“I don’t even make my own bed. But I have to make ’em here. That’s okay. It’s a good job.” That was our introduction to the maid at the motel we stayed in for our first 2 days here in Lubec, Maine. We’re up here on the Sunrise Coast … where the sun rises first in the United States each morning. That’s about the only thing of note that happens here anymore.
This was once a thriving fishing town. It thrived for about two hundred years. Then industrialization gave us the ability to overfish the areas that had provided a nice living for these people for generations. These are my people. I have more people than I can count in the graveyards up and down this coastline.
I always say that my ancestors were whaling captains; LightHusband jokes that they were kelp farmers. The reality is probably somewhere in between. They were probably fishermen. Solid middle class fishermen.
My people came here with land grants as compensation for their service in the Revolutionary War. They originally came to this country on the Mayflower or shortly after that and settled Massachusetts, but then that got too crowded for them. So they came up to outer limits of the colony and then the state of Maine and settled here … to fish. And to farm. And to lead.
The last of my ancestors to grow up here in Lubec was my great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell. He was a Baptist minister. That was all I knew about him for the longest time. Then I spent some time with his oldest son (my great uncle Paul) shortly before he died at age 98 and discovered that my great grandfather had not been some johnny-come-lately, hellfire-and-brimstone, hick-country preacher … he had been a well educated and well respected minister and had led the Maine Baptist convention … had actually reconnected the Maine Baptist Convention which had been split for something like 150 years! He was someone to be reckoned with. He brought his family (my grandmother) up north of here in Calais (pronounced callas), which is still in Washington County, Maine. He’s not buried here, but his father is and so are the rest of his (and therefore my) ancestors.
And their descendants live on here too. I’m sure I have 4th, 5th, 6th and so on cousins living here even now. Ramsdell is a common name up here and I see it often. People’s ears perk up when they hear it. It’s not common anywhere else. And, maybe it was because I knew it, but I felt at home at the Blueberry Festival. I felt as tho I was among people who were common to me. The people were familiar … and yet … not … all at the same time. It was very strange. The accent is strong here. I have a hard time with that as well. This is something I’ve struggled with all my life. I pick up accents (and languages) very easily. For instance, once we were at a Scottish Highlands Festival and were sharing a bus with a pipe band from Scotland, by the end of the weekend, I was speaking with a brogue that sounded as if I’d grown up in Scotland! It was embarassing, because I didn’t want these new friends to think I was mocking them. This is even more difficult, because this accent is very close to the accent I grew up with. I’m finding myself thinking in the dialect and dropping “r”s and … well … it would be very easy speak like I’ve lived here all my life. In fact, the longer we stood in the mist and talked with the maid at the motel, the more I found myself fighting it.
So then I begin to wonder … what keeps people here? Why did my great grandfather leave? What fire was in his belly? Why did my grandmother (and her siblings) leave Maine to go to New York and then Massachusetts? Why did I leave Vermont? What fire was in mine? What keeps me from going home? What kept my great grandfather from going home? Was it the same thing? In other words … could there be a “leaving” gene and a “staying” gene? I wonder? Because the magnetic pull here for me is powerful. I feel it each time I’m here. There is something here … something that is nowhere else in the world for me. I cannot define it. But it’s only here in this place.
The only problem is that’s the only thing that’s here. Ghosts and memories. Dead relatives. And beautiful scenery (of course). There are no jobs. A lot of the young people leave. Altho Machias seems to be growing, Lubec is dying. How the people here survive is a complete mystery. The maid told us that her husband is an “urchiner”. We don’t quite know what to make of that. But the scallop beds are all fished out. So are the sardine beds. And the haddock beds (at the grocery store we found that the haddock is imported from Iceland) And the cod beds. And even for urchins they are only allowed to fish 65 days a year. It’s sad. Who eats urchins? Do you eat urchins? Someone must be eating them. But it doesn’t sound nice.
So once in a while … about every 12 years or so I come back to this ghost town and remind myself of my roots. That I have a history that twines around roots of this country’s and grew up with it. It helps to ground myself in who I am, where I’ve come from and the fact that it’s okay that I didn’t stay there.