I had just packed the last load of stuff into the car before a 10-day trip near the end of April when the phone rang.
“Are you the lady who writes for the newspaper?” the caller asked.
Our chat was animated, but brief, full of facts and family history. She wanted to tell me about a certain tree in Ashland, but I knew there was more to her story. She was the kind of person I wanted to interview in person.
She gave me her Caribou address and phone number, and I promised to pay her a visit when I returned.
Two weeks later, back home in Caribou, I was sitting on my front porch reading the newspaper when I had an odd premonition I was going to recognize a name in the obituaries. I didn’t know who it would be, but I slowly paged in from the back of the section, and there she was, tucked into the lower right corner of the page: ” Dorothy W. Peterson, 97, died at her home in Caribou on May 10, 2015,” with only a list of survivors and the date for her burial (May 23 in Ashland) as additional information.
I felt a sense of loss for a person I did not even know. Or did I?
“They call me ‘Dot,’” she had told me. Her name rang a bell. I felt sure we had met during my 40 years in Aroostook County, some of them covering Caribou news. My suspicions were confirmed when I learned later of her active participation in community groups, such as Cooperative Extension. Just before her death, she was selling raffle tickets for a quilt she had made and donated to the Advent Church in Limestone to raise money for a handicapped-accessible bathroom.
“I’m under house arrest,” she had joked, lamenting limits on her activity since a hospitalization in December.
“I was a Walker from Walker Hill — Dorothy Frances Walker,” she had explained, tracing her Ashland roots. And even though her family home had burned years ago and the property had new owners, a gigantic 200-year-old pine remained in what was the yard. Her concern about the future of that tree prompted her call to me on April 27. What would happen to the stately pine?
With the knowledge of her passing, I wondered what she had wanted to tell me and why.
I began to think about values and how they change as we age. I reflected on our almost instinctive search for permanence as mortality becomes real. When we approach the end of life, what emerges as important?
“I’m 97, but I still have all my faculties,” Dot asserted in our conversation. It was clear she was correct. I am sure she had no idea that a few days later, May 2, she would suffer from a stroke paralyzing her right side and limiting her ability to communicate.
“Home. Home,” was all she could say from her hospital bed, according to her daughter Gretchen Uhas, who welcomed me into that home last week. Before she was stricken, Dot had told Gretchen she had contacted me and was looking forward to our visit.
We sat at the kitchen table where Gretchen had been wrapping the contents of her mother’s cupboards in newspapers and placing them in boxes. Dot’s cat Sally munched over her bowl on the floor beside me, unaware that she would soon have a new home with Dot’s son.
What was important about that tree, we asked each other. Dot so worried it would be cut down, she had even made an unsuccessful attempt to buy back the property. Gretchen’s brother David arrived, then her sister Nadine Moreau.
“All I can remember is that every trip to Grammy’s we knew we were almost there when we could see that tree,” Gretchen recalled of family trips to the home of Dot’s parents, Arthur and Abby Walker. Together the three siblings recalled the drive from Caribou through Washburn and a community they called “Frenchville,” past a variety store on the right until, at the top of a huge hill, they could see the tree in Ashland.
“You go down the hill and start up again and it’s on the left, past Ellis’ farm,” David said.
“It’s just a pine tree, but it was important to the family,” Gretchen said. “It was the last thing about the property that mattered.”
And its value magnified when it turned out to be one of the last things that mattered to a person who remembered that tree was old when she was young and who hoped it would live long after she was gone.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.