A Town Without City

Lisa by the barbecue and stone wall behind the Chelsea house.

John Clark returning to wrap up our 27 years in Chelsea. First off, one thing that struck Beth and I when we moved to Hartland was the immediate sense of community. Yes, it was a hardscrabble town with plenty of problems, but people tended to come together and more importantly, they knew what they weren’t.

Chelsea never quite figured that out. There was no town center, half the town had Augusta phone service and mail delivery, the other half got both from Gardiner. The school went as far as eighth grade and then kids had to pick a high school. Our daughters attended Cony, some of their friends went to Gardiner, a few to Hall-Dale and even fewer to Erskine Academy in South China. When the budget got squeezed, high school bus service was eliminated and the dropout rate jumped proportionately. We had some amazing teachers at the local school, notably the art teacher, Sandra Leinonen. She had a lasting impact on both Lisa and Sara. Beth and I were involved as much as our schedules permitted. I served as PTA treasurer while Beth was on the school board for one term. (That cured her of ever doing so again). One of the more rewarding things I did was go in and read to the third graders. Most of them had never seen a man near a book, let alone one actually reading. It was eye-opening to watch things change. The first time, several kids distanced themselves from the group, pretending the activity was uninteresting. By week three, that same group was in the front row and completely involved.

Beth got a Girl Scout troop started and had several years of success. I bet there are former members who still remember some of the trips they went on, including an overnight at the Boston Museum of Science. She also helped in the school library, keeping it open for three summers.

Like any Maine town, there were memorable characters, some good, some not so good and a few that danced along the line of evil. Town meetings brought out all three and like every town meeting I’ve ever attended, there was always an issue that for no apparent reason took three times as long as necessary, there were rude comments tossed back and forth, while the town drunk kept forgetting what article was under consideration and demanded an explanation he’d just gotten three minutes before. I served on the planning board for years, six as chairman, so I knew very well who was likely to blow up over what. Wic Street a Connecticut native with a college degree who was a dairy farmer in town always showed up in manure decorated overalls and brought order and sense, more or less to heated discussions.

Even he and the other level-headed citizens weren’t able to quell the insanity when Squirrely Shirley and a bunch of not terribly bright, but loud townsfolk got it into their heads that the school budget had to be cut with a double bitted ax. That was an eye opener for our daughters. The town meeting had to be postponed twice. The first time it happened because a riot was about to break out. The second time, cops were present, but there wasn’t enough room, so it was moved to the Crystal Falls dance hall. Three armed sheriff’s deputies and one state trooper were present to keep order. Both Sara and Lisa gathered their courage and spoke in support of programs like art and the library, explaining how much they had benefited from them when moving on to high school.

Chelsea had its share of really decent folks. When we moved there, the former owners told us to avoid the grumpy old man across the road. Not knowing any better, I avoided introducing myself. One afternoon, I was under Beth’s VW bug changing the oil, when I heard footsteps and then saw feet standing a short distance away. After putting the drain plug back in place, I slid out and there was the supposedly grumpy man from across the street.

That was my introduction to Sam Morrison who became like a second father as time went on. He’d retired from the VA earlier that year and was bored silly. It took a while to realize that Sam was a man of few words. That turned out just fine. We developed a perfect relationship. I talked, Sam listened. We started going fishing together, first in brooks, then on the ice. One of my favorite moments with him was when he caught a nine pound togue and took first prize at the Sheepscot Lake fishing derby. Another was when I took him to Fenway Park. There was a couple behind us in their twenties on what was obviously a first date. She proceeded to get tipsy and flash the crowd by lifting her shirt. It didn’t take long for the whole bleacher section to start a chant of ‘show us your ****’ and for her to do a repeat performance time and again. I could tell Sam wasn’t sure whether to enjoy the show or feel embarrassed.

Maine’s Porn Czar in front of the new bookcases.

Sam’s wife Edna was a hoot. She’d talk about him at their kitchen table as though he’d died years ago and he’d just grin and remain silent. He let me borrow ladders and gave me shared custody of his rototiller. One of his favorite pastimes was to come over, sit on the stone wall and watch me sift dirt. I always told him I’d eventually find a gold coin, but never did.

Sam died of cancer and I was blessed to be one of his pallbearers. After his death, I made certain to drop over and visit Edna a couple times a week. During the great ice storm, she camped out in our living room because we had a wood stove, gas lights and a gas cookstove. When she had a heart attack, Beth took her to the hospital and stayed until her son arrived. Sadly she died the next day.

After Sara and Lisa were in college and Beth had returned to get her PhD. She took a job at the University of Maine in Orono teaching nursing. I changed jobs too, going from the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library to the Maine State Library. I shortened my daily round trip from 70 miles to ten while she increased hers from twelve to 180. It wasn’t long before we realized that wasn’t a healthy situation, so we put our home on the market. We had built an addition with a poured foundation in the interim. It had a second bathroom with shower, a big family room with one wall all cupboards and bookcases (It took less than a year to completely fill both), a place for the washer and dryer that had been in our kitchen and a computer room off our bedroom with skylights. That, coupled with a big garden and twin grape arbors, made the place much more attractive than it had been when we moved in. It sold before we really found a place that was to our liking, price range and split the commute.

Lisa the Chelsea Eagle cheerleader in our new family room.

My final memory of Chelsea consists of the frantic realization that we were closing that day and still had a bunch of stuff that needed to be removed from the house. Fortunately we were able to stash some of it in Sam’s garage, thanks to the kindness of his son Maynard. The rest was piled on the lawn behind the house until I could make another couple of trips from Hartland to Chelsea.

I’ve only been back a few times since we left. There are more businesses, more winding roads to small subdivisions and a new and much bigger school. No matter. Our new place in Hartland felt more like home in a week than the one in Chelsea did after 27 years.

Do you have vivid memories of a former residence?

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1 Response to A Town Without City

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Wonderful essay, John. Chelsea was lucky to have you and Beth.

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