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Christmas 1968

By Victor Stanley

Arriving Down East was like going back in time 13 years.

[cs_drop_cap letter=”T” color=”#000000″ size=”5em” ]he story of my childhood reads like the beginning of a Steinbeck novel, but it’s all true. Times were tough in the mid-1950s in Down East Maine. Jobs were scarce, and people were desperate. My parents came down with California Fever, lured by the promise of work at a new Westinghouse manufacturing plant near San Jose. So, in the summer of 1955, they canned as much mackerel as they could into quart-size Ball jars, packed all of their worldly possessions into an old pickup, and headed west with their three sons, my aunt and uncle and their two boys, and the family dog, Rowser. I was 10 months old.

At first, California lived up to its promise. My family prospered and multiplied. Eventually, there would be nine children, eight boys and one girl, in the Stanley brood. My father went to night school and became a journeyman electrician. Our house, in a rapidly growing suburb of San Jose, was almost identical to every other on the street: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully applianced kitchen, an attached garage. Every house was full of kids, and the local schools were bursting at the seams.

In 1957, my mother became a Christian at a Billy Graham Crusade at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and her family lived out her commitment. Every week, we dressed in our Sunday best for church and Sunday school. Christmas took on a new significance in our household, with my parents celebrating not only their newfound faith but also their liberation from childhood poverty. Weeks before, my mother would shop for all the children in our extended family back in Maine. She filled huge boxes with toys and shipped them east. At our house, Christmas morning was an exercise in overindulgence. All those children, so much food, and presents filling the room, flowing out from under a tree — a postcard picture of success and happiness in post-war America.

The money my parents brought back was spent quickly, and before long, we were digging clams in Frenchman Bay. The price was $6 a bushel.

Then, in the summer of 1968, everything changed. Back in Maine, my mother’s father was diagnosed with cancer and given a couple of years to live. My father, feeling increasingly threatened by images of Haight-Ashbury on the evening news, decided to move his family back to Maine, where we would be safe from his fears of the California counterculture. My mother, my five younger siblings, and I boarded a plane for Bangor on July 2. My father and two older brothers — again, with the dog and all of our possessions — headed east in a moving truck.

Hours into their trip, they determined the truck was carrying too much weight to make it over the Sierra Nevadas. My father pulled over at a roadside dump and unloaded anything he deemed inessential: toys, bicycles, books, bureaus, the living room and dining room furniture, the dishes. They kept the electric range, the automatic washer and dryer, a large chest freezer, a few beds, and some clothing and incidentals they thought most necessary for our new life in Maine. My father didn’t tell my mother about the dump until after he and my brothers had arrived safely in Gouldsboro, and I’ll never forget how she wept silently at the absence of all her California treasures.

Arriving Down East was like going back in time 13 years, to when my family had left. We stayed, mostly, with my father’s father. There were still no jobs. Without his Maine master’s license, my father couldn’t do electrical work. The money my parents brought back was spent quickly, and before long, we were digging clams in Frenchman Bay. The price was $6 a bushel, and we could double our money if we shucked them. My family settled into a pattern of digging the tide, then heading to the processing shop to shuck well into the night.

Once school started, my father would pick us up in the moving truck to take us either digging or shucking once we got out. My siblings and I would climb into the back, my father would close the door, and we’d ride in darkness to our destination. It became a game to guess where we were. There was a gentle turn off Route 1, by the old town hall, then some bumps in front of Georgie Potter’s place, then a sharp corner up the road that we all had to hang on for. I remember the truck door opening one day in October and all of us jumping out to find the year’s first snow, then rushing into a warm church basement for the community Halloween party.

When it was time to pray, I asked for help. I didn’t say anything to anyone, but I was frightened by the possibility of having nothing on Christmas Day.

As the winter came on, we were still technically homeless. An old friend of my mother’s offered to let us buy his rundown farm, and Bar Harbor Bank and Trust took a big risk loaning us $4,500 to make the purchase. It was early November when we moved in. The house was uninsulated, and wood was our only heat source. We cut birch trees and dragged them to the barn, then cut them into stove lengths and piled them behind the stove to dry. The house’s wiring wasn’t adequate to operate the electric range we’d brought from California, so a neighbor gave us a Clarion wood-fired cookstove. Without plumbing, the automatic washer was useless, and the toilet was out by the barn. We carried water in from the well by the bucket, and we bathed in a 10-gallon galvanized tub, filling it with water we heated on the stove. The freezer worked, but we had nothing to put in it. Most of the clothing we’d brought from California was of little use in the encroaching Maine winter.

When Thanksgiving Sunday came, I did what I’d always done in California: I went to the cupboard and took out a couple of cans for the community food baskets at church. That afternoon, some hours after the service, the minister, Celia Piper, came to our door carrying a basket. It hit me then with a force that still shakes me to remember it: we were poor. And not only were we poor, we were the town poor in a very poor town.

My father shot a deer, and so we had roasted venison on Thanksgiving, along with the contents of the food baskets. Our bellies were full, and we were grateful to be together.

A few weeks later, I was waiting for Ms. Piper to pick me up and bring me to Sunday school when my mother pulled me aside to talk. “While you are in church this morning, say a prayer for us,” she told me.

Long underwear may not sound like much of a gift, but clamming without it was bitter, and we were warmer when winter came on strong.

“Christmas is coming, and we don’t have anything. No presents, no Christmas goodies, nothing for Christmas dinner. We need God’s help.” When it was time to pray, I asked for it. I didn’t say anything to anyone, but I was frightened by the possibility of having nothing on Christmas Day.

Later that week, I got off the school bus and walked into the kitchen. My mother grabbed me and gave me a big hug. “Your prayers were answered,” she proclaimed, waving a white envelope over her head. “The Maine Seacoast Mission sent us $50 for Christmas!”

My mother stretched that $50 as far as it would go. She bought a turkey with all the trimmings, toys for the younger kids, and long underwear for us older boys. Long underwear may not sound like much of a gift, but clamming without it was bitter, and we were warmer when that winter came on strong.

On Christmas Eve, we all climbed into the truck and went to church for the pageant and party. It seemed like everyone in town was there, and each of us, young and old, received a present wrapped in white paper and tied with red string. Once again, the gifts were from the Maine Seacoast Mission. I tore my package open to reveal a pair of hand-knit mittens and a box of hard candies. Warm hands and sugary candy. I was merry.

Fifty years have passed since my first Christmas back in Maine. Scholarships from the Maine Seacoast Mission made it possible for me to go to college and seminary, and I have now been serving Maine churches for more than 40 years. I have children and grandchildren who indulge me and listen attentively to stories like this one. Life has been good to me.

The Maine Seacoast Mission still puts checks in the mail to help families through long and cold Maine winters. It still provides scholarships for thousands of hard-working students and has expanded its ministry with after-school programs and medical care. And every year, “elves” gather at the Mission’s headquarters to wrap hundreds of presents in white paper, write names on them, and then tie them with red string.