Somewhere North of Me

Remembering my father’s stories — and his fondness for potatoes.

By Jane Brox
Illustration by Sue Smith

My bookishness was a mystery to my father, whose own education had been guided by the practicalities of farm life in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts. During the 1930s, he attended a land grant college, the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, with the aim of bringing his immigrant family farm into the modern world. His handwritten notes outlining the causes and cures of bovine diseases and the seeding of small grains survive him. When, in the 1970s, I began to think about applying to college, he kept mostly silent. I think he just didn’t know how to help. But one day, when he saw me curled up reading in the living room, he simply said, “I’ll pay for the best college you can get into.”

I’m not sure he knew what to make of my choice of Colby — its apartness up on the hill, all the red brick Georgian architecture, the library with its clock tower at the center of it all — or my own intention to study Chaucer, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot. But he never lost his enthusiasm for the three-hour drives up to Waterville. He grew far more animated than either my mother or I as we headed east and then north in the Chrysler and our worn old valley hills smoothed into the coastal plain.

When the highway grew quieter somewhere beyond the Piscataqua River, my father began to tell his stories about Maine. A few were about his hunting trips. The one about a moose ended with him confessing, “I felt bad.  It just stood there. It was like killing a cow.” But the story he most often told was about hauling potatoes out of Maine.  He was just out of agriculture school, and every now and again would drive somewhere considerably north of Waterville and return to the farm with a load of potatoes to sell to the corner markets in the nearby mill cities of Lawrence and Lowell. He must have driven a battered old truck over rough 1930s roads for most of the way. He must have begun and ended the trip in the dark. But the extra money, small as it was, took some of the edge off his family’s hard times.

However long and arduous the journey might have been then, he delighted in remembering it, and he always took his time when it came to recounting how the family would insist he stay for dinner: a plateful of boiled potatoes served with warm bacon fat. If it was more meager fare than what he was used to, I also think he was impressed by the generosity of people whose times were even harder than his own.

Back then I just took it for another one of his stories, consumed as I was with my own fraught journey into the future. I suppose the long hours for a few dollars seemed incomprehensible to me; his ceaselessly practical life assured that I was raised comfortably. But more than thirty years later, and fifteen after his death, his story still comes to the surface. Like anything written in his hand, including those notes on bovine diseases, I find it impossible to discard. What’s more, it has taken on greater meaning. It even stirs me to new thoughts — of how the potato-hauling story is the only one I ever remember him telling about the 1930s. Those times left him forever disparaging lentils as Depression food, but, somehow, he never lost his fondness for potatoes.

Now that I’ve settled back in Maine, I imagine that if my father were still alive, he would like the ride up to visit me, even if it’s only as far north as a quiet side street in the heart of Brunswick, within earshot of church bells and ice cream trucks. And though Maine, eighty years further into the future, is surely less wild than the place he remembered, I imagine his Maine still survives somewhere north of me. Even the thought of it adds another dimension to my own idea of the state.

I’m not sure why that particular story has such a hold on me, whether it’s the story itself or the fact that my father is no longer here and the world he inhabited has almost vanished. I’m certain only that, had I gone to a school somewhere south of our farm, the story — and a good part of the way I imagine Maine — would likely be buried with him.

Jane Brox’s most recent book is 
Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. She is the author of three other books: Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm, Five Thousand Days Like This One, and Here and Nowhere Else. She lives in Brunswick, Maine.