Down East 2013 ©
If you should happen to walk the road to the west side of the island, and keep an eye toward the bushes before you get as far as the microwave telephone tower, you might see the zebra. It’s actually fairly difficult to miss.
The students at Matinicus Elementary have been studying regions of the world all year, and somewhere back a couple of months ago while gathering facts about the African continent, some sort of standing joke arose between a few of the kids and our ed-tech about going out looking for zebras. Max, this town’s only first-grader, was especially eager to search the fields and forests of this salty ledge for such wondrous creatures.
Some creative souls conspired to make sure that before the year was out Max, and Robin the tech, got their zebra. Others of this island, unaware of the subtext, may be left scratching their heads at the seemingly random act of art off the side of the road in the puckerbrush. That’s the best part.
On Friday the 28th, the same small handful of Matinicus school kids present a brief observance of Memorial Day on the wharf. The children sing “My Country ‘tis of Thee” and “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and a few others. The names of island veterans, fishermen lost at sea in the area, and ships lost working these waters in the 1800s are read. A handmade, biodegradable star wreath is tossed into the tide. We go down to the wharf at the appointed time to stand around for a few moments of patriotic silence, shifting back and forth on our feet, as the children reconnect with their more serious history. Guys working on lobster traps or unloading lumber will wander over to see what’s going on.
Then, the kids troop up to the island cemetery and place flowers on the graves of the veterans, already marked by new flags. The children find grandparents and more distant ancestors, and find gravestones of people with whom they share a name...Ezekiel Burgess, Max Ames. The kids here love to run around in the cemetery; living right beside it, our own two used to play there more than might have been considered polite by some. The teacher reminds the children that they are supposedly to be observing a serious occasion.
Somebody will have read the name of Chris Whitaker, a young fisherman who was lost overboard while hauling his traps a couple of years ago. Despite an exhaustive search by the entire community, with its many boats, his body was never found. He was not much older than our son is now. Many of us will feel a lump in our throats upon hearing Chris’s name. That, of course, is the point.
I cannot help but think of my own son when I hear Chris’s name, because his mother lives just across the road. I cannot imagine anything worse for a mother to experience. I also think of my son when I hear about anybody doing search-and-rescue, because our boy is an “SAR guy” and an emergency responder, having watched his Matinicus neighbors take on those responsibilities all his life. I am certain that his interest in these things was inspired by his island childhood.
Childhood. Oh, yes, that. As of Thursday this past week, I was no longer the parent of any minor children. Our youngest turned eighteen, over in New Hampshire, amid birthday traditions familiar and unexpected (her Russian teacher pulled the birthday girl’s ear nineteen times, hauling her practically up out of her seat with “one to grow on”). Dorm neighbors piled up candy outside her door. Chemistry lab partners twitted her about going out to buy cigars as she was holding a container of strong sulfuric acid (and thus she could not even wiggle). She called home to let us know that she was having a riotous time.
She was just mad because some dean caught wind of the planned seniors-versus-faculty water-balloon fight and threw a monkey wrench into the whole works. The members of the physics department had been carefully strategizing and were, I am told, disappointed.
I mentioned to a few friends, as we were hanging around on the Sunbeam along the wharf in Matinicus harbor the other night eating ice cream, that I didn’t have any underage children any more. A couple of the other moms reacted as though I should be sad. It was an odd and perhaps a wistful moment, I suppose, when I first actually put it to myself in those words, but I am not sad. I can’t stop thinking about it, though; most peculiar. Some of the other mothers reassured me by saying things like “Oh, they can turn eighteen but they’ll still always need mom.” Actually no, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want them to feel uncertain about their own ability to make decisions or take action or be independent. We raised our kids with specific encouragement to go off and be independent. That, and to hold still with the sulfuric acid while somebody tries to make you laugh. That, and to volunteer for search-and-rescue.
Eva Murray and her husband Paul raised their two children year-round on Matinicus Island.