The only time of year I remember getting Gordon’s rye bread was at Christmastime. It was something he made for the neighbors and sent with care. The loaf was different than the wheat bread Mom made every day because it was rounded, not baked in a bread pan. The recipe is in Dad’s recipe box still. The card was carefully typed by Rena, Gordon’s wife, on her old typewriter.

Around Christmastime every year, my younger sister, Em, and I were invited to help Rena make ornaments to decorate the tree at the fire station. We would spend a day cutting and pasting and stringing popcorn and cranberries in Rena’s kitchen.

Rena had Santa mugs for the hot cocoa to go with the cookies she’d made. We would have quite a mess going on the kitchen table, while Gordon would be reading the newspaper in the other room under the lamp light, whistling and waiting for his bread to rise.

The recipe takes a few hours as you can see by the numerous times it rises before it ever gets baked, so it is usually done over an afternoon. It is important to remember when making bread each one of these steps only makes it better, so it isn’t worth it, for lack of time, to skip any of the “let rise for another hour” steps. I can see Gordon’s old hands, which usually had spots of white paint or grease from the mower, cleaned up and carefully kneading the bread at intervals then continuing with another project. Then, he’d be whistling his way back to the kitchen when it was time to work the bread again.

A busy retirement

Gordon always seemed to have a project going. That’s the beauty of retiring and moving to a small village in Maine.

He had an old, white wicker rocking chair outside that he often rested in between things to gather his thoughts while he smoked a cigarette. There was an old Folger’s coffee can on one side of the chair for the cigarette butts and his coffee cup on the other side. The chair rested in the entrance to the garage. Behind it was carefully placed clutter, a tool bench and garden supplies. Mom would often get black plastic to stretch under her peppers and eggplant from Gordon instead of buying a large roll for the few feet she needed.

Mostly, Em and I would pull up on our bikes to lean and chat. Rena and Gordon lived right next door on the same side of Back Street. Our back field met their garden right next to the power line pole, which seemed to be the mark they mowed their lawn to.

Their driveway was two dirt tracks and grass growing in between. Not until Gordon passed away did the car ever get parked in the garage. If Gordon was outside, it was okay to stop. If he was in the garden working, we might pause to see how it was going or just wave as we pedaled by.

We often passed 10 or 20 times a day depending on the weather so if we’d stopped every time nobody would have gotten much done.

If the garage door was closed during the day, that could mean they had gone “over town” to Norway or the South Paris area to do some shopping. If it was closed later in the day, that would mean he’d retired inside and the gardening was done for the day. We’d have to wait until morning to catch up with him.

Gordon was a very particular and respectable gardener. He always had his peas in by the last frost and every row planted not long after. Rena had flowers in the front, by the road, that bloomed and were picked throughout the summer. This garden was the source of many a beautiful bouquet for the church service held next door.

Was it the goats?

One day we pulled up as Gordon was taking a drag from another Winston and sipping his coffee. I glanced over to see how his garden was coming along. It appeared someone had stomped the onions over as all the tops were broken, but neatly all in the same direction. I hoped it hadn’t been our goats but I didn’t see any teeth marks. I asked what had happened to the onions and learned this was one method of growing larger onions. By cracking the stem over, which you don’t eat on yellow sweet onions anyway, the soil feeds the onion instead of the stem and makes them grow good and big.

Gordon was like a next-door grandfather to us. As many times as Em and I must have pulled up on our bikes in a day, he never shied away from a smile and a greeting of “How are you doing?” We shared what we knew about town business with Gordon, the big news from our young minds. He shared wisdom he’d gathered throughout an eventful life.

This year, in the spring, I convinced my landlord to let me build my own garden. It was a two-tiered raised bed with railroad ties and plenty of cow manure for fertilizer.

As I built it, with my boyfriend tossing dirt and hammering along, I hoped it might grow a bit like Gordon’s. I didn’t plant onions because I knew I wouldn’t be able to store them now, although someday I’m going to grow them like Gordon did. I often got lost in the care and upkeep, and I loved every minute of watching my plants produce.

Occasionally, I’d hear a whistle on the wind and maybe a screen door catching, as his spirit was wandering over to see how it was coming.

Hannah Hinckley is a writer, veterinary technician, whitewater guide and Pampered Chef kitchen consultant. She lives in Winthrop and may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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