Having been raised a Mainer, it’s fun for me to go back to Vacationland every year to reconnect with old haunts. But I never thought one of those haunts would take on the more literal meaning of the word and would apply to my late grandparents’ old farmhouse.
Located in North Bridgton, Maine, it was your prototypical homestead, with an original saltbox portion built around 200 years ago by a veteran of the War of 1812. “Flagwalk,” as we called it because of the granite flagstones leading to the front door, was eventually expanded to include another residential section and a woodshed/workshop.
My paternal grandparents acquired the home during the early 1960s, while retiring from teaching and social work jobs. Our family visited Flagwalk every summer, during which my brother and I gleefully rediscovered all the quirky closets with string-pull lights; clicked open the wrought-iron door latches; helped build fires in the three brick fireplaces; and stacked wood in the shed, where I kept my little axe that miraculously never claimed any of my fingers.
I lost my first tooth at Flagwalk, and thought I had struck it rich when I found a dime in its place under my pillow. I’ll never forget the day when my brother Bill got a nasty sprain after twisting his ankle in one of the gaps in the stone wall that surrounded the property.
We romped through the meadow out back, where I caught my first fish in Bear Brook. Still have the old black-and-white photo of me, a beaming towhead back then, holding the little trout next to my late father. We came to call our little adventures “Flagwalking.”
My grandparents — who insisted we address them as “Max” and “Jo” rather than “grandpa” and “grandma” — nurtured Flagwalking and proved conscientious stewards of their old home. They recognized that the old homestead needed constant TLC, work that included replacement of rotting sills, electrical system updates and the installation of a standing seam roof. To forgo these updates, they realized, would make the old place vulnerable to the tough Maine weather. Flagwalk wasn’t going to give in to Mother Nature on their watch.
The years went by and our two children became the next generation of Flagwalkers, retracing my younger steps, playing with the same old, indestructible wooden and metal toys that my brother and I had put through the wringer. Dottie and I read them the same Dr. Seuss books that my parents and grandparents had read to me at bedside after a rigorous day of Flagwalking.
My father drew his last breath next to Flagwalk.
When Jo passed away in 1992, Max continued to hold down the fort at Flagwalk. Our family would make weekend jaunts to the old house to keep Max company and do chores. During the late 1990s, at this point into his late 80s, Max decided he couldn’t handle the house on his own. What did he do? He set up a mobile home across the street so he could remain independent while keeping an eye on Flagwalk.
Max finally threw in the towel in 2001 and moved in with us in Vermont. But he didn’t give up the proverbial ship. Max held onto the house hoping that Flagwalking would continue for generations to come.
When Max died in 2003, Dottie and I did our best to keep Flagwalk going. I made the 350-mile round trek to the house after bad snowstorms to shovel off the roof and make sure the pipes hadn’t frozen. We’d come with the kids on some weekends to mow the lawn and have some good times.
But we eventually came to the inescapable conclusion that the beautiful old home needed a full-time, better-financed custodian than us. Flagwalk had become a luxury we simply couldn’t afford. And Flagwalk was not a practical rental, so we reluctantly put the property on the market in 2005, and it was eventually purchased by a nice, middle-aged couple.
Fast-forward to last month. Our family spent a week in Maine, staying at a place around 10 miles from Flagwalk. We unpacked and made the familiar trek to the old homestead.
Not a pretty sight.
The owners to whom we had sold Flagwalk had been through some tough times, which had resulted in a loan default and foreclosure. Flagwalk was now a vacant eyesore, the front screen porch — where my grandparents had admired the view of Hawk Mountain — now torn off. The “lawn” was waist-high, gone to seed. We found out a person had purchased the property out of foreclosure as a “project” — a 10-year project, from the looks of it.
I shook my head and drove down to the cemetery two and a half miles away to apologize to my grandparents and dad for what had become of Flagwalk. But hope springs eternal. I hope to return one day to see someone else Flagwalking. Then again, there’s always the lottery…