Try, Try Again

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Over the weekend, I celebrated my 46th birthday by trying to run a nighttime marathon, which consisted of eight, roughly 3-mile laps around a lake near Boston. My friend Lisa and I were running it together to try to qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon. When it was clear early on that she wasn’t going to keep up our intended pace, I ran ahead of Lisa. I felt great for the first 11 miles or so. Thoughts of how awesome it was going to be to get my personal best marathon finish time and possibly even qualify for Boston flashed through my mind.

Sharon and Lisa - Around the Lake
(Above: Me and Lisa just before our marathon in Wakefield, Mass. on 7/25/14.)

Somewhere between mile 11 or 12, I lapped our mutual friend Brad and was feeling on top of the world. Shortly thereafter, I started to get stomach cramps and things got progressively worse. The official race timer website reveals that my lap times tanked to 10:00 minutes per mile on the 4th lap, 12:27 minutes per mile on the 5th, 14:38 minutes per mile on the 6th, and 17:59 minutes per mile on the 7th lap. Around 1:30 a.m., I posted a status on Facebook that said: “Do you know what I just realized? I am a morning person.”

It was obvious that I was dehydrated, unable to even absorb water or Gatorade and I had to make trips to the port-a-potty in between laps.  Woozy after the 7th lap, instead of starting my 8th and final lap, I headed to the medical tent. The medic ordered me to eat a couple of handfuls of goldfish crackers—to get salt into my system—before he would let me walk the final lap.  I scarfed down a ton of goldfish and pretzels and my stomach felt much better. My legs, however, were extremely fatigued and the thought of continuing around the lake one more time seemed pointless.

I stared at the finish line and watched the reaction of the other runners as many completed the marathon and others proceeded back around the lake to either complete their marathon run or to keep going for the full 24-hour ultra-marathon. Just when I was about to walk over to the car to try to sleep on the wet grass and wait for Lisa and Brad to finish, Lisa crossed the finish line. I ran to meet her, so happy that she had finished the marathon, even though it was without me.

Lisa asked how I had done, hoping that at least one of has had run well enough to qualify for Boston. I just shook my head and gave her the short version of how terribly it had gone for me. She grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the snack table. After we munched on a bunch more snacks, Lisa confessed, “That was only my 7th lap. Here, hold my coke while I hit the port-a-potty. Let’s walk the last lap together.”

Lap #8 was without a doubt the best part of the race. It was much more enjoyable to chat and catch up with Lisa than it was to tell Brad at mile 11 that I was on Boston qualifying pace. We finished together with the most incredibly horrendous finishing time of 5 hours and 53 minutes, at 2:53 in the morning. Considering how close I came to throwing in the towel, it was actually a victory, wasn’t it? And, as you might expect, we’re signing up for other marathons as we speak, keeping alive our dreams of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

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Casualties of Childhood

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My husband Bruce and I drove to his hometown last weekend to attend a poetry reading by one of his high school mates, the poet Tom Lux. Tom has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry in his illustrious career, including New and Selected Poems, 1975-1995 for which he was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and Split Horizon for which he received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Two great online articles about Tom and his writing can be found here and here. He is currently the Bourne Professor of Poetry at Georgia Tech.

At White Square Books, a charming little book store, on a Sunday afternoon, Tom read poems that he had selected for the occasion that were autobiographical of events and people in his hometown of Easthampton, Massachusetts. Most of these poems were nothing short of extraordinary. One of his newer poems, which I believe hasn’t been published yet, is haunting. Tom called it “the most autobiographical” of all his poetry. It’s a recounting of a time as a 15-year-old, when he used his shot gun to kill a small brown bird. Through the narrative and detail of the poem, it was evident that he had researched the habitat and habits of the type of bird to show how much he had thought of this bird in the more than 50 years that have passed since the day he killed it.

The poem ends with the bird’s talons and little legs remaining attached to the tiny branch, after the rest of the bird had been blown to smithereens. Tom watched the result of his mischief and saw the talons still clinging eerily and upright on the branch and, after a bit of wind, swinging down, still attached.

You could have heard a pin drop for more than a few moments after Tom had finished reading the poem. Everyone in the room was shocked into thinking about Tom’s dead bird and then, perhaps, some casualties of their own childhoods. I briefly mourned this bird, and then recalled one my brother Billy had killed with his BB gun when I was 6 and he was 8, at our Pépère’s hunting camp in Tinmouth, Vermont.

I think it was my cousin Kelly who dared him to shoot the young woodpecker which was in the tree down behind the outhouse at the camp. In the dense fog of childhood memory, I had thought that it was my more mischievous brother, Wayne, who was the bird executioner. To my surprise, the answer to my text to Billy this morning “Do you remember at Tinmouth camp the time Wayne killed a bird with a BB gun?” was this: “That was me. A small woodpecker. I cried. It was very traumatic for me. I still think about it.” And, then, he added in a second text: “Pépère consoled me and taught me the importance of not aiming a gun at something you do not want to kill.”

I see it vividly in my mind now. Billy killed it with his first shot and it fell dead with a thump. We all ran over to it. Kelly and I immediately began crying and ran to find the adults to tell them of Billy’s mischief. I also remember clearly that Billy and Wayne both cried too, as they followed behind us up the hill. When I shared these memories with Billy this morning, he replied: “It is funny about childhood memories, I don’t remember anyone else being around. It was me. My BB gun. A live woodpecker. An excellent shot. A dead woodpecker. Me crying because of what I had done. Pépère imparting that valuable life lesson. The burial ceremony.”

The incident was so memorable for my brother that he had saved photographs from that day and knows the exact date, October 20, 1974. Incredible. A few of those photos are below.

Pepere and deer Motley Crew Hunting Camp in Oct 74 Oct 20 1974

In the moments after Tom had finished reading his poem, I thought more about the old hunting camp. More than a few of Tom’s autobiographical poems involved boys with their hunting rifles. It was easy for me to relate to these childhood stories. I had grown up in a similar fashion in New Hampshire and Vermont, although a few decades after Tom’s upbringing in Western Massachusetts.

My brother came up to Vermont a few months ago and we decided to tool around a bit and found ourselves heading through Wallingford on Route 140, on our way to Tinmouth. Billy hadn’t been out there since childhood. I, on the other hand, had gone out a few summers before with Bruce to show him the land that was a part of so many childhood memories. I used to call the annual rite of going there as a very young child, “going to Vermont.” When I was nine, we moved to Vermont. Pépère died shortly thereafter and the camp lasted just a few years following that, until Mémère died when I was 12.

When Billy and I pulled up to the old cemetery in Tinmouth, we parked the car on the opposite side of the road, jumped the gate, and headed into the field, in search of the old camp and the outhouse. The trailer was there, a caved in pile of trash, and the outhouse was nowhere to be found.

Camp as trash

It Was Like Camping

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Before CFI photos

I had no idea that my threat to reveal my parents’ inn-keeping stories would get such an enthusiastic response. Given that it did, I decided to strike while the iron is still hot. I’ve been telling my own stories about the inn since I was nine years old. This post includes some of my memories from those first few days in March of 1978, when we first moved into the inn. Next time, I’ll follow up with recollections from that same period, from my parents, innkeepers Ruth and Bill.

Last time, you were left with the image of me crying in the car, not wanting to come to grips with the reality that, after all, I wasn’t moving to the Snow Mansion on the hill as I’d been fantasizing I would. Instead, our new home was a decrepit and, frankly, filthy, old farmhouse that was several years removed from its glory days as a vibrant and beautiful working farm. That is was at the gloomy end of a long winter when we took possession didn’t help matters, since the property seemed even more barren in the ice and snow.

My father lured me out of the car and into our new life by promising me that it would be like camping. And, in the beginning, it really was.

Since the inn was not going to be livable until the garbage was removed and it was properly disinfected, the six of us — our family of five and my dad’s sister, who was co-owner of the soon-to-be Combes Family Inn — took up residence in three of the motel rooms that the previous owner had built as outside units, separate from the main house. These had been the previous owner’s main source of income, particularly during ski season. Our family project was to turn the main farmhouse itself into a beautiful inn, filled with guest bedrooms and common rooms, in addition to upgrading the motel rooms.

My parents moved into room number three, while my brothers, Billy and Wayne, shared room number two.  My beloved Aunt Nancy and I shared room number one, which was closest to the main house. I adored my Aunt Nancy. Before she lived with us at the inn in Vermont, it was always the highlight of my summer to spend time with her. Over the years, she had taught me how to make beds with hospital corners, how to cook scrambled eggs with cheese and how to play various card games, “rummy 500” being my favorite.

This arrangement lasted for the two weeks it took all of us to clean out the farmhouse. Day one after the move, brother Billy was already loving the new adventure, because mom gave him a crisp twenty dollar bill to clean out a particularly nasty cupboard. He still recalls this story fondly. I, on the other hand, don’t remember about the cleaning phase—I’m sure I’ve put all that nasty business out of my mind! However, I have two strong recollections about those first few days.

One is of my first day joining the fourth grade at Ludlow Elementary School. Kim Benson, who became one of my best friends all through school and is still my friend today, asked me where I was from. When I answered “New Hampshire,” she declared “You are not a flatlander.” As that first day wore on, Kim introduced me to each classmate with the same odd introduction: “This is Sharon, she’s not a flatlander….” I could tell by the reaction of the other kids that this was a very good thing to not be a ‘flatlander’, although I had no idea what it meant. It was so exciting, in fact, that when I got off the school bus that first afternoon, I announced to my parents, “Mom, Dad, guess what? I’m not a flatlander!”  

My other memory of that period was my recognition that Dad was right, it really was like camping. My Aunt Nancy told me stories at night in our motel room before we went to sleep, which reminded me of being around a camp fire. And, since we weren’t yet able to use the kitchen inside, there were many nights that we heated up dinners camp-style, on a little hot plate, and ate them in the motel rooms.

So it was that despite my initial reluctance to step out of that car and into our new life, all of my memories about the start of the incredible adventure called the Combes Family Inn are fond and happy.

Old Stories through New Eyes

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A few weeks ago, my brother sent me a very interesting New York Times opinion piece that’s on topic with the “Dry Year” thread of this blog. In it, poet John Skoyles reveals how he had spent much of his graduate school years drinking heavily, and had engaged in risky behaviors as a result. In fact, he wrote a memoir about it called “A Moveable Famine” without realizing that his own alcohol abuse was a theme in the book. It wasn’t until he reflected back on his story after reconnecting with an old girlfriend that he acknowledged his alcoholism. Although I considered reading the memoir, I’m hoping he’ll write another one that looks back on that time with new eyes.

In the same email in which he alerted me to Skoyles’ article, my brother also suggested that I consider adding a new thread or two to my blog, in order to keep people interested and entertained. He felt I needed to branch out from my too-narrow focus on not drinking, dieting and running. I couldn’t agree with him more, so, as a result, I’m introducing a new thread related to the memoir section of my blog.

My two brothers and I grew up in a busy inn, in a Vermont ski-resort town. Although hard to believe given that they’re now both in their 70’s, my parents still run the very bustling Combes Family Inn. Through the years, my mom has threatened now and then to write a book filled with stories from her and Dad’s 36 years as innkeepers. Since they’ve recently begun formulating their retirement plans and even picked a tentative date for closing the doors on their business, I decided it’s time to help Mom document some of her favorite inn-keeping stories.

My parents, while in their mid-30’s, had a dream of becoming innkeepers, long before it became fashionable. My mom was always a great cook and my dad an exceptional handyman. When our original hometown in New Hampshire was becoming over-developed, they began looking for an inn in earnest. They looked for two years to find a suitable one in either rural New Hampshire or Vermont, where they could raise their three young children while creating a business.

My mom’s story doesn’t make sense unless you understand how vibrant and beautiful the inn and its property are today. The photos below give you a taste of what I’m talking about. There are two photos of the inn and the grounds today and four of the “before” pictures.

“I’ll tell you the very first inn-keeping story that I want people to know,” Mom said the other night, after I mentioned this new idea for a blog thread. She was addressing me, my father, my husband Bruce, and my brother Bill, who is visiting for the long July 4th weekend. “The story relates the moment when we all walked through that door, as we took possession of the house in March, 1978,” she said.

“The entrance way had piles of garbage and large, opened bags of large-animal feed. Wafting out of the first room beyond the entrance was the smell of animal feces. A quick look inside, revealed more garbage and a partially collapsed ceiling,” she related. “Our cat, Gimpy, was so skeptical about the place that he wouldn’t walk through the doorway. I’ll never forget that I turned to look at my eldest child Billy, after Gimpy walked away from the front door. Billy, who was just 11 years old at the time, shook his head and asked ‘What have you gotten us all into?’”

Little did any of us know then that 36 years later the inn would be still be in business. Although I have heard the story a million times, I have no recollection of the cat’s disgust or my brother’s reaction, because, in a similar reaction as my cat, I ran back to the car and refused to get out again. I just sat in the car and cried. When my parents came back to force me out, I kept screaming “I want to go to the Snow Mansion!”

I was referring to one of the handful of other inns my parents had looked at before finally selecting the ramshackle farmhouse.  What I called the “Snow Mansion” was really the Snowvillage Inn, a resort near Conway, New Hampshire that had a large pond, tennis courts, and rolling fields. It’s still around today. This is what it looks like now. When we left our home in Merrimack, New Hampshire, in my mind, the Snow Mansion was the type of place we were moving to.  In fact, it was with considerable pride on my last day in elementary school that I told everyone I was moving to the Snow Mansion.

What my nine-year-old self and my cat Gimpy couldn’t conceive of was the potential that my parents had seen in the place. According to my mother, as she reflected back on why they risked uprooting their three young children and moving to start a new life in a house that could truthfully be described as “a dump”: “It was a place we could put our own mark on and start our new business slowly. We loved the area. It was near a small town with a village center with a growing ski resort, and it had a local school for you kids. And, on top of all that, the house itself had more than 50 acres and was on a country back road with a great view.”

Once each month, I’m going to interview my mom and share her stories. Some of them are absolutely hysterical.