I was grilling hamburgers for my kids when the sirens went off late last September. The fire department is just up the hill behind my house, so the blare of horns was hard to ignore.

One … two … three alarms.

I went inside and turned on the hand-held scanner.

Four … five …

Departments from Bath, Brunswick, West Bath, Woolwich were responding to a fire on Washington Street across from Bath Iron Works south gate.

“I’ve got to go,” I told my husband, handing him the spatula and grabbing my notebook and phone.

I followed the heralding noise down High Street, heading to the river where Southgate Restaurant was engulfed in flames.

A fire at Southgate Restaurant on Sept. 27 destroyed the interior of the building, leading to the restaurants closing. Almost immediately after, the community rallied in support of the owners. Staff photo by Raye Leonard

Sometimes my husband, a former journalist, joins me when I must go.

It was a brisk and wet November night when we parked at Percy’s Store and walked across the moonless dunes to the Popham Beach pilings.

We had to make sure they were still there.

I got an email at 7:40 p.m. from Pam Sharp out on Kennebec Point in Georgetown that said:

“Are you aware they are removing the pilings on Popham tonight?”

The beacon on Seguin Island blinked its light pattern as we made our way along the beach, hands stuffed in our pockets, camera bouncing on my husband’s shoulder.

We were in our soft clothes swapping quips from our Twitter feeds while my kids did their homework when I got Pam’s first email.

At 7:54 p.m., she replied to my request for more information:

“I see a big crane, lots of spotlights, and a lot of activity.”

“I’ve got to go,” I looked up from my phone and told my husband.

The pilings are just off the beachline of Popham on a shallow shelf in the Kennebec River where they’ve stood for over a century.

Maybe Jack Parker, on whose property the pilings (sort of) belong, decided to pull them out like sore teeth.
I had to go see for myself.

Sometimes my kids are with me. At first, when I started down the road of news and feature writing, at least one of them rode along in a backpack carrier; the other two tumbled ahead of me scouting the terrain of the ground I was to cover.

Fast forward 10 years.

I had to see for myself when I got the report a couple years ago that there was a man waving a gun in Waterfront Park.

My kids were in the backseat of the car. I parked a good distance away and left them there, so I could carefully approach the park from the sheltered BathPort side, seeing what I could see.

My pocket vibrated with their texts.

“Mum get back in the car. Plz. MUM!”

But my kids were not with me when I had to go see about a Second Amendment gun rally in Wiscasset in 2013, where I conducted an interview with a man who wouldn’t drop the muzzle of his AR-15 from my face as he answered my questions.

That it’s my job only partly explains why I do things like this.

Some first responders jump in a fire truck, an ambulance, a police car.

Other first responders – and there are many others like me – respond with the story.

The story of what happened. Of what happens next.

 

What happened next is Southgate was burned to a hollow shell. It reopened this week at 25 Centre Street.

What happened next is my husband and I discovered the lights Pam Sharp saw were from a Coast Guard buoy tender, moored off Bay Point in Georgetown.

Jack Parker was not removing the Popham pilings under cover of darkness on a cold rainy November night.

But a Maine Board of Environmental Protection decision on Dec. 7 denied the Town of Phippsburg’s appeal to keep him from doing it.

Still, the pilings remain. Perhaps for another season of nostalgia and navigational hazards.

What happened next is I got back in my car and my kids admonished me.

“Admonish” is one of those verbs you don’t think people use except in literary narratives.

“YOU’RE OUR MOM,” my middle son said.

“There was no man with a gun,” I told them. “It was a false report.”

“STILL,” they exclaimed (another one of those verbs), almost in unison.

And that gun rally? Nobody came and took their guns like the rally participants said would happen.

Maybe if someone did I wouldn’t have needed to go see for myself as 200 or so Morse students walked out of school to protest gun violence after the Parkland, Florida, murders of 17 kids and staff at the Margory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day.

 

Morse students protest gun violence on March 23. Raye Leonard - Coastal Journal

 

Why do I do it?

Because it’s what I do.

How do I do it?

That’s the question I get most often when people find out I have three boys and two stepchildren, a family, blended no less, with a full-time working partner, too.

There are a million nuts-and-bolts ways to answer that question.

As you know, I like to tell you stories from my own experiences.

I attended the Brunswick Downtown Association’s breakfast speaker series a few weeks ago where Kathleen Fleury, editor-in-chief of Down East Magazine spoke about the future of magazine publishing with her 12-week-old infant strapped to her chest in the kind of get-up reminiscent of the Baby Bjorn I used to use.

“He doesn’t take a bottle,” she explained to the crowd at Brunswick Hotel and Tavern. “And I can’t let him starve.”

She made important and insightful points about downward trends and creative responses – I even took careful notes. In this moment, I cannot tell you what she said without looking at them.

I was captivated by that small head, barely visible under his mother’s chin.

That – THAT – is how.

I didn’t choose between being a mother and having a career. Both happened at the same time. There was no choosing.

Go out on assignment. Boil noodles.

Grill hamburgers. Grab your notebook.

It has always been like this.

It wasn’t until I went to graduate school while 8 months pregnant with my third son that someone admonished me with the old “you can have it all, just not all at once.”

Which do you suggest I put on hold, I wanted to ask. This baby that’s about to be born? Or that packet of personal essays that’s due next week that I worked for months to put together?

She was older. Her kids were in high school or college. She was probably about my age now. She’d done her baby hitch.

She was even more outraged when I showed up at residency three months later with a nursing infant strapped to my chest. She complained to the school’s administration.

I filed the whole thing in my “I Will Never Do That To Another Woman” cabinet of folders overstuffed with minor indignities and major injustices.

Fast forward.

I listened to Kathleen Fleury talk as her baby slept. I was swaddled by her words as surely as he was, remembering to my own time of not choosing.

Afterward, I waited to tell her how amazing – and encouraging – it was to see her with her baby.

After all, as mothers, we are first responders, too.

It’s a firefighter’s job to save buildings, an EMT’s job to save lives. No less is a mother’s job to nurture her children.

Partly, that’s the shelter of a parent’s care and love. But it’s also a parent’s ability to make a living. You can’t make a life without that.

Choice? There is no choice.

“It should be this way,” I gushed, and asked to take Kathleen and her baby’s picture.

Down East Magazine Editor-in-Chief Kathleen Fleury and her 12-week-old baby Reed. Raye Leonard photo

After all, it’s what I do.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.

 

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