Storm Gathering

By Meadow Rue Merrill
Storm Gathering - My Maine

Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams

I carry a cardboard box with cakes up two flights of stairs to the dance hall perched above Bath’s Front Street. Shipbuilders’ kids once trod these stairs to practice the waltz and fox trot in preparation for dances at nearby Morse High. My own boys climbed them to warble folk songs. Yoga, belly dancing, fiddling, and hula hooping all get taught here, but tonight isn’t a rehearsal.

Behind me tramps my husband, Dana, carrying Ruth, the 23-month-old baby we hope to adopt from an orphanage in Uganda. Ruth arrived in Maine on a temporary visa to receive therapy for the cerebral palsy that bends her arms and legs into twisted crooks. The family who hosted her, friends of ours, introduced us to Ruth the previous August. Dana and I already had three young children. We’d often talked of adopting but couldn’t agree on when or how. Not once had we considered adopting a child with disabilities. But on that August night at our friends’ church, there was Ruth, scrawny and limp and dressed in a shapeless pink onesie that sagged where a round tummy and chubby thighs should have stretched it tight.

The moment Dana held Ruth, she grinned — a lopsided, baby-toothed “Here I am” grin that creased her cheeks and made her dark eyes gleam. Ruth’s head was fringed with a thin scrub of curls. She was stunning, with skin the color of gingerbread, a high, rounded forehead, and a fat little pucker of a nose. Dana wiggled a finger for Ruth to grab. Instead, she wrinkled her nose and let out a deep hee-hee-hee that stiffened her entire body. Her happiness was powerful, and we found ourselves laughing too.

Two months later, we became Ruth’s new host family and started exploring what it would take to adopt. A lot, we discovered. In addition to completing a home study and hiring two lawyers (one in Maine, one in Uganda), we had to take Ruth back to Uganda and go to court. To pay for all this, we would need to raise $15,000.

March in Maine is a good time for a fundraiser: Average temps in the mid-30s and climbing. One more hour of daylight than the black month before. Often cloudy, but less than a 25 percent chance of snow. All of which makes people itchy to eat a slice of home-baked goodness and dance a jig with their neighbors.

And so, all week long, I’ve been baking. Glazed lemon cake. Carrot cake with cream-cheese frosting. Gingerbread. Chunky apple walnut cake. Molasses cookies. Gooey brownies. A couple of weeks prior, I’d rambled from door to door, handing out fliers and asking for donations from the merchants in the shops that line the brick sidewalks of Maine’s smallest city. Rally ’round Ruth, say the words above her grinning photo. Dessert and Family Dance. All proceeds benefit a special-needs adoption.

We’ve sold Christmas ornaments and family heirlooms and cashed in a small retirement fund, but tonight is our main fundraiser. I’ve invited everyone: neighbors, church folk, friends of friends. I’ve posted public announcements in the local paper. We need a good showing. That’s why I’m anxious as I unlock the door at the top of the stairs and slide my box onto a folding table in the cavernous hall. Out the window, fat flakes plunge to the ground. The roads are solid white. The sidewalks are deserted. Forecasters predict the biggest snowstorm of the season — a monster front bearing down on us from the Midwest and intensifying along the coast.

“What if no one comes?” I ask Dana, who’s busy unfolding metal chairs with the help of our sons, Judah and Gabriel.

I’ve never planned a fundraiser before, and I feel foolish. Was I presumptuous to think I could raise all this money without even scheduling a snow date? What would happen to the gifts that were generously donated for the raffle — a basket of old-fashioned sweets, lotions from the beauty salon, children’s books, restaurant gift certificates, a handcrafted cherry keepsake box, and a child’s rocking chair? What about the musicians who’ve volunteered to play? But most of all, I worry about Ruth, wondering what will become of her if we can’t raise this money.

In answer to all my fears, Dana continues about his business with just two words, “They’ll come.”

To keep from staring out the window, I arrange raffle items and desserts on fold-out tables near the door. Our daughter Lydia, just two weeks older than Ruth, twirls across the ballroom like a leaf in the holly-green dress that I’d sewn for Christmas. Ruth, dressed head to toe in berry red, watches from her special foam chair. I pray the snow will stop, but it doesn’t.

Fifteen minutes before the dance, Sharone, who teaches music here, and her piano-playing husband, Doug, tromp up the stairs. Their accordion-, fiddle-, and pennywhistle-playing friends soon follow. Trailing small glaciers of snow, they gather around the piano, blowing hands, coaxing strings. And still the flakes keep falling.

As the minute hand on the clock above the door ticks past 7, when the dance is supposed to start, ours is the only family here. We might as well go home, I think, as 5-year-old Gabriel pushes Ruth around the room in her chair, chasing Lydia like a musher trailing her team. Their happy screams fill the hall while 8-year-old Judah eyes the desserts. I am more miserable by the moment, sure that our best efforts have failed.

Then, the thump of boots sounds on the stairs. A moment later, Ron and Mona — volunteer firefighters from church who live down the long Harpswell peninsula — lumber through the door. Mona unzips her jacket and throws her arms around me. “You should see the roads!”

Mustache hung with icicles, Ron drops a bundle of bills in the basket by the door. Soon, two more church families, the Evanses and Smiths, bustle in with their children, exclaiming, “Weren’t sure we’d make it!” “Where’s Ruth?” and “You sure picked a night!”

Close on their heels follows our pastor and his wife, from Woolwich, then another friend carrying a stunning framed photo of the Paul Revere Bell atop Bath’s City Hall to add to the raffle.

Gritty as snowplows, people push in, having braved slick roads in the deep winter dark from the farthest corners of our community — Topsham, Brunswick, Freeport, Phippsburg. Some Dana and I don’t even recognize. With each arrival, Ruth squeals as if aware each and every one is here for her. Lisa, her speech therapist, scoops her up for the first dance. A bow slides across a string, and a storm is stomped by the feet of many dogged dancers.

The federal government later declares the March 11, 2005, storm a disaster — but we know better.

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Meadow Rue Merrill

Meadow Rue Merrill is a Down East contributing editor.