Thirteen Million Dinner Plates
My first desert was The Great Desert of Maine (don’t worry, no one else has heard of it, either). Don’t be fooled by its name, this desert spans a mere four acres. If it were an actual desert it would be the smallest in the world, however, the “Great Desert” is little more than a topographical anomaly. I was seven years old when we visited it. I remember sitting with my mother in her station wagon, blasting Fleetwood Mac as we drove away from our home on the rugged Maine coastline, into the state’s dense, piney heart.
“It is a tract of exposed glacial silt,” my mother explained.
“Ew,” I responded. The word “silt” has always grossed me out.
The Great Desert of Maine dates back to the end of the last ice age, about 13,000 years ago. At that time, great sheets of ice covered the upper regions of North America, slowly scraping across the landscape to produce fine particles of rock. This glacial silt was carried by tides and rivers, to be covered by topsoil and forgotten.
Over the following millennia glaciers melted, grass grew and nations formed. In 1797 William Tuttle entered the scene, purchasing a plot of farmland in Southern Maine. With visions of hayfields and grazing sheep Tuttle began plowing his bit of earth, until he noticed a patch of sand about the size of a dinner plate. The soil had eroded to expose a pocket of glacial silt hiding underneath. Over the following century, his descendants watched as that sandy patch grew from the size of one dinner plate to 40,000 dinner plates, to 120,000 dinner plates. When the Great Desert of Maine was 174,000 dinner plates large, the Tuttle family relinquished ownership and went off in search of less silty pastures.
I remember unzipping my Velcro sneakers and digging my toes into the imposter sand. It was silky under my skin and comfortably warm, like a cup of hot chocolate. My mother had taken me to such a curious place—it was a beach without water! I gaped at a handful of sand dunes, then ran after my mom to a pine tree growing in the center of them.
“This tree extends eighty feet below us. This is only the very tip, the rest is covered by sand,” she read from a sign. I sat down in the sand and looked up at the tree, wondering what else might be hiding beneath us.
Today the Great (unexpected, bizarre and petite) Desert of Maine is the size of 200,000 dinner plates. Our visit to it remains one of my most cherished memories. And just as the Great Desert continues to grow, so too does this recollection—looming larger and more precious with every passing year.
How many dinner plates are in a day? Maybe two or three? And how many are in a year? In a decade? In a life? It has been twelve years and untold dinner plates since I last saw my mother. During that time I moved to California and she drifted away. If she’s telling the truth about where she lives, then she is 2,587 miles away (approximately 13 million dinner plates, 313 Great Deserts of Maine, or 86% of the Sahara).
My mother was a spasm of electricity across the desert and the thunder that followed (she actually was the 1 in 7,000 to be struck by lightning, which may have enhanced her incendiary tendencies). She was alternately a gold dust woman, laughing too loudly in diamonds and fur in the lobby of the Four Seasons, and a medicated husk, disintegrating in the guest bedroom. She was Judge Judy at 3 p.m., Julia Childs at 7 p.m., Picasso at 10 p.m. and Sylvia Plath come midnight. A textbook case of borderline personality disorder, she vacillated between extremes, malleable as a sand dune. Constantly shifting under the elements, she was exquisitely alive. The one thing that she wasn’t was boring, making her as natural a fit for our quiet Maine town as a desert in the middle of a forest.
I should have realized that afternoon, as she ran across the sand, arms out-flung, hair whipping across her face, that I wouldn’t get to keep her. The months of disappearance in my childhood grew longer and more pronounced as I stumbled towards adulthood. “This number is no longer in service,” became her answering machine. Then: “Goodbye, my darling. I’m slipping away now,” she whispered into the phone as she slid through my fingers like glacial silt. When the line went dead a deep emptiness welled up inside of me. It was a feeling bigger than the Mojave, or the Gobi, or the Atacama Desert. No amount of dinner plates could measure the size of her rejection, and years later, I continue to struggle under its weight. I lug that memory with me everywhere I go. Like a box of dinner plates, it is awkward, fragile and rattles unpleasantly.
How do I forgive my mother for deserting me? I guess Step #1 would be breaking all of those plates. Step #2 might be to start referring to her in the present tense. And Step #3? Maybe that’s taking my first step out onto the sand.
Desert (noun) stems from the Latin desertum, meaning “thing abandoned,” which later shifted to the Middle English term for a “waterless, treeless region of considerable extent.” I’ve been to seven deserts now, lazily chasing them across the globe (luckily, they don’t move very fast). I’ve both admired and despised their emptiness and can understand why this one wasn’t Mr. Tuttle’s cup of tea. But when I think about the Great Desert of Maine—to me, it will always be paradise. Something about its soft emptiness vastly appeals to me.
Anna Fitzgerald Healy was raised on an island off the coast of Maine. She holds a degree in Acting and Poetry from Emerson College. She works as a curator for an arts foundation in Los Angeles. Anna is grateful to the staff of the Hoxie Gorge Review, as this is her first publication. She is currently at work on a novel called, Drowning in Passamaquoddy Bay: A Love Story.