Susan Lapinski is a writer at work on a memoir set in the state of Maine in the United States. She lives in New York City. Any opinions expressed are her own.
The most indomitable woman I ever met was Susy Stanwood of rural Maine. Towering as the tall pines she lived among, Susy was a natural woman long before Aretha Franklin sang that song about being one.
Susy had a husband but he mostly sat around wrapped in blankets while Susy did all the work, the locals used to whisper.
By the time she was 40, Susy had already fought her way through a blinding blizzard to save some lost men from freezing to death. And In her 70s, she was still chopping her own kindling and wading out into major storms in her snowshoes to patch a hole in the roof of her lakeside home.
I was a teenager, and Susy a septuagenarian, by the time our paths fortuitously crossed. My family and I lived far away from Maine but because we’d vacationed in the area for years, we already knew and loved the clear lake where Susy and her husband, known as “Big Chief,” owned a few straggly, kerosene-lit log cabins.
We wanted to swim and fish in Susy’s lake so we rented one of her cabins for our summer vacation, sight unseen.
What tenderfeet we must have seemed to Susy as, mouths agape, we traipsed around after her for the first time. Walking in the creaky front door of our rental cabin, we were aware that we’d be lighting lanterns to read by after dark. Susy’s cabins had no electricity.
But how stupefying to discover there was no indoor plumbing, either! We’d be scurrying to the outhouse each night through a forest full of black bears.
“Where is the icebox?” my stunned mother finally dared to ask. “Why, out on the porch!” said Susy, as if stating the obvious. And yes, there it was, a wooden box filled with giant slabs of sawdust-sprinkled ice. Had she wrestled those slabs down the hill and into the box all by herself?
After we got over the initial shock of our rustic surroundings, we started getting to know Susy.
When we told her we wanted to make an apple pie, she offered us her big black pot-bellied stove to bake it in. We assembled in her colonial-era kitchen and watched as she yanked open an ancient wooden cupboard.
The top drawer was full to the brim with baking flour, although a few dark objects-- twigs? pine cones?—were also drifting around in the snowy powder.
Susy laughed as she plucked out a pine cone, threw it over her shoulder, and then plunged her hands elbow-deep into the flour. She seemed as comfortable in the kitchen as she was up on the roof in snowshoes.
Many years later, after I’d started bringing my own family to Susy’s lake, I heard some new stories about Susy.
That she’d been endlessly kind to her Maine neighbors who had less than she did. That she’d rallied her rural community around a down-on-their-luck expectant couple and personally supplied them with baby clothes and blankets. That she’d rung up the minister, and cleared the long table in her fishing camp, to host a warming supper for a young Indian chief and his bride on their wedding night.
Neither Susy nor her husband were themselves native Americans. So I was surprised when, just last year, I picked up a Micmac woman hitchhiking on the road leading to Susy’s lake. “My granny used to live back here,” said the woman. Her granny, she said, was Susy Stanwood.
Was she really? Or had Susy been a fairy godmother to her too? Susy had meant so much to so many--to the men lost in the blizzard; to the baby born to the struggling young couple; to my family of summer visitors, at home in her flour-dusted kitchen.
The Micmac woman told me that Susy died at a venerable age. She’d been snowshoeing her way out the never-ending lake road when she was taken down by a snowplow, blotted out by whiteness.
But I’m not so sure I believe that. Somewhere deep in the Maine woods Susy Stanwood is up on a roof in her snowshoes, keeping the sky from falling in.