February 18, 2020
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Four sisters, Mom’s sweaters, warm hands

The Cyr sisters from Houlton leave a lasting impression, but I have to start with a chance discussion about mittens.

It was the four sisters’ mittens that led to a welling up of tears in their eyes — and mine — on the first day we met at their vendor’s table at the American Folk Festival in Bangor last August. We were remembering our mothers.

Jonathan and I stopped to admire an array of unique, fleece-lined, felted wool mittens that warmed the soul, despite the August heat. The business name was “Syn-Cyr-ly Sisters,” and we got to talking to the bubbly foursome behind the table.

“We’re all sisters,” they said.

“We’re twins,” said the two blondes.

“They’re the babies,” said one of the other two, and they all laughed.

That laughter is a characteristic trait of the Cyr sisters, who now go by their married names of Karen Gallop, Louann Ritchie, Pam Mailman and Tricia McCarthy. You never go for long without hearing laughter from at least one of the four, as they regale you with cheerful conversation.

We learned that all of their mittens are made from old wool sweaters, mostly found at places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. But they had also made mittens out of their mom’s old sweaters. She died a year ago, they told us, and the mom-mittens were a kind of keepsake.

“I lost my mom last spring,” I told them. “I think she had a lot of old sweaters…”

That’s when I saw the sympathetic welling of tears in one sister’s eyes, and mine followed suit. But we were happy to make plans to meet later that fall up in Houlton, when I would bring some of my mom’s wool sweaters to be made into mittens for my siblings and my dad – Christmas presents to keep them warm and remind them of Mom.

That’s how I happened to visit with all four women one afternoon in October, in Karen’s kitchen. Although there are eight years between Karen and the twins, with Louann exactly in the middle, the four women are more than sisters and alsomore than business partners.

“We don’t do too many things without each other,” said Tricia. “People think it’s a little strange.”

They work at each other’s high school reunions, they go to the same quilting and craft workshops, they do group projects. They even vacation together.

“Mom had a lot to do with it,” said Louann.

“Oh yes, we always had to please and thank you…” began Pam.

“…if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” Karen continued, “and we’d always kiss Mom and Dad good night.”

“Just make sure you don’t have alcohol on your breath!” someone said.

They all burst out laughing.

“We do have a mischievous side,” Karen said.

Like many people I’ve met from Aroostook County, the Cyr sisters asserted that they’d had a wonderful childhood, without frills. Their dad was a railroad conductor. When they heard the train whistle, they’d run to the nearby stop and say a quick hello to their late dad. To this day, they look up and say hi to him whenever they hear a train whistle.

Their mom worked as a bartender (but only after checking with Father Jim that it wasn’t inappropriate) and as a hostess at Ivey’s Restaurant.

“We’d play outside all day. Mom made us double wool mittens,” said Karen. “They’d get snow clumps, but we never got cold. In the evenings, she’d put the outside light on, and we knew we had five minutes to get home.”

The Cyrs almost left Houlton when Pam and Tricia were in eighth grade, but their dad died unexpectedly during an operation. So the family stayed. The girls married local sweethearts, or sweethearts who were happy to live in Houlton.

“Did any of you ever live away for a while?” I asked.

They shook their heads.

“I went to Fort Fairfield for five years,” offered Pam, “but that’s it.”

Of course the girls weren’t always best friends. Karen and Louann used to fight, but their mom wouldn’t allow it to go far. As the oldest, Karen took on a lot of responsibility for Pam and Tricia when they were young.

“Mom didn’t like to see the girls cry, so when I got my license I took them to get their shots,” said Karen.

“And you had to give us ‘the talk’,” said Tricia.

“I did! But I kind of enjoyed being a second mother to you guys.”

Karen still leads the group in some things. She applied to their first ever vending job last summer at the Folk Festival.

“We didn’t know until the end of May that we were doing it!” said Tricia.

“We had to make mittens all summer,” Pam added.

“I get us into things like this a lot,” Karen admitted.

“A lot! Yes, we know!” A chorus of voices said.

As for me, I’m glad the Cyr sisters tackled this project together when they did. I have in hand some very cozy mementos of my mother to put under the Christmas tree. But, shh! Don’t tell. It’s a surprise.

To contact SynCyrly Sisters, email: lcritchie@pwless.net or call: 532-2445, or 521-4489

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com


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