Thoughts on Home

Prayer Circles

To say goodbye to her family’s Cushing farmhouse, writer Jean Rukkila reflects — and walks laps.

cushing farmhouse, Jean Rukkila

ABOVE The author’s keepsakes include photos of her grandmother and her Cushing house, the red Finnish-English dictionary her grandfather carried in his overalls, World War II ephemera, and the green Finnish-American cookbook her grandmother studied to become a hired cook.

cushing farmhouse, Jean Rukkila

ABOVE The author’s keepsakes include photos of her grandmother and her Cushing house, the red Finnish-English dictionary her grandfather carried in his overalls, World War II ephemera, and the green Finnish-American cookbook her grandmother studied to become a hired cook.

TEXT BY JEAN RUKKILA
PHOTOGRAPH BY Mark Fleming

When I told an old friend that the sale of my Maine house was closing 100 years and two days after my grandfather signed the deed in 1917, he said, “How Finns flip houses.” I laughed and saw a fluttering of scenes from family history parade across my inner eye, like a small flip book making a jerky movie of the Finns landing in America, buying a farm in Cushing, and feeding four children through the Depression. The youngest in that house, my mother, grew up to marry a soldier and, after the war, moved to Arizona with him, but returned to Grandmother’s house with their kids and a travel trailer often over the decades. Later, when she was widowed, she spent her summers in the house she was born in, away from the Phoenix heat, and I, after her death, spent the fall seasons sorting through the attic and barn and drawers of old furniture, putting my hands on every piece of paper and object from a century of occupation.

I particularly like the wooden skis made by my grandfather that Grandmother strapped to her feet to slide to the mailbox when snow was deep. “To get her Helsinki newspaper,” says a man down the road who remembers her. In a drawer of her Singer treadle sewing machine I find the receipts carefully kept for monthly payments of five dollars — a 20 percent discount on the $45 for being timely. Every curtain she ever made was still in the attic and I pick a dozen brightly patterned rectangles to hang between trees in the yard. “Grannie Prayer Flags,” I explain to friends who visit. In a vintage trunk is a bundle of postcards from her sisters who stayed in Finland; the sweet images of fields with haystacks and wooden houses tucked into lovely groves of trees delight me. The sisters sent picture books too. I study black-and-white photos of 1930s and ’40s Finland and wonder what my grandmother thought as she looked at the country she left behind.

Cushing is a colorful piece of the midcoast, where painter Andrew Wyeth savored local faces, barns, field edges, and upturned dories. His images of peeling paint and gray bucket, geraniums on a windowsill, and tall grass against cedar-shake siding always felt like Grandmother’s house to me. Meanwhile, her neighbor, Bernard Langlais, shaped old wood into outdoor sculptures of elephant and camel, Trojan horse, and Nixon in a swamp giving victory signs. When friends in the West ask what to do in Maine, I tell them to hunker down for a couple of days in Rockland and explore along the St. George River. Visit the house in the famous Wyeth painting, Christina’s World, and go by the Langlais Sculpture Preserve. Feast on chowder at Rockland Cafe, have a lobster at The Dip Net in Port Clyde, and sit on the public landing in Thomaston to watch the clam diggers jockey their boats into the water to catch the outgoing tide. I’m grateful my mother moved from Maine to plant her life in the Arizona I so love, and I also feel enriched by years of visits to her childhood home.

It is modern to become expert at moving on, but it’s also a lot of work. Whether you are leaving government quarters at the end of a season, vacating an apartment, or selling your starter home, changing rooms takes stamina. Add a hundred years of accumulation to the picture and you can see why it took me eight years to sell my family’s house. I have a ritual for saying goodbye to places, whether it is an overnight camp along a trail or a fire lookout I’ve worked for years: I spiral around it in expanding circles, right shoulder in, to make a prayer of thanks with my feet and my attention. This time, I start by the Tappan Deluxe stove, where I’d put the toaster with its cow cover to remember to add it to the last box to go to Salvation Army.

Jean Rikkula at her family's home in Cushing, Maine

ABOVE Jean Rukkila poses with her Can-Do Gal, who evolved from marks she made on the garage door while cleaning brushes. Dressed in firefighting pants, the figure is a composite of strong women Rukkila knew in the Forest Service, including herself.

"I have a ritual for saying goodbye to places, whether it is an overnight camp along a trail or a fire lookout I’ve worked for years: I spiral around it in expanding circles, right shoulder in, to make a prayer of thanks with my feet and my attention."

Jean Rikkula at her family's home in Cushing, Maine

"I have a ritual for saying goodbye to places, whether it is an overnight camp along a trail or a fire lookout I’ve worked for years: I spiral around it in expanding circles, right shoulder in, to make a prayer of thanks with my feet and my attention."

ABOVE Jean Rukkila poses with her Can-Do Gal, who evolved from marks she made on the garage door while cleaning brushes. Dressed in firefighting pants, the figure is a composite of strong women Rukkila knew in the Forest Service, including herself.

I spiral out the front door that locked me out more than once with its finicky latch, over the rise where the sauna was before it was dismantled and left to melt into the woods, past the two-hole outhouse peeling away from the barn, and beneath the spreading branches of the giant white-pine tree. I walk by the second front door we never used and notice how the purple bellflowers in front look framed by the white wood casing. I take a deep breath by the screened door with the granite step, where my grandmother would stand, long arms composed just so, as her daughter’s family pulled out of the driveway to go back to Arizona during so many Augusts of my childhood. In the next lap, I walk farther out and observe the apple tree I started to trim when I found it hidden in an accumulation of fast-growing brush. And the balsam I hoped to cut new branch tips from to make a wreath some winter day. And the garage where I painted a bold-looking figure on the big white door. A composite of the capable women I’d known on fire crews over the years, I called her the Can-Do Gal and asked her to keep an eye on the place when I was away. 

I walk with the prayer of letting go, which is also the prayer of possibility. Out and around I go again with my looking. For years I fretted about the old barn I couldn’t afford to repair — it looks peaceful now that I’ve stopped worrying about it. Taking in the delicate creeping vine on the two-holer, I think of the countless giggly flashlight trips my twin sister and I made there. I pause to honor the ghosts of family and the sweet investment of my time here: the handwriting I studied in papers that overflowed from attic trunks, the letters I wrote at the kitchen table, musing on family stories and how history happened along a rural Maine road, the faces I savored over meals of haddock, clams, and lobsters, and the mornings of waking to fog that seemed to purr and lick the windows like a huge affectionate cat.

Three times I walk around the family farmhouse to say thanks and goodbye. To say yes to the richness of our relationship and yes to letting it go to its future and me to mine.

Jean Rukkila is a retired fire lookout whose essays have appeared in Potato Eyes, Puerto del Sol, Quarterly West, Sonora Review, and The Sun. For 10 years, she wrote a monthly column for FlagstaffLive!, where a version of this piece originally appeared. She lives in Prescott, Arizona.


One Comment

  1. Christopher Keller

    Bittersweet! I well up when I see or read about these old homesteads where owners hang on in quiet desperation unable to repair the barn as it slowly succumbs to gravity and the elements.

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