Reprinted with permission from the December issue of PineStraw magazine
The first heavy frost of the season lay on neighborhood lawns as I walked to work at dawn the other morning, a sign of a rapidly vanishing autumn. A gray cat returning from his nighttime travels paused at the end of my neighbor’s driveway to watch me pass just as my neighbor stepped out on his porch in a green plaid bathrobe, stooping to pick up his morning paper. He straightened and waved.
“How was the trip up north?” he called.
“Very well. I went to see a dear friend who isn’t feeling well.”
“You went all the way to Maine — just for a weekend?”
“Actually, it was over four days. I like to drive.”
“I repeat. You’re crazy. Welcome home.”
He laughed and hurried back inside, and I walked on.
Two thousand miles over four days is probably a crazy thing to contemplate by anyone’s standards to travel. Yet over the past 30 years I’ve made the drive from North Carolina to Maine — or there to here and back — close to a hundred times, I suppose, the curse of having a heart planted in two places.
For more than two decades of that time we lived on a forested coastal hill in Maine. My road trips home to Carolina were increasingly complicated by the urban congestion and endless road construction of the mid-Atlantic Gothams but invariably solitary and highly productive hours I looked forward to with an almost greedy pleasure that came from being briefly off the clock of the world. I was free to drive for hours upon hours with my phone silenced and Bonnie Rait or Antonin Dvorak on the stereo, working out various trivial and important and whimsical matters in my head, noting this and that on my familiar short-cuts through the country, a small notebook and a tape recorder invariably close at hand, a truck stop coffee strong enough to strip paint somewhere within reach.
For better or worse, major portions of at least six of my books were written in this manner, a road warrior’s rolling meditation, along with various poems that will hopefully never see print, road details, peculiar names, bits of overheard conversation, sudden inspirations and various to-do lists, plus the odd brilliant thought that seemed, upon further reflection, not so shiny bright after all.
The Treasured Friend
This trip had a different flavor, a valedictory tone — to say hello to an old friend from my early years as a journalist in Atlanta and a chance to see the ailing Queen Mum.
The Queen Mum, as I call her, is my former mother-in-law, the grandmother of my children and one of my closest friends. A tough and tender daughter of Glasgow’s Netherlee neighborhood, she lost her own parents after the war and migrated to America with her brilliant scientist husband, Sam, in the early 1960s.
They settled in a rambling 200-year-old farmhouse on a beautiful 500-acre farm above Moosehead Pond. Not surprisingly, Kate, who holds degrees from Glasgow University and has read every work of any significance in Western literature at least twice, became the local superintendent of schools, raising three great kids, and becoming something of the village matriarch.
She was the first reader — and tough proofreader — of my early books, and even after her daughter and I separated and amicably divorced when our two children were still very young, Kate remained a treasured friend and advisor whose friendship, support and wisdom never waivered — the spiritual center of all our lives.
All pretty funny when you consider the way we began.
It was December 1984 and I was making my first visit to the Bennie family farm to meet my future in-laws. Generally speaking, Christmas isn’t such a big deal to native Scots, but Hogmanay — the celebration of the Scottish new year — is an annual rite accompanied by much dancing and drinking, fueled by great food and excellent Scotch whisky.
In honor of the occasion, fires were banked high in the wood stoves, and the BBC was dialed up on the shortwave radio at 7 p.m. sharp EST in order to hear London’s Ben Ben officially toll the arrival of the New Year five hours away on the Scottish borders.
On the final stroke of the bell, glasses were touched and toasts made. The fiddle music resumed, and the house filled up with all sorts of buzzing folks, family and local friends who came out of the winter night to be part of the year’s best gathering.
A polite Southerner far from home, I wondered if I’d perhaps wandered into a real Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish village that appeared just one night a year. Sam Bennie, my fiancee Alison’s brilliant world-traveling papa (who uncannily resembled and sounded like the late actor Peter O’Toole), thoughtfully topped up my Scotch, and his daughter — soon to be my wife — even coaxed me into the dance.
A Flight Gone Awry
The next day, a bright, sunny New Year’s Day, frigid as an Arctic ice floe, things settled down considerably after a big lunch of ’neeps and roast mutton. My fiancee’s siblings packed up and headed back to work and school while Ali and Mum — as everyone called her — cleaned up the kitchen and put the house back in order. Kate filled up the woodstove, made herself a cup of tea, and sat down in her favorite wing chair by the front window to read.
Truthfully, I was a little bored, homesick and not a little hung-over from my first Hogmanay celebration. But as a kid growing up in North Carolina, I had a strange annual little New Year ritual of my own: trying to hit a golf ball over my parents’ house with one cold swing. Success or failure was a fine indicator of the year ahead.
Silly, I know. But I’d recently taken up playing golf again after an eight-year hiatus in Atlanta on a golf course in Vermont where Rudyard Kipling had supposedly played the game. So while Alison leafed through old family photos, I fetched my sand wedge and a couple of balls and wandered out to a patch of exposed, frozen grass beyond the farm pond in front of the house.
The winter’s big snows had yet to come, and I thought I’d amuse myself by seeing if I could indeed fly a ball over the handsome old farmhouse of my future in-laws with one extra-cold swing. It was nearly zero outside. As dumb ideas go, this one was in a class by itself.
I took dead aim at the chimney where wood smoke swirled in an Arctic breeze and, under the circumstances, made an outstanding golf swing worthy of Old Tom Morris himself on Hogmanay. Happily I watched the ball soar upward and head for the peak of the house, clearly going to clear the roofline by several feet.
Unhappily, it didn’t.
The ball came down well shy of the target and passed through a pane of ancient wavy glass of the window where my future mother-in-law was quietly reading her book and enjoying a pot of tea.
My heart stopped. My feet froze. I didn’t know whether to turn and flee to certain death in the frozen wilderness of Northern Maine or trudge in and face the music of an unhappy Scottish matriarch who didn’t seem particularly pleased that her pretty Harvard-educated daughter was planning to marry a Southern rube who didn’t know how to hit a decent wedge or do a Scottish reel.
I hurried around the pond and opened the door, and there she sat, still holding her book, giving me a look that said I would be banished from the clan before I was ever invited in. Glass was everywhere, but the offending golf ball strangely nowhere to be seen.
Amazingly, it had flown through the window, bounced once on the side table, and landed neatly in the Queen Mum’s teacup.
“Do you know what you said to me?” I asked her on a beautiful Sunday morning in late October, just 29 years later.
“Oh, I remember,” she said, smiling coyly.
“James, I seriously doubt if you could hit that shot again if your very life depended on it.”
“You know,” I added, “I’ve never had a hole-in-one. That was my only ace — my Hogmanay ace.”
God Save the Queen
This made her smile. She pointed to a high shelf behind me where all my books were standing between bookends.
She was resting in a beautiful front room of her cute little house over a darkwater cove in the Maine college town where my kids — her grandchildren — grew up, with all of her favorite books neatly arranged on handsome dark-wood shelves by her attentive daughters, Alison and Fiona.
The walls of the bedroom were painted a cheerful butter yellow, and there there were photos of her nine grandchildren placed all around the room. Squirrels and chickadees fed at the window feeders, beyond which the woods were golden and red with the last of autumn’s northern glory.
So far as I know, Kathleen Bennie never played golf, though her Uncle Eddie, who raised her, was mad for the game back in Scotland.
We became good friends quickly after the Hogmanay Ace, sharing a passion for books and gardens and all things Scottish, and even traveled together to the Holy Land of golf where I once looked up a trio of Glaswegian gents who’d known her uncle — the club champion of Netherlee Golf Club — back in the late 1930s.
They welcomed me warmly one late summer afternoon, telling me stories with such dense Glaswegian brogues I could only make out every fourth or fifth word. A memory I treasure.
The Queen Mum also once gave me her best recipe for haggis, the largely inedible Scottish dish I’ve grown unaccountably fond of:
“Make the haggis from whatever you happen to find lying about in the kitchen. Then make a special Drambuie sauce to go with it. Cook the haggis well and feed it to the dog. Then drink the Drambuie sauce.”
We sat and talked for a lovely hour. I told her about my latest book project and about taking my wife, Wendy, on her first trip to Scotland. She wanted to hear all about the magazines I helped start and now edit down in North Carolina. We talked briefly about some of the same things we’ve spent nigh on three decades talking about — books we were reading, family episodes, politics, children, golf and gardens — and then I kissed her cheek and thanked her for being the Queen Mum, my Queen Mum, the best friend a Southern boy far from home and family could ever have found.
On Sunday night, heading home to North Carolina, I stopped off to see my grown children in the new apartment in Brooklyn they are sharing with childhood pals from back home in Maine. My son Jack brought his new girlfriend, Bridgette, and daughter Maggie cooked a lovely late supper, and her boyfriend Dave opened a very good wine and we stayed up insanely late (for me), talking about everything from their busy careers to the great Christmas trees their mother and I always hunted and cut on Kate Bennie’s farm.
I was pleased that they each phone their grandmother like clockwork and were both heading up to Maine to see her that very next weekend.
The next morning, I dropped my son off at work on Manhattan’s Lower West Side and headed down the highway toward home, my head so full of details and tender emotions it will probably take until Hogmanay for me to grasp what a wonderful, heart-breaking road trip it really was.
Editor’s note: Jim Dodson is traveling to Brunswick, Maine, this weekend to attend Kate Bennie’s memorial service and share his favorite stories of the Queen Mum.