Mainers in exile share a few words

Posted April 22, 2010, at 7:55 p.m.

Two weeks ago I wrote about leaving my home state of Maine, then feeling more attached to it than ever. Afterward, I was flooded with e-mails from readers sharing what being a Mainer means to them. From college students who left the state, to adults who went away to work, to couples who followed their spouses over the Piscataqua River, everyone had something strong to say about what Maine means to them.

An Army man proudly proclaimed that he still has his Yankee accent after 35 years away, and that in just a few months’ time, he will be returning at last to stay. A self-described “snowbird” spoke of winters in Florida, her hometown in Maine, and visiting the Maine Seafood Co. near Sarasota, Fla., — a local “Down East Maine” restaurant — for a wintertime taste of home. Another man spoke of having always wanted to travel outside of Maine, but never getting around to it — and not regretting it a bit.

“Somehow, traveling just never became a top priority,” he wrote. “My wife and I still live in the town we grew up in, and we have no desire to leave. We love it here.”

Of course, whether you leave Maine or stay in the state isn’t always a matter of whether or not you like your hometown, or simply want to see more of the world. A number of people describe themselves as “Mainers in Exile,” individuals who left the state to find different, if not more, career opportunities.

“If there were jobs up in northern Maine there would be no stopping me from going home,” one earnest young mother told me. “But because I have my own family now and there are no jobs up there, I am grateful that I am able to live where I do and still be able to go home and see my family from time to time.”

Another “Exiled Mainer” wrote, “I once broke into tears as I crossed the bridge over the Piscataqua River, returning from a month of working out of state.”

According to a 2006 University of Southern Maine study, many bright, young people leave the state, lured away by better economic opportunities. The good news is that 75 percent of Maine high school graduates who go on to college graduate from in-state institutions. The bad news, according to the university’s findings, is that two-thirds of the highest academic achievers leave the state or don’t return after graduating.

“I need to be able to pay off my student loans,” one graduate said. “I simply won’t be able to do that in Maine.”

Others counter that the work is there, if you’re willing. “The benefits of living in Maine far outweigh any difficulties,” wrote one reader. “Times are tough everywhere, but there is work to be found.”

“I’ve been trying to get back to Maine for six years, and last fall, I finally succeeded,” wrote one reader. “I’ve sacrificed a lot to be able to move back to Maine. I don’t earn as much as friends in other areas do, and I haven’t been able to get a job that perfectly fits my field here. But I do love living here. I had to recognize the choice between a more fulfilling career, or living in this area. For now, the area has won, but I don’t know if that’ll always be the case.”

There’s one thing everyone seems to agree on: Whether living out of state or in the state, if you grew up in Maine, you’re a Mainer for life. While most small towns and rural states have a strong, home-is-where-the-heart-is pride, Maine seems to take that to a new level. I recently discovered the Maine State Society of Washington, D.C., an organization that, believe it or not, has been around since 1894. With my membership, I was given a surprisingly thick directory — by town and last name — a newsletter, and a listing of coming events, including the 65th Annual Lobster Dinner to be held in Fairfax, Va.

What surprised me the most, though, was the large number of self-described people “from away” wrote to me about their strong feelings of attachment to Maine — native or not.

“I’ve lived in Hancock County for 33 years but I’m from away originally …”

“I’m ‘from away,’ but after 30 years in Maine it feels like home …”

“I’ve lived in Maine for more than half of my life now…”

As the daughter of an out-of-state woman who had married into her Maine roots, I’ve always been aware of the distinction Mainers make between “native-born” locals and those “from away.” But as the world becomes an increasingly mobile place, I question some of those distinctions. Could my mother, who has spent more years living in Maine than I have spent breathing, one day qualify as a Mainer? Or are only the native-born true Mainers?

Whatever the case, the state is certainly appreciated by those from away — and it has changed many of them, too. “I am not from Maine,” one woman wrote. “I moved to Bangor 23 years ago. At the time I thought, ‘What a place!’ as everyone seemed to know everybody else …

“Over time, I realized I had become one of those people too, always running into someone I knew at the supermarket. When I would visit my family in Chicago, the lack of friendly interactions was always evident.”

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, e-mail her at meg@margaret-adams.com.

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