Since yesterday was the 4th of July, and the 44th anniversary of the dastardly deed that started the creation of my late mother’s world famous icon, it’s a good time to share how it came about. I was home from college, between my junior and senior years at Arizona State University. It was the year I pretty much had a major melt-down. Various reasons contributed to that being the worst year of my life; family friction, increasing substance abuse, serious anger over the war in Vietnam and who knows what else.
Anyhow, the night of the fourth found me completely hammered, standing in my skivvies on the front steps with my pump action 22 rifle. For reasons that completely escape me now, it seemed like a great idea to air condition the family mailbox some 20 times. It was one of those old giant economy sized suckers, made to withstand angry mail carriers, snow plows and drunken riflemen. When I sobered up the next morning, nobody was particularly happy with me and I tried to fix as much of the damage with melted plastic as I could. The ugly green, poorly restored behemoth sat for many years after that incident, almost waterproof, accepting mail uncomplainingly.
Mom got sober in 1979. I got sober in 1980. She always credited the people at Choice Skyward in Owls Head for helping to save her life. After her recovery began, she decided it might be a good idea to get the mailbox fixed properly, so she carted it down Sunkhaze Lane so Merv Merrill, the misogynistic, curmudgeonly blacksmith could repair and repaint it. Merv was a classic Mainer. He could fix damn near anything and would if he decided he liked you. If he decided he didn’t, whatever you brought could sit in his shop until judgment day and he’d take great delight in blowing you off.
Shortly after Mom deposited the mailbox in his driveway, the annual town meeting took place. Choice Skyward was one of the nonprofit agencies requesting money from the town. Well, good old Merv got up and proceeded to badmouth their request, saying something to the effect that women didn’t any fancy-fangled treatment, they just needed to stay home and obey their husbands and any alcohol foolishness wouldn’t be an issue. Bad move.
Sobriety gave Mom a couple very useful tools. It helped her focus her anger in constructive ways. It also made her one heck of a public speaker. After Merv sat down, she walked up front and told her story, starting with her addiction, where it took her and what it had done, then talked about how Choice Skyward had saved her life. The voters overwhelmingly approved their request.
Merv had already agreed to fix the mailbox, but decided he’d show that uppity woman from Sennebec Road a thing or two. He sealed all the holes, put the mailbox on a metal pole welded to an old tire rim from a junker and painted it lobster buoy orange. One morning he pulled into her driveway, set it in place by the road, handed her the bill and left without saying a word.
Mom, having a pretty good sense of humor, ran with the idea and started writing a weekly newspaper column for the Camden Herald called “From the Orange Mailbox: Notes from a few country acres.” It was an instant hit and in 1985, Mom teamed with illustrator George Schaab to create a compilation of the best columns which was published by Harpswell Press. It won two national literary awards and was picked up by a book club. She continued writing the column until just before she had her second stroke. One of my enduring memories is the evening after she had her first one. Kate and I were sitting in her hospital room. Mom couldn’t speak, but Kate had her laptop and among us we were able to write a column about what had just happened to her and how she felt. We’d brainstorm a sentence or two, read it back to her and she’d nod vigorously when we got it right. It was one deadline that didn’t get missed.
I repainted the mailbox several times, always restoring its gaudy lobster sheen. It became a marking point for people looking for her, and she had fans from all over the world who stopped by. If they inquired at any of the stores on the Union Common, they always got the same response. “Head up the east side of Sennebec Pond until you come to a big orange mailbox. You can’t miss it.” The new owners have maintained it faithfully, so if you’re headed up East Sennebec Road, you still can’t miss it.