The Richest of Gifts
by Anne Rowthorn ’58
One of my favorite grandmothers was Granny Dodge; not my actual grandmother, but a woman who influenced my life as much as if she were.
Beatrice Dodge was a Maine woman with the accent to prove it! She lived all her life on the small islands off the Maine coast and in a small hamlet near Ellsworth. She was my mother’s mother-in-law, and although she had never met us, she knew we lived in New York City. Feeling that our children should be out of the steamy city in the summer, she offered us camping space in her lush field on the edge of Union River Bay. We’d been told almost nothing about Granny except that she was willing to have us visit. Our children, two elementary school aged boys and a girl, were eager to camp out, fish and swim at Granny’s and we were filled with expectation.
Arriving late on a mid-July afternoon in our over-packed station wagon, our first image of Granny was a tiny woman simply dressed, her years etched on her face, with dark smiling eyes. We came upon her hunched over in her garden. Almost blind, Granny leaned close to the rows carefully dropping seeds from her gnarled hands. Upon seeing us, she immediately invited us into her modest home where she served up a banquet of vegetables from her garden, along with wild blueberries and raspberries from the fields. As the moon rose we set up our tent by the shore, arranged our sleeping bags and fell off to sleep with the unspoken expectation that something wonderful was beginning to unroll.
Every night after our camp dinner we went up to Granny’s where she regaled us with accounts of her life. Granny was living much as she had for the previous seventy-five years. She planted and tended the garden in the summer; she canned vegetables for the winter. She gathered mussels, crabs, wild blueberries, and edible ferns from the shore. She cleaned and dried fish caught from the bay. She fed visiting deer with apples out of her hand.
Hers was a world of natural plenty and extravagant beauty with few material possessions. When the first of her children was born, her husband, George, ended his tenure as a lighthouse keeper on an outer island and he never again had a regular job, but he and Beatrice made enough money to provide for their family. They knew all the signs of nature that bore on the welfare and sometimes even the survival of their family. They read the currents and seasons. They knew the varieties of fish, where they were running and where they were best caught. George had a few well-placed lobster pots that rarely came up empty. Theirs was also a world where neighbors helped each other with large tasks such as hauling logs and building barns; in times of need they were there for each other. While life was far from easy and there were droughts and shortages, the Dodges’ life was one of passionate engagement with all the rhythms of nature.
Granny had a poetic nature but was not given to reflection. I cannot remember Granny ever asking us much of anything about ourselves. She did not ignore us either; she just never pried. She had a calmness of spirit and an unspoken sense of aliveness. She lived entirely in the present, and she never bored us with suggesting that things were better at some earlier time. Although she had endured many losses, she was not bowed down by them. She was fully awake, as a Buddhist might say. She possessed a contagious sense of hospitality and welcome, an openness and a peaceful presence that gathered us all in.
In this season of giving, I think of Granny. From one point of view, she gave us nothing. Seen from another perspective, she gave us the richest of gifts—gifts that last forever.
Anne Rowthorn, ’58, has a B. S. from Wheelock College, a Master’s Degree from Columbia University and Ph.D. from New York University. She is the author of numerous articles, op-eds and book reviews, and has written and compiled 12 books on diverse topics, but ecological spirituality has become her specialty. Her most recent book is The Wisdom of John Muir: 100+ Selections from the Letters, Journals, and Essays of the Great Naturalist. She is a passionate, life-long environmentalist. She has taken her pen and notebook all over the United States, and to Asia, Latin America, Oceania, and Europe. Wherever she goes, she collects evocative ecological literature from the world’s great cultures. Believing that every human being needs to touch the earth to experience health, wholeness and a sense of unity with all creation, she has founded two community gardens, in her town and at her church.