Upstairs, Downstairs on MDI
Writing from her job as a maid in a grand estate with a colorful caretaker, an author finds fresh purpose.
ABOVE Writer Elizabeth W. Garber, pictured in the mid-’70s (top left and bottom right), and her grandmother (top right) exchanged dozens of letters during the summer Garber worked as a maid at Ox Ledge, in Seal Harbor. Her grandmother advised her to make “something literary” out of the experience.
TEXT BY ELIZABETH W. GARBER
You’ve probably heard the one about the monkey who backed into the lawn mower?” asked Homer, the caretaker, as he ambled into the 1910s summer-house kitchen. He carried two dozen roses from his cutting garden and dropped them into a bucket in the pantry where the Missus arranged bouquets. We were all rushing to get ready for dinner guests. The other maid was sticking toothpicks into tiny hot dogs simmered in bourbon ketchup, while I sliced carrots and celery and laid them on china cabbage plates. The recent cooking-school grad was rolling out puff pastry for beef Wellington. The Missus wanted to try all his specialties that summer of 1976. I shook my head. “No, Homer, can’t say I have.”
“The monkey said, ‘It won’t be long now!’” I was bad at jokes and looked puzzled. Homer added, “The tail, Deah, the tail.” I groaned, but jotted down the joke on paper I kept in the pocket of my white uniform. While the chef covered the roast with sautéed mushrooms and shallots, I made a salad with greens and radishes from the house garden. Homer surveyed our work before launching into a story about a cabin boy who ran to the captain with news but couldn’t blurt out his words. Homer bellowed out the captain’s voice, “Well, sing it boy!” and then he sang the punch line, “Oh, the lousy cook fell overboard and he’s 40 miles behind.”
The Missus, in her mid-40s with sprayed, frosted hair, emerged, wearing spotless white pants and a pastel sweater, and said crisply, “Why Homer, you are just too much!” Homer announced he’d better check on the electric ice cream maker on the back porch. After the Missus had inspected everything and left, Homer was back with a metal cylinder of peach ice cream. He winked at me. “I didn’t know she was they-ah.” He watched me trim the greens and, before heading off again, he teased, “Think you’ll ever amount to anything?”
At 22, I was a Harvard dropout. Home in Ohio, my younger brother ordered me to get a life and a car. Buying a rusty 1963 MGB for $400 propelled me into that new life. I spent the spring under the hood before setting off for a summer job in Maine, stopping frequently to adjust the carburetor. In Seal Harbor, on Mount Desert Island, the MGB sputtered up the steep curves that led to Ox Ledge, the 10-bedroom, Shingle-style mansion that was once part of Edsel Ford’s Skylands estate. In the service entrance, the car lurched and backfired before I turned off the engine. “By golly, that’s some contraption you got there,” said a tall, husky man in a blue jumpsuit.
“I haven’t got the timing right, still a bit rough.” I stuck out my hand. “I’m Elizabeth, upstairs maid and second cook. Are you Homer?” “Last I checked, I still was.” He looked at my long hair, wire-rimmed glasses, baggy cords, and Mexican shirt. “You’re to do the Missus’s pursin.’ Just follow me.” He led me through the vast white-tile kitchen, up the back stairs, and pointed out my beige maid’s room. Then we passed through the door to “their part of the house.” Suddenly, everything was bright and colorful. Bedrooms decorated in red, blue, and yellow flew by before we reached the green owners’ bedroom, where Homer’s wife, Mildred, was setting knickknacks on end tables. They’d worked six weeks to open the house, and were down to final touches before the Mister and Missus arrived the next day.
The bedroom was saturated with a dazzling, clear light I’d never encountered growing up in the Midwest. At the window, I was mesmerized by the vast panorama of granite coastline, forests, and islands. I pointed to a telescope on a tripod. “What a great place to watch the stars!”
ABOVE The 6,800-square-foot, 17-room Shingle-style mansion where Garber worked was built in the 1910s and was once part of Edsel Ford’s Skylands estate. Now owned by Martha Stewart, it’s reportedly slated for demolition.
Homer snorted, “That’s for the Mister to watch what’s happening down at the Rockefellers’ at The Point.” He asked me if I knew about the man who painted “most all” of the walls to look like marble in the Rockefellers’ 100-room estate? “The dining room was so convincing, you had to knock on the walls to prove it wasn’t marble.” That may have been the moment I decided I had to write down the stories I heard from Homer.
Mildred shooed Homer out of the room. “Time to get to work.” She pointed to stacks of suitcases, eight for the Missus and two for the Mister, next to an ironing board. It turns out, doing the “Missus’s pursin’” meant pressing the wrinkled clothes before hanging them in their closets. While I ironed 16 pairs of white pants, I stole glances at the islands off the coast and the stunning light.
After the Family arrived, the household settled into a routine that revolved around a massive wooden table in the center of the kitchen and Homer. I worked from 6 a.m., when I set up breakfast trays, until the last dishes were put away by midnight. Homer arrived each morning singing, “Once I was happy, but look at me now.” And then we waited for the Family to appear.
First, the Mister, in a button-down shirt and khakis, raced through the kitchen, saying no to breakfast before driving the estate pickup to town. The 18-year-old son staggered in, wearing an Aussie hat at a jaunty angle, with complaints about his hangover. He and Homer bantered about how bad the other looked. The 20-year-old daughter picked up her iced coffee before heading off. Finally, the well-coiffed Missus, in tennis whites, arrived at 11 a.m. to confer with the chef about menus and grocery lists. The other maid and I were told how many for dinner and which china.
After the Missus left for the club, Homer would glance at the stocked pantry and jammed refrigerators. “All this grub and nothing fit to eat.” Soon, he’d be back, with raspberries or vegetables from the gardens. For 10 hours a day, he came and went, entertaining the Help and Family with his stories. “Don’t you worry that I’ll run out. I’ve got thousands of ’em!” The irony was not lost on me that I left Harvard, where I’d studied Homer’s Odyssey in Greek, to find myself listening to a storytelling Homer with a Maine accent, who told of his adventures on sailing ships, log drives, and marching with Patton.
Summer blossomed beyond the windows — sailboats in the harbor, whitecaps offshore, breezes in the spruce forest — while in the house we changed linen sheets, opened and closed curtains, and replaced bouquets. On my afternoon breaks, I hiked in Acadia, waded in the harbor, and wrote lengthy letters to my grandmother — about kitchen dramas and menus, the light on the ocean, and Homer. I didn’t know it then, but writing about that summer gave me a direction and a muse that would draw me back to Maine and, eventually, fill four books of poetry.
When I wondered aloud, “Should I join the back-to-the-landers?” Homer shook his head. “You need to figure out how to make a living before you move here.” I took his words to heart. By the time I left in my well-timed MGB, I was on my way back to finish college, certain I would return.
Elizabeth W. Garber has written three books of poetry about small-town life in Maine, and collaborated with artist Michael Weymouth on Maine: (Island Time), which combines her poetry and essays with his paintings and photographs. Three of her poems have been read on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. She was the poet laureate of Belfast, Maine, in 2006 and has maintained a private acupuncture practice in Belfast for more than 35 years.