I love the Midwest, but sometimes living here I need a strong dose of quirky. I spent last weekend in Chestertown, Maryland with my sisters, my mother and a handful of nieces, and I’m happy to report that quirk has been dispensed.
Chestertown is a small historic Eastern Shore town, population 5,000, situated on the Chester River a few miles from the beautiful Chesapeake Bay. It features a two-street downtown with brick sidewalks and just enough shops to fill an afternoon. My daughter thought she was on the set of Gilmore Girls. There was a funky coffee shop, a clean well-lit bakery with a very cute baker named Dougie, a multitude of consignment shops (no pretense here, that’s consignment, not antique), and five bookstores. Two are used, one new, one’s Christian and the other is the campus bookstore for nearby Washington College, established 1792.
At one of the bookstores, I fell in love with a series of hand-made books by a local husband-wife team. Funny, quirky little books. The couple lives in a barn and I was encouraged to walk over and meet them. To my lasting regret, I ran out of time and didn’t. (Later this week I’ll post on their enterprise, Idiot Books.)
In another bookstore I heard a customer ask the bookseller, “Do you have anything for ‘Mommy lied and Daddy’s really in jail?’”
I celebrated my birthday with my sisters for the first time in twenty years. They surprised me with a wonderful cake:
I got a plastic duck with a tape measure hidden in its backside and this, a gift that brought tears to my eyes:
My sister told me the bookseller knew all about Kenneth Rexroth. This town impresses. Marian the Librarian would surely be idle if she was charged with improving the cultural level of Chestertown.
But the best present was spending time with my female relatives. We did what we always do: we plan runs and eventually go running, we persuade each other to take our cast-offs in a grand clothing exchange, we laugh at my mother’s jokes and tricks, we put candy corn in our mouths like teeth and talk like hillbillies, we drink, we dance, but mostly we talk talk talk on matters trivial (how often we dye our hair if at all) and profound (what are our dreams for the rest of our lives?)
The quote is from the end of a poem by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti called “Goblin Market.” It’s crazy stuff. One of two sisters eats the forbidden fruit of goblin men. After the first fruit-eating frenzy, she can’t get any more and begins to waste away. The other sister begs the goblin men for more fruit. They refuse and beat her and squash fruit in her face. So she runs home and tells her sister to lick the pulp from her cheek and lips. (Face-licking was unnecessary on our weekend because there was plenty of cake and apples for all.) Years later the recovered sister tells her children:
For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.
Amen, sister, amen.