Although I’ve lived in Maine for almost half my life, I have come to accept I’ll never be considered a true Mainer.
I can eat whoopie pies and pay my dues, but gold membership in the Way Life Should Be Club eludes me. It also eludes my daughters, even though the youngest arrived here at 9 months old.
But rules are rules and the homegrown, old guard is tough to crack.
Degrees of Mainer-ness are not exactly subtle and there’s a hierarchy in the pecking order that determines one’s level of authenticity. Beloved North Deering-grown comedian Bob Marley has probably performed whole shows on that (and if he hasn’t, he should).
My introduction to Mainer-ness was through the girls’ father. A multi-generational Maine boy, he grew up in the Waterville area like his father and grandfather. Their family owned a paper mill and still has property on Snow Pond in Oakland, complete with lake houses and cabins where we saw many lobster bakes and bean suppers.
I was charmed and intrigued by his true sense of belonging to the land, and like him, learned to let out a huge sigh of relief when crossing the Piscataqua River bridge heading north.
Obviously, things didn’t work out between us (as my mother, The Betty, assured me they wouldn’t) but I’ll be forever grateful to him for his role in the girls’ existence and for bringing us to Maine.
Wishing they ran a close second are the people who sheepishly say where they’re really from but are quick to add they went to summer camp or vacationed with their families in Maine. To this day, they have out-of-state license plates while insisting they’re locals.
“Yeah, I went to Camp Wawenock on Sebago for a bunch of years and then became a counselor. I’m from Haverhill, Massachusetts, but let’s face it, I practically grew up here.” Or, “We summered every year on Vinalhaven and I even worked at the lobster shanty. I’m from New Jersey, but Maine has always been like home.”
The difference is simple. No matter how long you’ve been here or how many years you visited in the summer, you’ll never really be a Mainer. If you weren’t born here, you’re From Away. Period. If you were born here and have the family legacy of a hunting cabin up north with cousins in The County, you’re the queen hen. All other Maine-born scenarios fall somewhere in between.
BFF and her husband (My Hunter S. Thompson-style Attorney) are first-class Mainers. They both grew up in Bangor, went away to high school and college, and eventually came back to Maine to live, work, and start their family. Grandparents and other relatives live within driving distance and have places to play on Willard Beach and Long Lake in Naples.
Rebecca, 24, is their second child and my mini-BFF in training. Following in her parents’ footsteps, she’s on the fast-track route back to Maine. Currently in Maryland earning her master’s degree in audiology, she fought for a summer internship at home instead of in the D.C. area and successfully landed one in Windham. So, instead of working as a server at the Black Point Inn like summers past, she interned with hearing-impaired adults and children.
“Oh, I’ll definitely come back to live in Maine once I’m done with school,” Rebecca told me over muddled mojitos (the child is multi-talented). “Maybe because I’ve traveled and have been to a lot of places, I’m lucky enough to have already figured it out. Really, Maine is just where I’m happiest. My family is here. I grew up here. And no matter where I go, I can’t wait to get back here. Yeah, it’s just where I’m the happiest.”
State and local agencies developing incentives to keep college graduates here in Maine, and headhunters who are looking for technical and entry-level professional workers, will say Rebecca is an anomaly and brain drain is the bigger reality to contend with.
But really both cases are true. My own daughters have no desire to live in Maine but look forward to vacationing here with a local’s perspective. And, after the last few years, there are surely other Rebeccas who will make their way back to roost.
Having made peace with the fact that I’m From Away, I’m happy to pay my dues to be here. Maine is the finest place I’ve ever lived and when people tell me I have an accent and ask if I’m from New York, or maybe Boston, I just smile and shake my head no. I have Maine license plates, a true homegirl BFF, and like Rebecca, I know where I’m happiest.
With whoopie pies as the official state dessert, how could I not be?
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 [email protected].