in Maine, Partisan Differences are Often Beside the Point
It was on the porch of a carriage house in Damariscotta, Maine, where I received one of the great compliments of my life.
Don, a 65-year-old son of Dixfield, said, “You were brought to us by divine intervention.” His wife of 45 years, Betsy, a daughter of Farmington, burst into a smile and nodded her head in agreement. Our friendship had been brought to us, I was informed, by no one other than God.
“Divine intervention.” That wasn’t a phrase to which I was accustomed. We secular Jews from New York City’s entitled suburbs didn’t carry on heartfelt exchanges in the lexicon of Christian theology. To a new friend of importance, we might say, “Wow, how lucky our paths crossed,” or “How fortunate to have met. What were the chances of that?”
Yet, as an English teacher who got to know her religious history by teaching classic American literature, I grasped the heft of that phrase the second it hit my ears. The first “best friends” I made in Maine loved me so much that it was unthinkable I came to them by chance. In their eyes, God guided us to the friendship we have today, a decade of closeness that feels more like family than friends.
The three of us recognized early that when it came to all the things we didn’t have in common, religion was the tip of the iceberg. According to widely held demographic measures of identity, my first best friends in Maine and I should have spent the lion’s share of our time rolling our eyes at each other. I vote Democrat and plan to do so for the rest of my life. Don and Betsy vote Republican, which they plan to do for the rest of their lives. I grew up among the manicured lawns of Westchester County, where the script for life was to study hard, go to college (an Ivy, preferably), and, in two words, get rich. Don and Betsy grew up with meager resources on family farms, got married after high school, and spent the Vietnam War in Germany where Don was stationed. When the young couple returned to Rumford with their first child, the script for their life was this: What you want, you build. And build they did, their own house and enough income as an electrician and a nurse to provide for their growing family. Later, they would build again, a home in Damariscotta where they would retire.
So how is that three adults with nothing in common ended up the closest of friends? Here’s how.
It started ten years ago when after the close of another school year in steamy Washington, D.C., I yearned for a summer vacation that would look and smell like the six blissful summers I spent at sleepaway camp in western Maine. On the website Vacation Rental by Owner, a tidy carriage house caught my eye in a region I had never heard of, “mid-Coast.” One phone call with the rental’s owner, Betsy, who said her home looked like a scene from On Golden Pond, clinched the deal. Little did I know when I packed my hiking shoes and swimsuit that summer, I was headed for a town that would one day include me as a permanent resident.
Falling in love with the carriage house was easy. The screened-in porch with the red wicker rocking chair, the companionship of the pond, the company of summer breezes, the calls of the loons at night; what was summer for, it not that? My hosts directed me to Damariscotta’s restaurants and shops, of course, but also to the sticky buns at The Cupboard Café in New Harbor and the lobster pound at Muscongus Bay. In between day trips, my hosts and I shared bits and pieces of our lives—family, work—until one day a most mundane conversation broke the ice.
“Nancy,” Betsy said to me as she stepped out of her house onto a gravel sidewalk. “I just dyed my hair. Can you tell me if I covered the strands in the back?”
I didn’t mind at all. I examined her work and pronounced it thorough.
“Wait,” I said after a mini-epiphany. “You dye your hair?” That was something I had always wanted to do, but never had the courage to try, for fear of the catastrophe that was sure to follow. “Can you teach me how?”
Five minutes later I was in Betsy’s bathroom, my summer landlord combing brown dye from Sally’s Beauty Supplies through my wavy hair. Betsy completed her masterpiece by wrapping my head in a plastic bag from Hannaford’s.
Forty minutes later I was in possession not only of chestnut-colored tresses, but eighty dollars a month saved on salon appointments. On a teacher’s salary, those savings could merit one word only. “Hallelujah!”
A door had swung open. Over the next two weeks, Betsy and I discovered all kinds of shared passions. We both loved exercise and swam across Biscay Pond together, with Don in a canoe to keep us safe. We both liked health food and exchanged recipes. She loved my soba noodles with peanut sauce; I went crazy for her tofu curry stir fry. On her porch over afternoon wine, our talks deepened. She grew up with a strict father, unbending in his beliefs, who refused to consider his daughter’s feelings; mine disappeared into a second marriage. Our scarred hearts understood each other. We each had raised two children with the zeal of unconditional love. Our maternal hearts beat as one. As empty nesters, we had reaped the fruits of the families that we had sown. I came to know her devoted children; she came to know mine.
Don added to these bridges in alternating bursts of instruction and kindness. When I asked about his service during the Vietnam War and the business he built as a commercial electrician, I began to see how his life—pulling himself up by his bootstraps, decisively, uncomplainingly—informed his political convictions. No government supplement, he explained, could substitute for the discipline of one’s own hard work. From this self-made man, that perspective made all the sense in the world. When Don learned that I was spending summer hours trying to improve my financial literacy, he walked me through stock market basics and retirement funds. Copies of Kiplinger magazine were left on my doorstep.
In their home, I observed values of gratitude passed from grandparents, to children, to grandchildren. Large and small hands linked at family dinners to recite, “God is Grace, God is Good, and we thank him for our food. Heavenly Father, use this food to nourish and strengthen our bodies.” I wasn’t raised with this tradition, but I loved to join them in it, a partner in gratitude. Joining their family circle in prayer, I called to attention those without nourishment—including my great-grandparents who starved in German concentration camps—and gave thanks for my good fortune, historically and presently.
“It was meant to be,” says Betsy looking upward, about the ten years it took me to leave my job in Washington, D.C., and move to Damariscotta, which I did last summer.
Would I have moved to mid-Coast without my first best friends? I doubt it. Knowing that we had everything in common at life’s core—respect for human life, regardless of colors and creeds, devotion to family, love of nature, appreciation of life’s simple pleasures—gave me confidence. I wouldn’t be alone.
For this reason, I am weary of partisan politics: the verbal darts thrown between red and blue voters, the religious and secular, the “woke” and those they deem to be sleeping through their awakening. When public discussions of race, gender, class, and sexuality assume the dyadic form of “if you’re not with me, you’re against me,” I want to turn off the news and take a walk in the nearest meadow.
Because I know these categories divide, at great human cost. My first best friends in Maine and I don’t share demographic markers, but years of sharing life experiences have revealed that we share something else just as, if not more, potent: the moral and emotional terrain of the heart.
On Biscay Pond, I learned firsthand how woefully narrow are our nation’s identity checklists. Respect for human life, hearts filled with goodness, souls committed to healing a broken world; these virtues surpass sectarianism. But I’ve been a teacher of American literature my whole life, and, admittedly, that’s my creed. Along with the loons at night, I hear Atticus Finch explaining to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”