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Missing Sophie, 

glad to have known her

Stock image

I  got the news from my co-worker in a text: "Sophie died Wednesday!"

"Oh no!" I wrote back.

Goodbye Sophie, I murmured to myself sadly. You finally got your wish.

Sophie had lived at the elderly housing complex where I worked. She was short and plump, wore neon yellow sneakers and cut her white hair in a boy's regular. She rarely used a bra ("I hate those restrainers," she would say. Large roomy sweatshirts made this a non-issue, thankfully). She had lost her husband and had no children. But, she told us, working in the maternity ward of the Anna Jaques Hospital as she had for many years allowed her be around the babies that she loved.

She visited us often in the management office. "You girls are my favorite landladies, except for my mother," she told us. "My mother was the first favorite landlady, and you are my second favorite." It didn't matter that she had expressed this same opinion only the day before, she said it with absolute sincerity every time.

She also had a wicked sense of humor. When two male residents from the South moved in down the hall from her, she sashayed around with delight. "I'm going to have a gentleman caller," she crowed. "I feel just like Scarlett O'Hara!"

She loved the building's newsletter, and was distraught when we made a decision to stop listing residents' birthdays.

"How am I going to know who to wish a happy birthday to?" she implored. "How am I going to give out my birthday cards?" We reinstated the birthday list the next month, and Sophie was ecstatic. Because she loved it so, I sometimes made her her own personal newsletter, complete with funny fonts and bright colors. She would thank me solemnly, assuring me that she wouldn't tell anyone else that she got her own special newsletter.

Sophie loved her apartment, and lived at peace with the other residents. But every so often there would be a clash with her neighbors over the volume of her television set, which had two settings: LOUD and LOUDER. Sophie was very hard of hearing. She wore a hearing aid, but it always seemed to be broken. She had a little money, and we urged her to spend whatever was needed to get the best hearing aid possible. Devices such as TV Ears and headphones didn't seem to help for long, or at all.

Television volume aside, however, it was nearly impossible not to love Sophie. One of my last memories of her at the building was her surprise birthday party, where she was surrounded by cake, presents, and many friends.

She started to fail some years ago. She took a fall and went to the hospital, coming back quieter and less mobile. She got a medic alert system. She gave up her car, missing it terribly, but realizing that it was necessary because of her declining health. When she fell again, she didn't immediately push the medic alert call button because, being Sophie, she wanted to get up by herself.

Sophie never came back to her apartment. She went to the hospital, then to a rehabilitation facility, and finally to a skilled nursing home. I visited her at all of these places. The Sophie who had laughed and smiled was gone. For a long time she cried hysterically every time she saw me. "If only I hadn't left my apartment," she sobbed. Gradually, she grew used to her surroundings, responding to the kindly care of the staff, but she never stopped missing her apartment.

I brought her sugar-free candy because she was diabetic, and a warm hat, because she taken to wearing a towel on her head. When I arrived she would (loudly) waylay her nurses and introduce me as her friend. But her hearing loss made communicating with her brutally difficult, so I mostly sat and held her hand and listened to her talk.

She didn't want to go on, and she said so repeatedly to anyone who would listen. She didn't want to sit there, in a wheelchair, bound to a body that didn't work any longer but wouldn't let her go.

"I just want to close my eyes," she moaned repeatedly. "I just want to see my husband again." I would nod and press her fragile hand a little tighter.

Sophie passed away about three years after her fall. When I drive by the nursing facility where she spent her final years and received such good care, I feel a complicated knot of emotions: relief that she is at peace, sorrow that she is no longer with us.

But mostly I feel blessed to have known her, this loving and joyful soul who took such pleasure in wishing others a happy birthday.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News,  March 2016

Biking the OTHER other side of Rockport

Well, it's summer in New England again (that three weeks we enjoy between monsoon rains and crippling blizzards), and I'm lucky enough to be hanging out in Rockport once more. And you know what that means, right? BIKE RIDE! We're leaving politics, responsibility and any errands that require going to the DMV behind today. Let's go!

This time we will head in a different direction, away from the quarries where we went last time and toward the beaches. It's a gorgeous sunny day and we only get, like, six of those per summer, so let's get moving before the clouds come.

We head up Marmion Way and turn left onto Rt. 127, also known as South Street, the main road that runs through Rockport center. We are heading away from the downtown today, whizzing toward Gloucester. In about a half mile we turn left onto Eden Road and follow it along the water because it offers a superb view of some of Rockport's most famous icons, the Twin Lights and Thacher Island. If you've never been out to Thacher, you should do it. The island is just a touch creepy, with all the seagulls glaring at you-it's their dominion, and they know it-but that just makes it more fascinating and beautiful. You can also climb a narrow spiral stairway to the top of one of the lighthouses and get the most amazing view of Rockport.

We leave Eden Road and coast onto the sandy stretch along Pebble Beach. I'm afraid Pebble Beach is not in the best of shape at the moment; most of it is covered with tons of red seaweed. However the ocean gives and the ocean takes away, so this may all be gone shortly. Now we bank back onto Rt. 127. It's cool and shady here and we continue until we reach the super secret parking lot down Seaview Street which backs up to Cape Hedge and Long Beaches (resident parking only, sorry...).

The big parking lot is rocky but still navigable on a bike, and we head toward the end and push the bikes over the metal footbridge that brings us onto beautiful Long Beach. Now the tricky part-pushing the bikes along a narrow catwalk onto the road behind the Long Beach cottages. It's particularly challenging at high tide, as the water laps at your feet and the bike tires.

That's done, and we cruise down the road, admiring the charming beach cottages. Now a little shortcut between the houses and we're back onto Long Beach itself, with a gorgeous view of the ocean. We have to drag the bikes through the sand here, but just for a few feet. Up a hill and onto Salt Island Road, with an incredible view of Salt Island and the beautiful houses that overlook it. We've got a hill to climb, but it's worth it-you get a magnificent view of Good Harbor Beach and can see the steeple of Our Lady of Good Voyage Church in Gloucester.

(left, view of Salt Island)

Now we say a (sad) goodbye to the beaches and head up Witham Street where it reconnects with our old friend Rt. 127 again. We come out opposite the Common Crow, an amazing natural food grocery store. This is the perfect place to cross the road, park the bikes and grab a nice iced coffee. I usually sit there until I finish my drink or am overwhelmed with a belated but irresistible urge to vote for Bernie Sanders, whichever comes first. Now it's back on Rt. 127 for less than a quarter mile, and then we swing a right into the woods. Hang on, it's downhill and pretty rocky, but this trail is a blast. Pretty soon we come to beautiful Cape Pond, and it feels like we are in New Hampshire or Maine-you can't see anything but trees and water and sky.

We'd like to stay and admire the view but the deer flies motivate us to keep moving. We walk the bikes up a steep hill as we leave the water's edge, and just keep going through beautiful pine woods, up and down more hills, just flying along like the birds around us. Too soon we pass peaceful Beech Grove Cemetery and hit pavement again on Pleasant Street, and here we are one more time-Rt. 127. Cross over, onto Norwood Ave, up a hill, around the corner and then onto Old Garden Road, with a magnificent view of the blue ocean and the Rockport coast.

Phew-we're done. Flop down on the cool grass and take a well-deserved break. You've seen some places that most visitors don't get to see-you've seen the other OTHER side of Rockport, and this time some of Gloucester too. Come by anytime. I'm always up for a ride.

Published by the Daily News of Newburyport, June 2017

Marilyn Davis Archibald (archie4618@aol.com) spends time in Rockport during the summer and sometimes eats fudge like a tourist. She prefers penuche.

The headless biker
of Harold Parker

An urban legend

The motorcyclist harassed people. That much everyone agreed on. He rode too fast and followed cars too closely. His bike was loud, too loud. He wore all black from head to foot and roared around the streets of North Reading and through nearby Harold Parker State Forest almost every night. No one knew who he was, but he was a menace, that was certain.

The biker bothered everyone but he angered one man in particular. Often, just as the man was drifting off to sleep, the biker would thunder by, revving his bike as loudly as he could, and the man would leap terrified from his bed. He's targeting me, the man cursed. He's trying to drive me out of my mind.

Someone has to do something, the man thought.

I have to do something, he decided.

And one night, he did.

The man strung piano wire between two trees on one of Harold Parker's narrow curving roads. He gauged the height carefully. And then he crouched in the woods and waited.

Soon he heard the familiar roar that always made him so angry. And the biker flashed by, going full-throttle. He hit the piano wire at neck height exactly as the man had planned. The motorcycle skidded and careened off the road and into the trees in an explosive crash. The biker flew through the air. The silence was suddenly deafening.

The man crept out from behind the trees and stood there, his heart pounding. There, in front of him, was the biker's head, severed and bloody. His eyes were open and staring. The man shuddered. He backed away, and started to run. He reached his car and drove home, hands clenching the wheel.

Lying in bed, he couldn't stop shaking. But it was quiet. There would be no motorcycle tearing through the night, disturbing decent folks' sleep. It would be peaceful again.

But what was that? No-it couldn't be! It was the sound of a motorcycle, louder than he had ever heard it. He raced out of house, leaving the door swinging behind him. In front of him was the biker-and where his head had been was there nothing, only a severed neck, streaming blood.

The cyclist pointed at the man. He pulled the bike into a wheelie and disappeared. But the noise went on. The man fell to the ground, his hands trying to block the roar that was shattering his eardrums and shredding every coherent thought.

The man was found the next morning on his front lawn, dried blood covering the sides of his head, his eyes wide open.

And to this day there are people who say they hear the roar of a motorcycle on dark nights in Harold Parker, late at night when all decent folks are in bed... and it's loud. Too loud