November 28th, 1985

“Mary had a little lamb

whose fleece was white as snow

and everywhere that Mary went

her lamb was sure to go”

Which in reality was a small schoolhouse in central Massachusetts where Mary Elizabeth Sawyer walked each day from her farm, followed by the lamb.

I’ll come back to this.

I worked for some time at a quaint inn in Sterling, Massachusetts. The restaurant with a small lounge and several rooms upstairs sat just near the Wachusett Reservoir, at the bottom of a hill in the village. It was owned by the Roy family, and Al Roy had studied cooking in France. His son, Mark, ran the restaurant and inn, along with his wife Patti. The staff consisted of about ten of us. Dave was a chef, Tom the bartender, Rich—a student at the time at the Culinary Institute of America—assisted Dave, and the wait staff. We were like family and shared each other’s lives.

I’d go hawk watching at the Quabbin Reservoir an hour west with Dave and his wife, and often Cathy and Stacy and others would come to my place—an old yellow house just down the shore of the reservoir a few miles past the cider mill—and sometimes after the dining room closed we’d sit around and have a drink and talk. There were funny times, like when I went out one cold winter night to put the trash out and the only other person left was Cathy who was placing the fine China plates out for the next evening’s guests, but I locked myself out. I went to the back windows of the dining room which faced the wooded hillside, standing two feet deep in snow, and knocked on the window. It scared the crap out of Cathy and the stack of plates sailed out of her arms and crashed to the floor. She screamed. I laughed. It was an accident, truly. Or when a couple from Quebec came to dinner just as the dining room closed and kept just Tom and me there for hours, well past midnight. Dave had closed up the kitchen after their meal and went home, but they still had wine and dessert. At about 1 am they left and when I opened their bill folder to see what kind of tip they left on the $40 tab for keeping us there so late, the credit card receipt showed no tip at all. I cursed loud enough for Tom to laugh and say, “No tip, huh?” and when I picked up the folder, a $100 bill was underneath.

Some tragic times as well, mostly January 28th, 1986, two months to the day after Thanksgiving, and just about a week before I moved to Pennsylvania. Most Americans will never forget this day, but it was particularly poignant for those of us in New England since Christa McAuliffe had lived just across the border in New Hampshire, and on that morning and afternoon, the inn was packed with people—many friends of Christa’s—to watch the Challenger launch on television. I was tapping a keg of Budweiser and looked up as Patti said, “Oh wow, that doesn’t seem right.”

It was completely silent, followed by cries. I can still smell the beer, hear the dishes from the kitchen, Cathy saying, “What’s going on?” and Tom behind the bar quietly repeating, “Holy Shit. Oh wow. Holy Shit.”

But today I remember a happier time there. Thanksgiving Day, 1985. We had a limited menu of Turkey, Scallops, or Prime Rib, and we were booked for all three seatings. The last guests left about 7 that night, and after we cleaned the dining room and the kitchen, we all sat around a bunch of tables pushed together and had a full meal with all three entrees, bottles of wine, pies, and stories, constant and hilarious stories. It was a beautiful time in my life and I loved where I lived, what I did, and the people I spent my time with.

But something had to change; I knew this. I did not know what needed to happen, but something else needed to be next. I had graduated from college, traveled through Mexico, lived in Tucson, managed a health club, and was happy, but stagnant, and this state of being, albeit pleasant, contradicted my very nature. It would not be long before I would turn in my notice and move to Pennsylvania, but on that Thanksgiving where a dozen misfits all sat around the table together laughing and drinking and wishing it could be like that forever but knowing it had to change—and would, for every single one of us—I got up to open another bottle of wine but instead walked out the front door to see that even more snow had accumulated on the couple of feet we already had.

I walked to the center of the village just a half block away and found a statue I’d never seen before. It was of Mary Elizabeth Sawyer’s lamb. Mary is the young girl in Sterling, Massachusetts, who had a small lamb that followed her everywhere, including school. It was a big event in the small school, and the next day a classmate of Mary’s, John Roulstone, a year older than Mary, handed her a poem he had written about the event. The poem had three stanzas—the first of which is at the top of this page.

Some years later, a poet, Sarah Hale who lived not far from there, published a small book of poems which contained a longer version of the poem, but Hale insisted it was original and based upon imaginary events. The controversy lasted for some years, well after both Mary and Hale had died. Until Henry Ford—yes, that one—investigated the incident and not only sided with Sterling’s own Mary, but purchased the schoolhouse from the village of Sterling, moved it to Sudbury, Massachusetts, and then published a book about Mary.

Back to me.

I stood at the small statue watching snow slowly cover the lamb’s wool now truly white as snow, and waited in perfect silence, listening to the quiet of rural Massachusetts. I can feel that moment today, that sense of peace braided with a sense of restlessness. I had to leave. I had to stay. Back then for people my age riding the tail of the Baby Boomer generation, the urge to “change” something usually meant going to the liquor store for boxes, filling them with books I’d never read again, tying them up with string, and moving somewhere else. Boston was out of the question—geez, an hour to the east was too far. Staying meant improving my life where I was—figuring out how to take the best of my situation and improve it, and I stood in front of Mary’s lamb and knew I didn’t know how to begin to do that. I only knew how to pack up and leave; that I was good at.

I went back in and grabbed the wine bottle and while I was opening it, Mark came in the kitchen.

“Where the hell have you been? We’re a bottle a head of you!”

“I was talking to the lamb.”

“What lamb?”

“Mary’s.”

“Ha. Oh. Well…”

“Mark, I think I’m going to have to turn in my notice, but, I don’t know, maybe January, maybe February. I need to find something else to do.”

“Oh wow, well, okay. We can talk about this later. You’re here for the holidays, though?”

“Yes, of course.”

We drank wine. I suddenly felt a little out of place, more like a visiting cousin than immediate family.

At the end of the night, everyone had left, Mark and Patti had retired upstairs, and just Cathy and I were left, she placed the dinner plates out for the next day, and I put out the trash, where I accidently locked myself out.

I moved. Cathy moved. Dave opened his own restaurant. Tom died. And the Sterling Inn fell into disrepair over the next few decades, abandoned, with vines taking over the building, the parking lot cracked and covered with weeds. Until this past fall, when someone bought it from the Roy family with the intent of restoring it to its full original glory. Same red trim; same black shutters.

That was thirty-six Thanksgivings ago. Or last year. My perspective is off today. But some memories follow us around, waiting for us to notice them.

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