Fort Kent lies at the northern tip of Maine. This morning’s paper brings more news of the flood there, perhaps the worst since record-keeping began. The combination of melting snow and two days of torrential rain brought the St. John River so far over its banks that much of the town is still under water. Recovery from the flood will be expensive, slow, messy and sad for a lot of people.
My own associations with the town are sad anyway, and they come from long ago. I haven’t been to Fort Kent since 1959, when my aunt Frances died at the age of 47. Frances was my mother’s sister and my favorite aunt, the one who always seemed glad to see me, the one who could always make me laugh.
Whether by choice or not, she never had children of her own. Instead, she charged into the business world in a way few women of her generation did. She paid the price for it and died young from a “Type A personality” heart attack. She and my uncle Carl had 22 years of marriage, and then she was gone.
I was 12 at the time and just beginning to notice adult behavior. We were sitting in the living room after the funeral, and Carl was reading aloud from the condolence cards he had received. One of them contained that James Whitcomb Riley poem with the line “She is not dead – she is just away.”
Carl stumbled through the poem, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why he kept trying to read it aloud. When he reached the end, he put down the card and dissolved into sobs. I had never seen an adult do anything like that. The words of the poem must have been intended to comfort, but they seemed to have the opposite effect.
“It’s a lie,” I thought, ” She is dead, and no matter how long I live I will never see her again.” I also somehow understood that Carl would never stop grieving, and he never did.
Now, nearly 50 years later, I still loathe that poem.