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Lessons From Maine: Friendship Blooms Across Religious, Political Divides

Despite divergent paths, conversations lead to deep connections

spinner image Nancy Schong and Don and Betsy
Washington, D.C. writer Nancy Schnog, 62, (middle), and Maine residents Don, 71, and Betsy Nash, 70, have formed a close bond.
Courtesy Nancy Schnog

It was on the porch of a carriage house in mid-coast Maine where I received one of the great compliments of my life.

Don Nash, the owner of the summer rental, said: “You were brought to us by divine intervention.” Betsy Nash, his wife of 45 years, burst into a smile of agreement. I'd been vacationing at that carriage house for a decade, my escape from Washington, D.C., and nature sanctuary after another demanding year of high school teaching.

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"Divine intervention.” That wasn't a phrase my ears were accustomed to. We secular Jews from the New York City suburbs didn't carry on heartfelt exchanges in the lexicon of Christian theology. To a new friend, we might say, “Wow, how lucky our paths crossed,” or “What were the chances?"

Yet, I grasped the heft of the compliment instantly. As a teacher of American literature, I had a reverence for the Puritan writers who observed the workings of God's hand in human history. While I wasn't a descendant of that tradition, I felt honored to be a recipient of God's grace.

Different roads to the same place

It had been a random click on a vacation website that had landed me at Don and Betsy's — a picture of a simple cottage beside a quiet lake catching my eye.

The first summer, it took a minute to fall in love with the place. My hosts oriented me with Maine friendliness to the closest beaches and best lobster rolls. The screened-in porch with the wicker rocking chair was ideal for reading and listening to the wind. The wooden dock at the lake offered, with one joyful plunk, a descent into clear water.

Porch-and-dock time meant that, slowly, I started to get to know my hosts. Sadly, we had nothing in common. That is, if you apply the lens of widely held demographic categories.

Politics? One Democrat, two Republicans.

Backgrounds? One native of wealthy Westchester County raised with this script: Study hard, go to a top college and join the corporate elite. Two natives of mill towns in western Maine raised with the script: What you want, you build.

Build they did, I learned. An electrician and nurse who raised two children and delighted in five grandchildren. A couple who, with hammer to nail, built the two houses they lived in — one where they raised children, one where they retired.

Later that week, a quirky conversation set the friendship on a new course.

Passing the porch, Betsy asked, “Nancy, did I get the back of my head?”

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She had dyed her hair and needed help assessing her work. I checked and pronounced it thorough.

"Wait,” I said after a mini-epiphany. “You dye your hair?” I had always wanted to learn. “Can you teach me?"

Five minutes later, I was in Betsy's bathroom with my summer landlord combing brown dye through my wavy hair. Forty minutes later, voilà! — chestnut-colored tresses. And something else: $80 a month I would save on salon appointments. Only one word came to mind when I thought about the savings: hallelujah!

Conversation brings kinship

The next day Betsy and I swam across the lake, with Don in a canoe to keep us safe. After that, when healthy cooking arose as a mutual interest, the tastings began. She loved my soba noodles with peanut sauce. I adored her tofu curry stir-fry.

On the porch among the afternoon breezes, conversations deepened. Here sat two daughters who had tried their best to mend relationships with unavailable fathers. Here sat two mothers who had tended those scars by parenting with unconditional love. Our hearts understood each other.

When Don told me about his path to the job of commercial electrician, I felt the borders of my mind expand. I was reminded of Atticus Finch's timeless words: “You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes."

His life was driven by hardscrabble necessity: service in the Vietnam War, working his way through college, pulling himself up by his bootstraps. No government handout could substitute for the discipline of one's own hard work, he explained. This self-made man humanized a conservative perspective that I, a die-hard liberal, now grasp more deeply.

Amid today's hostile partisan politics, I give thanks — to the vacation website and divine hand that led me to Don and Betsy; kindred spirits bonded by love for nature, simplicity and kindness, for those like and unlike us. On the porch and in the pond, we discovered the infinitely precious ground of friendship: the moral and emotional terrain of the heart.

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