Meade Memorial

Eastern Standard Time:
The Teachers' Tale

This column appeared in June, 1995, in The Washington Blade.

By Lawrence Biemiller

Squirrels celebrated the beginning of summer by eating the cherry-tomato plants we had put out on the balcony at home -- ate them down to dirt and then dug up the roots and ate those too. I'd never thought of squirrels as craving tomato plants, but Scott spotted one of the culprits through the living-room window: "big ol' squirrel, sitting right there in the pot." All they left us were the two plastic push-in markers, each adorned with a photograph in which a happy trio of tomatoes gathers under the words "Large Red Cherry." I keep meaning to buy something else for the pots, but then a deadline comes along, or I go off to watch Guillermo's graduation, or I clutter up my mind with lists of things that need to be brought to the beach. And the pots sit empty.

Actually my experience with squirrels goes way back -- back more than thirty years, back to Miss Rost and Miss Collins's new patio at Sherwood, with the flagstones set in fresh concrete and the two new picnic tables and bird feeders hung in the dogwoods. I was six then, venturing out alone for the almost first time, exploring the one-lane road beside my grandparents' summer cottage, the mossy paths that led to cottages nearby. Miss Rost and Miss Collins, both retired teachers, had the cottage just below ours. They were among the first friends I ever made on my own.

I don't remember how I met them, not exactly. I do remember that they had just had the patio built, and that squirrels were eating all the seed out of their bird feeders. Like others before them, they were in search of the perfect obstruction -- something that would keep squirrels from shimmying down the wires on which the feeders hung. Pie plates, old phonograph records, chicken wire -- they tried everything, but of course the squirrels kept right on feasting. Hopeless as it was, the campaign against the squirrels gave Miss Rost and Miss Collins and me a common interest, something a shy six-year-old could ask about when he came back for another visit the next day. I visited the day after that, and the next week, and the next summer, and the next. I can still hear Miss Rost calling out to me from the screened-in kitchen porch: "Welllll, look who's here! Come on in!"

In those days Miss Rost had a voice like a tenor clarinet; before she retired, she had been an assistant principal in the Baltimore public schools. I think Miss Collins had been a principal. Miss Rost was the more vivacious of the two, smiling and chatty and quick. Miss Collins, who was a few years older and a few sizes more solid, talked more slowly and seemed a bit austere. Even when she was in motion, which wasn't often, she looked a bit like a painting of Gertrude Stein, or so it seems to me now. Collectively, Miss Rost and Miss Collins were "the teachers." As far as I could tell everyone knew them and liked them. Around Sherwood Forest they were in demand for luncheons and cocktail parties and whatever other social events people planned in that strange little community in the 1960's.

And Sherwood was a strange little community. Built on the south shore of the Severn River at the turn of the century, it was a slightly hokey middle-class imitation of summer places richer people built in Maine and the Adirondacks. The cottages had fieldstone fireplaces and log porch railings and bentwood furniture. Each of its hills was named after a character in the Robin Hood myth, and in the Fourth of July parade everyone strolled behind floats built on boat trailers and adorned with banners reading "Little John" and "Maid Marion" and "Friar Tuck." We lived at the top of Lower Friar Tuck, in No. 125.

Eccentric as its premise was, in many ways Sherwood seemed merely to concentrate the most claustrophobic aspects of the suburbs. If anyone there read poetry or gave a second thought to social justice, they kept quiet about it. Instead, there were golf games and tennis matches and cocktail parties, weekend dances for teenagers, and children everywhere. There was even an all-sports day camp to which I was sentenced one particularly excruciating summer.

My cousins loved Sherwood's day camp, loved swimming after breakfast, archery after lunch, canoeing after archery. They fit in perfectly there, but I didn't -- I couldn't pitch, serve, putt, or butterfly. I was just then beginning to realize that I was not like my cousins, not like everyone else. It occurs to me now that Miss Rost and Miss Collins must have known I was queer even before I did, must have welcomed me onto their patio and their kitchen porch because they could see how unhappy I was almost everywhere else. Their porch was a safe haven for me, and I was beginning to need it.

Naive as I have always been, I was in college before I thought to wonder about these two big, deep-voiced women who lived together for decades. By then they had moved to Florida, and I couldn't remember the layout of their cottage, couldn't say how many bedrooms there were, how many beds. I didn't look for clues when I was six. A year or so ago, before she died, Miss Rost said something over the phone about a suite of bedroom furniture that I'm pretty sure she described as having been bought for "our bedroom," but I could be wrong about even that. I had long since come out to her, but I can't remember that she ever said anything definitive to me. Maybe she thought she didn't need to, or maybe she didn't discuss things like that, or maybe -- well, I don't know. It comes down to that, in the end: I don't actually know. I guess no one else at Sherwood did, either.

If you look upriver, you can see Sherwood as you cross the Severn on Route 50 on your way to this beach town where we have made so comfortable a haven for ourselves. This summer G. Hiroshima and Tom and I have a screened porch of our own to enjoy here. We have lots of birds -- robins hopping around the lawn, jays squawking in the trees, birds I can't identify splashing in puddles left from last night's thunderstorms -- and as far as I can tell there's no squirrel problem. But still I've been thinking about Miss Rost. Even at end, when her voice was soft and feeble and her feet were numb, her enthusiasm for living seemed undiminished, as did the warmth with which she answered whenever I called. For 30 years she made me feel cherished. We should all be so lucky.

Copyright © 1995 by Lawrence Biemiller. Published June, 1995, in The Washington Blade.