court daily every summer—left knowing nearly as much about what I was doing as I did. She pushed me to get an education ("They can't take that away from you.") and although not outwardly emotional, I remember as a child she held my hand in the sitting room while we watched Carol Burnett or some such television show. I got away with things few others could. I even wore shoes into her house, right across the kitchen floor, and took things from her refrigerator myself. That was big. She saved newspapers clippings from every sports story in which my name appeared. She talked often about my graduation ceremonies at Syracuse, my wedding, and our occasional weekend trips. She pushed me to update her History of Frenchboro, which, when I did, became Hauling by Hand, the book that launched Islandport Press. The Davis wharf where she lived as a child serves as the basis for the Islandport logo. Sure, when I was a child she yelled at me frequently to "get off the church lawn," no question she thought I was a little too "sassy" as a teenager, and maybe she shook her head at some of my adult decisions, but there was little she didn't think I could accomplish.
And then she moved to a nursing home.
Each visit was more painful. The woman who walked the trails and roads of Frenchboro like a fiend, couldn't walk. The woman who played thousands of card games, couldn’t tell an ace from a king. For a while she still played cards with Aunt Lillian, but Lillian played both hands. The woman who loved sweets, couldn’t feed herself. I would stand in her bedroom and look at the wall, a picture of my grandfather in his lobster boat stared down at her. I wondered if it still had any meaning. I watched her sleep. She was so tiny. I brought my young daughters along a couple of times. I don't know why, I guess I was hoping they might establish some connection, establish some lasting memory of their great-grandmother.
It is difficult to realize that a person whose memory is so vivid, whose life helped shape you, will remain unknown to your children. My grandmother would have gotten a kick, as she might say, out of my youngest, watching the sheer exuberance, energy, and smile that is Eliza. "Oh, that Eliza is a piece of work," she would say and laugh. Eliza would have gotten away with things others could not. And she would have loved Emily, the daughter the health care workers said looked like her. Emily and my grandmother would have quietly played cribbage at the kitchen table. They would have munched on Nilla wafers and drank from Dixie cups filled with ginger ale. She would have touched Emily's red hair and said "Oh, your hair is just beautiful. Red hair runs in the Davis family you know. Sit for a spell and tell me what you're up to."
And then, mercifully, we said goodbye.
One summer morning, on a Frenchboro hillside overlooking her beloved Lunt Harbor, we officially said goodbye. We committed her to island soil beside my grandfather to rest eternally in God's grace. At painfully long last, a fitting end. It was quiet and dignified, and we all sang “Amazing Grace” and rang the church bell and tried to forget her final decade. I will just remember her purposeful strides across the island roads, her laugh, her joy at burning brush, her carefully crafted Christmas trees, her delight at finding a mess of wild greens. I will remember sitting in her kitchen.
Of course, I will never know the exact moment when I finally faded from her memory. I always told myself that I didn't ask her because I didn't want to embarrass a proud old woman; to sit in awkward silence waiting for a reply. But I suppose I knew better, the reason was much more selfish—I just didn't want to know.
Dean Lunt was born and raised in the Maine island fishing village of Frenchboro. He is a graduate of Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor and of Syracuse University. After working as a newspaper journalist for a dozen years, Lunt founded and continues to run Islandport Press in 1999. Lunt has edited more than one hundred books and he wrote Hauling by Hand and Here for Generations.