Christmas in Maine

I was halfway home, the darkest stretch still ahead. The frost on both sides of my windshield created a kaleidoscope of indecision. Sleet pinged against the windshield and clogged the one working wiper. The Penobscot River on my right wound its way to the ocean but I’d never see a thing if my banged-up Opal suddenly skidded toward it. What did I expect? It was Maine, after all. And what business did I have driving home from another class toward my master’s degree on a night like this? I was already a single parent teaching full time. Why couldn’t I just let that be enough? Ice ridges from earlier drivers’ tracks pulled me into the opposite lane, then toward the river on the passenger side.

The year was 1976. None of us had dreamed of cell phones. I couldn’t have afforded one anyway. After rent, utilities, and my school loan payment, there was barely enough for food. I’d left the farm to make a life for us, my son, Mark, and me. Each semester of teacher preparation, I wondered if the money would hold out till grades were recorded before I had to go back to waitressing. Could I put off the loan payment? Would the tuna last? Was there enough macaroni? Enough eggs? No matter how I fretted, no matter how I rearranged my little payment books, no more money jumped into my pocket.

My choices narrowed as the ice threatened to obliterate my cookie-sized windshield view. I could keep driving into the storm or turn back to Bangor and stay the night with my college buddy, also a first-year teacher. My one working wiper scraped out a steady rhythm. “Steer on. Turn back. Steer on. Turn back.” The few driveways I passed, always so welcoming in summer and fall, were packed with plowed-in snow banks, making no place to turn. Tears of self-pity ran down my face. I couldn’t even brush them away I was gripping the steering wheel so tightly.

On the back seat, Mark snored softly into the road sounds. He desperately needed a snowsuit, boots, hats, and mittens. I clicked through what I could sell. Our bicycles? Fat chance I’d get anything for them in winter. My books? Already gone. Clothes? The last time I’d even had new underwear was four Christmases ago. Our television? Its one channel and grainy, snowy image reminded me of what I could see through the windshield.

It was so hard being on my own. Couldn’t I have just gone along, sucked it up and continued to rationalize the betrayals about my promised education, the pointed comments about serving the devil when I was caught reading any book other than the Bible? Being forbidden to go to the library. Counseled that writing my little poems and stories was vanity, unbecoming in a farmer’s wife. This new life was to be Mark’s chance to grow up, and decide what he had talent for, not what the farm needed and not the way the cult-like church wanted to mold him. Mark who grew so fast. Mark, who needed shoes and boots and a bigger snowsuit. Mark, whom I was putting in danger by being out on this road. The tears ran faster. Mark stirred. The car was the only place, other than late at night in my bed where I could cry.

I prayed silently. “Hey, you out there.”


I prayed harder. Raged really. “You said it would be alright to leave. You said I could do more good as a teacher. You said it would work out. So, tell me what to do now. You tell me right now!”

For an instant, I loosened my left hand on the steering wheel and lowered my face to clear the tears. The Opal’s bald tires wouldn’t hold. She skidded straight for the river.     “Steady, Opal,” I begged, while scrabbling through my memory for icy road advice. Brakes? No. Let up on the gas? Yes. Steer into the skid? Yes. The road surface smoothed and I jerked forward, skimming the snowbank, the only barrier to a sheer drop-off into the Penobscot. Terror punched my gut. Was I even on the road? A light appeared up ahead. It glowed and immediately a gigantic snowplow was smack in front of my headlights, flinging sand for traction. I pumped the brakes. Small skid. Steer. Hold. Brake pedal pump. “Oh, please, Opal, I begged.” The tires gripped. Slowly I guided Opal into the sand path created by the plow.

 I went back to worrying about Mark’s winter clothes. Christmas would be a choice between boots and the one thing he had asked for, 10 boxes of dominoes. I couldn’t afford both. My relatives were too poor to help. Mark’s dad wouldn’t pay. After all, I was the one who left. Could I take an extra job? But where? Bucksport was so small. Besides, I already worked so many hours.

Slowly I wound along the icy road behind the plow, whimpering, but this time I kept both hands tightly on the wheel. I was never so happy to see the lights of town when we made the last curve. I turned away from the plow and headed up our road. The plow driver blinked his lights twice. I blinked back. It took Opal three tries to make it up the steep hill. I was drenched by the time we slewed sidewise into the driveway to our tiny apartment. The path was drifted over a foot deep. Safe now, I shouted to the growling wind, “The plow was nice, but I need more. Maybe I should just crawl back to the farm.” Instead, I slung Mark over my shoulder.

At the door, a two-foot drift blocked our way in. Carefully, I eased Mark down to lean against my side and tried to kick away the snow with my other foot. But wait. Was that solid ice? No. A box. I sleepwalked Mark through the door and into his narrow room and eased off his too-small boots and coat. Then rolled him into bed fully dressed. Back at the front door, I dragged in the box, still wiping my tear-blown face.

What? The box was packed tight with little boy’s clothes—a snowsuit, boots, mittens, and a scarf. A hat. Then shirts, pants, shoes, and a short winter jacket, all hardly worn and cool name brands. There were pairs and pairs of underwear and socks, carefully folded and smelling as clean as the new snow. Under everything was a note from one of my fellow teachers.

“My sons have outgrown all of these. Maybe some will be useful.


I was redeemed.

The next morning, I woke to a brilliant sun and a wonderland of ice-sparkled branches. My little red Opal had been pushed into the driveway, which was now cleared. Two of my new teacher friends stood grinning on either side of Opal, shovels held high. They saluted and sauntered off.

There would be Christmas. It was Maine, after all.

 In the years since the 1976 Christmas, I have experienced over three decades of continuing joy in working for and with children, their parents, and other teachers. In 1989, I met Richard, my lovely brilliant husband of 30 years, and the same kindness from Maine people, continued to arrive for me at just the right times, including recently when Richard died after his long battle with Alzheimer’s and, finally, late-stage cancer. We had been living for 12 years in Northern Arizona and, when Richard knew his time was approaching, he said, “It’s been a great adventure, but now it’s time to go home.” Today, it’s like I never went away. Maine has this unerring bungee-cord effect on those of us who leave, snapping us gently back, just when we need to come home.

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Shirley Willis

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