The Making of a Maine Coffin
Cory Coffin grew up in Maine. She was born in Maine, she went to school at the University of Maine at Orono, she graduated from UMaine with a degree in history, she married Henry in Maine, she gave birth to Meg in Maine. Now she lives in Maine, pouring drinks and changing the sheets every month at The Larboard. She has already chosen the little plot in the cemetery where she and Henry will spend the rest of eternity in Maine. Presumably, at some distant point in the future, the American Empire will crumble and the entire country will be taken over by Sweden or Peru or something, but in her heart she will always be in Maine.
I was sitting at The Larboard bar, killing some time by drinking beer and not reading a good book that I brought along for the occasion. Cory was the only other person in the room, so we struck up a conversation. Now, conversations with most people involve some back-and-forth, some fluid stream of words that washes gently between them like the tide. But chatting with Cory is kind of like striking up a conversation with the Beefeaters at Buckingham Palace. It takes a lot of effort to get the chit-chat flowing.
But after I bought Cory a couple of her own beers, she finally relaxed enough to tell me some of her story.
Born, raised, Maine, yada yada. Her father was — wait for it — a fisherman! Her mother was a fisherman’s wife. Cory’s eyes grew cold when she talked about her mother, Martha Chandler.
“Toughest woman I’ve ever met,” she said. “There’s none tougher than a fisherman’s wife. Women today, working as presidents of massive corporations? Hah! They’re fuzzy little kittens next to a fisherman’s wife.”
Her mother would get up at three o’clock each morning to make breakfast and pack a lunch for John, her father. Breakfast was some gargantuan combination of pancakes, potatoes, and various slabs of fried meats. Lunch never varied: ham and cheese on wheat bread with mustard, some carrots, an apple, and a jug of water. They were married for forty-five years before he died, and every single day of it he worked the sea. For lunch every single one of those days, he ate the exact same thing. Most guys would have wanted some tuna or celery or something every now and then, but not John Chandler. He liked predictability in his life. Predictability lets you handle the terrifying more easily.
After breakfast, John would hove off into the darkness. Most of the time, he worked his fishing boat along the green coastal waters of Maine. Sometimes, he’d spend the day in his boathouse, repairing gear and fishing off the dock. In the dead of winter, he’d build a small hut on the ocean ice and fish through a hole. Cory didn’t know what he thought about during all those long and lonely hours, but somehow I doubt his fantasies involved ham on wheat.
While John was fishing, Martha would scrub the house from attic to cellar, mend and sew and darn things, go to the market for a fresh bit of milk or something, and put together another gargantuan meal that would simmer and wait for John’s return.
Sometime after sundown, John would stomp through the door, his head low and his eyes red from fatigue. Martha would feed him and fetch him a beer or two, and then she’d go upstairs with him to their cold bed in their frigid bedroom. The two of them would be asleep under the blankets before their feet got warm.
John’s haul from the sea made a decent but not spectacular life for Martha and Cory. Cory went to the local elementary school, where she learned basic things from basic teachers. She played with the same three friends all the time — Betsy, Meg, and Kathleen — and they all went off to UMaine together. They studied history together, gossiped together, graduated together, and served as each other’s bridesmaids when, within the span of eighteen months, all four got married. Within a year, all four were proud young mothers; the babies’ names were Meg (Cory’s daughter), Kathleen (Betsy’s girl), Betsy (Meg’s daughter), and Cory (Kathleen’s son). Then the young men they had married each scraped together the cash and the gumption to get their own fishing boats, instead of serving as crew on someone else’s, and the four Mouseketeers were dragged with their babies to new towns where the fishing was good and the locals were suspicious of newcomers. It took months before Cory felt at home in GSI, even though half the island was peopled with Henry’s relatives. He was welcomed as a prodigal son. She was tolerated as his wife.
By keeping her mouth mostly shut and her hands mostly busy, Cory was able to launch The Larboard and slowly soften the spines of her neighbors. She now counts those stout women and lanky men as her family and her blood, and she’d lay down her life for them if she had to.
The big turnabout for Cory came when Henry decided to run for mayor. Suddenly, she was the potential First Lady of Grand Seal Island, which was a notably higher station than barmaid and innkeeper. With status came respect, and with respect came control. Cory used her toughness, her temper, her canny understanding of people, and her tight pinching of money to build much of the current Coffin empire.
And during it all, Meg was growing up. As a little girl, Meg was free to wander the streets of GSI, playing with the other kids. A little older, she was allowed to play on the rocky beaches, collecting shells and crabs. She spent a lot of time alone on those beaches — her female friends found them too slimy with moss and too smelly from low tide — but Meg was different from all of them anyway.
“She was special the day she was born,” Cory declared, apparently certain that no other mother felt that way about her kids. “She grew up in a special way, thinking and wandering, getting to know herself and the world. And now she’s a fine young woman, wouldn’t you say?”
I would, but not to her mother. Besides, putting Meg next to Eliza is like putting a candle next to the Sun. I mean, there are fine young women, and then there are fine young women. I chose to nod intelligently and keep my teeth clamped firmly on my tongue.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — Gemstone: Cory sounds like a remarkable and very special woman. That’s what small towns are all about — extraordinary people leading ordinary lives. I’m glad you told us about her.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.