Living Out Loud: : Real People

Richard and Kristina Ford invite me in from the rain

May 18, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Larry Gross

Richard & Kristina Ford entertain their college students and others at their East Boothbay, Maine home.

When I got back to Portland that night, I dropped off my ride at Enterprise Car Rental and called my hotel and asked for a shuttle to pick me up. The hotel clerk told me it wasn't available. Frustrated, I zipped up my windbreaker and walked the eight blocks in a pouring rain back to the Eastland Park. When I got to my room, I reached in my back pocket for my reporter's notebook and found it soaked, ink all blurry and most of the words I had written unreadable. Frustrated again, I went to my laptop and just started typing, wanting to remember the details of the day and the wonderful real people I had met.

As I was driving in my rental car on this Saturday morning, the wind was gusting. I was driving from Portland, Maine to East Boothbay Harbor, which is about an hour and a half away. Rain was falling from the sky; the ocean was all around me. Other drivers were blowing their horns, because I was going too slowly. The directions I got from MapQuest were full of errors. I felt intimidated.

"Why the hell am I doing this?" I said out loud.

I knew damn well why I was doing it. I let novelist Richard Ford know I would be spending a few days in Portland and he sent me a postcard inviting me to a party.

"The party's principally for my and Kristina's (Ford's wife) Bowdoin college students," he wrote, "but others will be attending. You're invited."

I'm flat-out a fan of his writing — that's why I was in that blue Nissan Sentra cursing at the directions and thinking about smoking a cigarette in the rental car despite the fact I was told not to.

I lost track of how many times I got out of the car to ask for directions. Finally a kindhearted man who works in a hardware store in Boothbay took the time to write down directions — good directions. MapQuest should hire him.

Within 10 minutes I was there. I must have been quite a sight when I walked through the door with my windbreaker soaking wet and hair all down in my face. Kristina spotted me first.

"Are you Larry?" she said.

"Am I really here?" I think I said, feeling relief that the quest was over.

"Take your coat off," she said, "and help yourself to some food. Richard's around here somewhere. He was wondering if you would come."

I took my coat off, had some food (a delicious catered affair), had some white wine and immediately started feeling better. I went looking for Richard.

College students were everywhere. I found him making conversation with some of them in his living room. When he saw me, his face lit up.

"Larry! So glad you could come," he said, giving me a healthy handshake, slapping me on the back and looking down at the bag I was carrying.

"What's in the bag?"

"Just some things you probably don't need," I said. He laughed and replied, "No, Larry, I want it all, I want it all!"

With a house full of students, there was no time to look through the bag right them, but in it he would find a bottle of Montgomery Inn barbecue sauce, CityBeat's Annual Manual, a book on the history of Cincinnati, D.B. Well's Your Lolita (a book from a great local fiction writer who lives across the river) and a can of Skyline chili — sort of a Porkopolis sampler.

I lost track of Richard after he took the bag to a room for safe keeping, so I started talking to some of the students. Kristina instructs hers in land-use planning in the Environmental Studies Program at Bowdoin, a subject she knows well. She's had a successful career as an urban planer, the most recent job being executive director of city planning for the city of New Orleans.

"She's amazing," said Stuart, one her students. "She's so in to what she's doing, what she's teaching. She's really enthusiastic."

Richard is an award winning novelist and short story writer (Independence Day, Rock Springs, A Multitude of Sins) and is teaching immediate and advanced writing for the current spring semester.

"He's really great," said student Alex, "but he won't let me go to the bathroom. I have to wait until the middle of class to be excused."

I gave Alex a funny look, like "So what?" She laughed at me and said, "I know — I'm lucky to have him."

I drank more wine. I mingled, I listened. I asked Kristina if it were all right to take pictures. She said, "Sure."

I made friends with Brian and Kevin, the caterers. Turns out Kevin is a smoker like me and he sneaked away from his job for a few minutes so we could go outside in the rain and have a cigarette. He told me he didn't want to get caught smoking on the job. I told him everything would be fine.

When we were about halfway done smoking our cigarettes, we saw Richard walking toward us. Kevin's face went pale and he said, "Oh shit."

When he reached us, I smiled and said, "We're smokers."

"Hell, that's all right," Richard said. "You can smoke in the house if you want."

When he walked away, the color came back into Kevin's face.

I chatted with Ann Kibbie, who chairs the English Department at Bowdoin. I think she was enjoying the wine as much as I was. I talked with poet Polly Clark and her husband — really nice people. I wrote in my reporter's notebook to order her book when I got back home.

I met a lot of wonderful folks, but my eyes and ears were usually focused on Richard and Kristina. Once I saw them kiss. More than once I heard them say, "I love you" to each other. I was surprised by my reaction to this. I felt somewhat jealous of them.

They met at Michigan State University, where they were both students. They married in 1968, 37 years ago. Maybe it was the wine getting to me, but my jealousy turned into sentimentality. Hell, I use to be married once. Someone used to say, "I love you" to me, too. But, it stopped so long ago — 11 years, in fact. We sure didn't make it to 37 years. After 17, my wife and I decided we no longer could live together and a way of life I thought I would have forever came to an end.

"Jesus, get a grip," I told myself. Why the hell I was thinking about my own marriage in the middle of a party in East Boothbay, Maine? I had no idea. I shrugged my feelings off and went back into the kitchen and had more white wine.

Much to their shock and surprise, I had my picture taken with Brian and Kevin, the caterers. I had my picture taken with Alex, too; and when Richard entered the kitchen, I also took his picture with her. Kristina joined us and I got my camera out again and they posed for me, arms around one another with those genuine feelings coming through.

After the college kids left, I got some time alone with them and asked questions about their marriage that I probably shouldn't have, but that's what white wine does to me. I think it was all right; they didn't seem to mind. And now I'm looking at my fucking wet blurry notes I can't read and thinking maybe I'm not meant to know the secrets of a lasting marriage. But I do remember one thing Richard said and maybe it's the key to it all: "You have to want to be together everyday."

When it was time for me to leave, Richard gave me another strong handshake and Kristina hugged me. Both thanked me for coming. I got in my rental car and didn't get lost once on the way back, didn't even look at the directions from that silly MapQuest.

It was still raining as I headed back, but I didn't care. As I drove down Interstate 295, I pretended like the rental car was mine and lit a cigarette. My mind drifted to all those college students, the white wine, the beautiful home I had visited and the good time I had with the Fords — Kristina: loving, smart and devoted to her husband; Richard, kind, determined and devoted to his wife. Thirty-seven years together and still in love. I'm not jealous really, just envious.