Leftovers: What a difference a year makes

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There’s not a New Englander of sound mind who thinks going to Florida in late August is a good idea.

COVID-19 aside, catching those last warm sunny days before the leaves fully turn color is miraculous. Right Now is the time I wish I could bottle up Maine, and share it with friends and family From Away.

Knowing that’s not possible, I avoid making too-ambitious plans (hoping to maximize the moment) before our inevitable winter hits. Unsure what to label it, this tween-season reaffirms my belief that Maine is the finest place I’ve ever lived.

So not much can pull me away from early-September twilight at Willard Beach. Dogs of all shapes and mixed-breeds run free, and an oversized ratty Patriots sweatshirt is enough to keep me warm. 

But, pulled away I was, and not even the rare double-rainbow spotted over Mackworth Island could have kept me from my recent trip to virus-infested Florida. 

A year has come and gone since my mother, The Betty, died and I’m still unwilling to accept the reality. Immersed in sharp, then dull but not fading grief, time has both dragged on and flown by. Yes, it has been a most difficult, if not action-packed, 12 months. 

From Florida last year, I sold my long-time Portland-home known as Mt. Deepwood (think of kids sledding down the driveway) and closed on my new tiny condo. Reluctant to leave The Betty’s side for even one minute, the condo closing was arranged by my Maine mortgage company and took place down South as people were putting up shutters to fend off Hurricane Dorian. Luckily, Dorian changed her path and went out to sea at the last minute, but not before decimating the Bahamas.

During that time, I left a secure corporate job with a knowledgeable and fun boss for an opportunity to be part of something fantastic and new. Now surrounded by true friends who honor my professional dreams, I’ve been given, as The Boss says, “one last chance to make it real.” And, wow, am I trying.

This and too much more happened as my dad (fondly called Nubs) and I planned for the unveiling of The Betty’s headstone. In Jewish culture, the unveiling is the ceremonial event when the headstone, which has been covered for up to a year, is first displayed. There are lovely psalms and prayers for the deceased and for those who will never really stop mourning. 

The most widely known part of this beautiful ceremony is placing small stones on the headstone, signifying the grave was visited with love and respect for the person who died. I asked my daughters, brothers, and family to bring a stone from where they live – Maine, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, California, and Georgia. It was a healing gesture for us all.

After the ceremony, I asked the rabbi for a further, deeper explanation about the stones. Sighing deeply, he said the newest reason is to let potentially antisemitic people know the deceased is visited often, thus making the headstone a poor target for vandalism. Snapped back to 2020 reality, I vowed to visit the Jewish cemeteries in Portland with rocks from the beach and spread them as far and wide as I can. 

The day of The Betty’s unveiling was a typical early September, Florida boilermaker of heat, humidity, and inconvenient rain. Shvitzing in masks already wet with tears, my nephew Sam pointed out that just as the ceremony began, a ring of gray clouds formed around a beam of sunshine bouncing around the headstone. It was as beautiful, dramatic, and memorable as The Betty herself. Not surprised, we all knew she would have it no other way.

Because of COVID-19, The Betty’s unveiling almost didn’t take place. We were torn and I was tortured by the unfolding Millinocket wedding chain of events. We’d physically distance and wear masks, we said. But how on earth was I not going to hug my Number One from California, who I so rarely see? What about the family dinners The Betty’s granddaughters were making in her kitchen? The close sleeping quarters? The car rides?

We all vowed to do our best, with my sister-in-law from Texas holding us accountable with her gentle resolve. We often joked that my brother Michael married a woman who reminded him of The Betty. How lucky for us as we all have grown to love her dearly.

A few weeks later, we’re all glad to be back to our different places. Our trip to The Betty’s unveiling was not without angst for our own safety, and Nubs and I have since tested negative for COVID-19. The rest are waiting for results. 

Thankful for these Maine-tween days, I am confident that with masks, 20-second hand washing, and oversight from that warm sunbeam above, my clan will be safe. 

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at natalie@portlandphoenix.me.