transcribed by Patricia Thigpen
Coastal Journal contributor
Nat, as friends call her, can exhaust the Energizer Bunny. The 98-year-old retired English and French teacher and choral director lives each day with hope in her heart, faith in her life, a full calendar, a mischievous smile, a warm laugh, and wicked good martinis she’ll readily share.
I grew up in a town of about 1,000 in southern Minnesota, like Lake Wobegon. There were six girls in my high school. I played piano for the school and Glee Club and organ in church. I was the valedictorian, and decided to go to the University of Minnesota about a week before college started. In 1930, you didn’t sign up and take SATs in advance as you do now.
I was 16. My dad said, “Okay.” The Depression hadn’t hit here yet, and he had enough money for my first year. I concentrated on church choral music. The Depression was bad when I graduated in 1934. Our advisor said, “I don’t want to teach you to lie, but if you say you can’t teach something, you won’t get a job.” I taught subjects I never had in high school, but you could keep ahead of the kids if you studied hard. I worked like a son of a gun and made $87.50 a month.
I taught high school for 30 years, seven in Minnesota. I played for three choirs when I lived in Carlton, Minn., a little town outside Duluth. Back then, you were a servant of the public. When the superintendent learned I typed and took shorthand, he thought it would be nice if I did his correspondence at no extra pay. The town paid my salary, which included playing for the church and having the choirs. I never got paid for playing the organ in church until I moved to Maine, and then I only got $5. I never made more than $10,000 a year, so it’s interesting when public servants talk about pension cuts today. I barely had a pension to cut.
One choir met in Cloquet, a nearby town. I’d get a ride every Wednesday, and the organist would take me home. That’s how I met my husband Bill. One night, the organist had car trouble and said she couldn’t take me home, but Bill would. I thought it was nervy, because I didn’t know him, but I couldn’t be choosy. We were driving home when he asked if I wanted to eat. Minnesota had roadhouses, similar to diners, where you could get a nice meal, put a quarter in the juke box, and dance. I said “yes” when Bill asked if I’d like to dance. That was the start of it. We hit it off, finished the night dancing, and danced our whole life together.
Bill lived in New Hampshire and worked for a paper mill that sent him to Minnesota. He was good-looking, had a lovely tenor voice, sang in the choir, and was very smart. Bill gave up his appointment to Annapolis. His parents were in their 80s, and his two maiden sisters weren’t in the position to help them very much. It was up to Bill to stay home, work and care for them. He gave it up for his parents, like a true gentleman.
We married June 15, 1941. The school wouldn’t release me from my contract when Bill was transferred to Rumford, Maine, so he came back to find a house for us. We drove back with all of our belongings, which weren’t much. We lived in Dixfield. The only place Bill could find was a cottage at the lake. It had no electricity. There was no radio, only an old windup phonograph. The only water was a pump in the kitchen. Bill’s co-workers left a big bag of groceries on the table in the cottage, to help us get started. We ate by candlelight. I didn’t learn to cook until I married. And I couldn’t cook until I learned to build a fire in the little stove.
Mrs. Irish, who lived on the main road, taught me a lot about cooking. There was a grocery store across the lake that carried fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. A boat came with the cottage. I’d row over in the afternoon to shop, so I was able to have a decent menu. One day, I told Bill that I had rowed over and back and wasn’t tired. He looked at me funny, and said, “Did you turn the boat around? Did you come back the same way you came in, or did you turn it around so you pointed the bow where you were going?” I said I didn’t turn it around, just climbed in, turned myself around, and rowed back. The men laughed, picturing me rowing across that lake with the flat end of the boat forward. I didn’t know anything about boats. Minnesota may be the land of 10,000 lakes, but we lived about 50 miles from any lake.
I loved teaching. For five years during the 1960s, I chaperoned high school students from Dixfield to various European countries as part of the American Ambassador Program, a great program for high school students to promote peace in the world by understanding other cultures. It was a wonderful experience for all of us. So many of our students had never been to Portland or ridden a train.
Bill and I traveled to every state except Alaska, to Canada and Europe. But we also came over to the ocean and rented a cottage for vacations, even when our kids were small. We found this house by accident. We bought it in 1963, coming down weekends and vacations to work on it. I retired in 1973. We moved in 1975, and Bill died in 1978. It was a very special place for us. We made many friends. I joined numerous clubs. We loved this area and the people. We’d have drinks at 5 p.m. Bill chose our drinks, because I had no experience drinking. I attended college during Prohibition, and saw how disgustingly drunk some college girls got the night Prohibition was repealed. I vowed that if I ever did drink, I’d be a lady. An Old Fashion was the first drink Bill gave me. It was too sweet. We switched to martinis – vodka with a twist for me. I never had more than two drinks at a time. One’s enough now.
People tell me I’m an inspiration. I have to work hard at it. I try to keep mentally and physically active. I’ve outlived most everyone in my past, but I don’t dwell on that. My sister lives in Minnesota so I don’t see her as often as I’d like, or my daughter because her husband still works. They live in New Hampshire, and I drive to their house or to Portland where we meet for lunch. I still drive. I completed the AARP safety courses. There haven’t been any problems.
I’m not lonely, but I get lonesome. I adore my two grandsons and five great-grandsons. The three youngest, ages 8, 6, and 4, come every summer. I have numerous nieces, nephews and their children. We communicate the old fashioned way: Writing and phone calls. I don’t have a computer, and just donated the email machine my oldest grandson gave me for my 90th birthday. It took too long, was outdated, and I never had the time.
My new, younger friends keep me young. It’s rare that I don’t have anything scheduled: There’s Bible study, church activities, Willing Workers, volunteering at the hospital, playing bridge, baking, knitting, working crossword puzzles, ringing the Salvation Army bell at Christmas. I’m a voracious reader, particularly magazines and poetry. I attend the opera at Lincoln Theater and love basketball. Bill and I both played. I was a running center – here’s my NCAA bracket. I clean my house, shovel the snow from my walk with a broom, and tend to my flower boxes, though someone plants them now.
The dearest activity was starting an adult chorus. I always wanted one so I could share some of the better music that was composed. After Bill died, I decided to do it. I advertised in the paper for “Vivaldi’s Gloria Anybody?” and gave all the information. People came from everywhere. It was fantastic. For 15 years I had that chorus, which I called the Occasional Chorus, because we sang only before Christmas. It was my gift to the community. No tickets were sold; the chorus didn’t pay anything; it wasn’t intended as a money-maker. I loved my chorus, and couldn’t have done it without Sean Fleming, my accompanist the entire time. I was 90 when I gave the last concert. I still had pep and ideas, but decided to quit while I was ahead. I wept, but then I sang with the Lincoln Festival of Arts Chorus and the Sheepscot Chorus. Incredible people. When I lost my voice, the doctor said I couldn’t sing anymore. I’m glad the doctor diagnosed that. I didn’t want the choruses to think I quit because I was lazy.
Many times I’d like to stay home, but I get up, say my devotions, and go wherever I have to that day. When I don’t have anything planned, I’ll read the paper, magazines, solve crosswords. Right now, I’m interested in politics. I read everything there is about a candidate, the issues, and then I decide. I’m really an Independent, but you can’t vote in Maine unless you’re registered with a party. I never voted a straight ticket in my life and don’t intend to. Sadly, our world’s becoming more impolite. Too many people and politicians are just interested in “me, me, me.” It’s inexcusable. You can disagree, but be respectful.
There are things I want to do. Perhaps I’ll visit Alaska. God must have a plan for me, because I’m still here, active and interested in life and the wonderful people around me. I don’t plan to leave here until God calls.