Meet Miss Esther Wood. Born in Blue Hill, Maine in 1905, Esther earned degrees from Colby College and Radcliffe, taught at public and private schools, taught history at the University of Maine, wrote four books and numerous magazine and newspaper articles, and was inducted to the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame.
I took this photo of Miss Wood in 1998 at her home on the East Blue Hill Road. I had no idea that I would meet her–had never heard of her, in fact–but the Slavens introduced me (The Past Comes Calling), and there I was, sitting on her front porch with only the 3×5 spiral notebook and pen that I carry “just in case.”
“What do you want to ask me? You have the opportunity. You must use it.” Miss Wood had definitely been a teacher, but so had I, and I launched in. Had she known the Lorings? What did she remember about them? It wasn’t until later that I read her reminiscences about Blue Hill people, Saltwater Seasons (1980) and Deep Roots (1990), which added to our talk on her porch.
Esther lived next door to the Curtis and Brooks families, who were friends of the Lorings, and her Great-aunt Fan lived next door to Emilie and Victor.
“It was a matter of pride to her that her neighbor was an author.” Deep Roots
Janey Curtis and Esther played “Mrs. Emilie Loring, the author” and took part in events that Emilie wrote about. Esther remembered getting up costumes for parties (“Rush Order for Fancy Dress”), the history of Stone House (Uncharted Seas), and the Owen sisters with their strictly-assigned wardrobe colors (Here Comes the Sun!).
The sisters… each had a color for her wardrobe. Miss Bessie’s was green; Miss Minnie’s blue; Miss Carrie’s, purple. Saltwater Seasons
She remembered Emilie’s sister, Rachel, as “still young and beautiful.”
I believe that she enjoyed making a picture. The bouquet she carried always complemented her gown. I still recall the shoulder-load of goldenrod that complemented her purple suit. Saltwater Seasons
Rachel and her pearls inspired Diane Vernon’s sister in Where Beauty Dwells.
Filtered sunlight brought out glints of copper in her chestnut hair; her shirtwaist frock of turquoise-blue cotton was open at the neck. Her throat was as firm and creamy as the lustrous string of pearls about it. Where Beauty Dwells
But Merry is in a wheelchair, and Diane is determined.
“They said we must build you up, keep you from being worked and we have. You will walk. I’ll make you. I’ll put all the strength in me into making you.”
This had a basis in truth. Rachel contracted a muscle-wasting disease, but unlike Merry, she didn’t get better. She died from her illness in 1923 and left her beautiful pearls to Emilie. That’s the nice thing about stories: you can make up the ending you wished for. Emilie’s brother Robert–“David” in Hilltops Clear–regains his health; and Carrie Owen, who died young, gets a romance in Here Comes the Sun!
Like the rest of us, Esther remembered best what she had experienced for herself. She didn’t have the facts right about Emilie Loring’s past before coming to Blue Hill, but she remembered what she witnessed with admirable clarity. If you’ve thought about writing down your own memories, be inspired.
In a chapter of Deep Roots called “Broken Friendship,” Esther details three incidents that caused a rift between Victor Loring and neighbor Benjamin Curtis. The first was the boundary dispute that appears in Where Beauty Dwells.
There soon arose a misunderstanding over the map provided by the surveyor. The two neighbors appealed… and both of the impartial parties agreed with Mr. Loring’s interpretation of the map. Deep Roots
“‘From thence to a rock with a V cut in it at the southeast corner.’ There isn’t such a rock, Larry. I’ve spent the greater portion of my waking life hunting for it…”
“It was buried forty fathoms deep–or words to that effect, but I found it.”
Where Beauty Dwells
The next was “an unfortunate incident at the Loring dining table.” As Esther told it, Ben Curtis made a joke at his host’s expense, and Victor was so angered that he left the room. The final “straw” was actually a teacup. The handle of a Loring teacup broke, and hot tea spilled on Mary Curtis’s new gown from London. Victor offered to buy her a new gown, and this time, it was Ben who was incensed.
Snapped back the angry Curtis, “You will do no such thing. I can well afford to buy gowns for Mary. But in the future I shall see to it that my wife does not frequent homes where guests are given cracked cups.” Deep Roots
There’s a reason that Esther knew so much about the events inside the Loring’s house: Esther Wood was Emilie Loring’s maid.
The coming of the “summer people” to easter Maine is a topic that has been well explored… But those who waited on them have had little attention… Often a happy and affectionate relationship develops. Saltwater Seasons
Unlike the Curtises, who kept both a cook and a maid, the Lorings had only one maid, and that summer, Esther was it. I don’t know why she didn’t write about her own experience when she wrote about “the help” in Saltwater Seasons, but she told me about it that day on her porch. She was a teenager, and Emilie trained her, like the Vernon sisters trained Trudy.
“You want to be good enough to work in one of the big summer houses here, don’t you? …I’m putting in valuable time teaching you.” Where Beauty Dwells
Esther remembered Emilie as very kind, not at all snobbish, as some of the summer people were. She thought of Victor as somewhat stern. Esther and Janey Curtis were fast friends, though, and the Curtis-Loring rift may have influenced her opinion.
Emilie Loring used real events and people in her books, not in their entirety, but close enough to be recognized by those who knew them. (See Emilie Loring’s Clue-filled Novels) It’s no wonder, then, that Esther Wood’s books remind us of Emilie Loring’s stories.
They also paint a warm-hearted and detailed picture of the people and places that Emilie Loring called “home” for forty years.
The excitement fairly bubbled over when the boat docked. First comers among the rusticators were joyfully on hand to greet later ones. Familiar native figures called out hearty welcomes.
Rocking and swinging must have been major pastimes, for the wide verandas were crowded with rattan rockers.
Most took time to become acquainted with the natives who were their neighbors. Gradually they ceased to be city people staying in the country. They became a part of the town.
Emilie Loring returned the favor:
“It isn’t a backwash town. You couldn’t find more up-to-the-minute, finer people anywhere than many of the so-called natives here.” Where Beauty Dwells
I hope you take the opportunity to read Esther Wood’s books and articles. If you have read all of your Emilie Lorings, perhaps more than once, it’s a way to enter back in and enjoy the Blue Hill settings of some of your favorites. If you’ve read neither Emilie Loring nor Esther Wood, you’ve got a treat ahead of you. And if you have memories of your own to save, start writing.