If you’ve ever wondered what life was like for the pioneers — hauling their own water, scratching a hardscrabble living from the earth — you’ll get some idea by reading the new book by Melissa Coleman.
“This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone” (Harper, $25.99) is Coleman’s memoir about what it was like growing up during the back-to-the-land movement in Maine in the 1960s and 1970s. Coleman is the daughter of Eliot Coleman, Maine’s organic gardening guru and creator of Four Season Farm in Harborside, and his former wife, Sue.
The Colemans moved to Maine as young newlyweds in 1968 and bought land from Helen and Scott Nearing. They named their place Greenwood Farm and built a simple cabin there for $680. Life on the farm was an adventure that came without electricity, running water, telephones or other accoutrements of modern living. Soon Melissa arrived and, following her, two more daughters, Heidi and Clara.
Coleman’s absorbing memoir is an unsparing look at what life was really like for this idealistic young family trying to make it entirely on their own in Maine’s isolated terrain and harsh climate. The book is also an account of her sister Heidi’s death in a farm pond at the tender age of 3, and the devastating impact it had on her family.
Coleman is a freelance writer who specializes in lifestyle topics and now pens columns for Maine magazine and Maine Home and Design. An excerpt of “This Life is In Your Hands” appeared in the April issue of O, the Oprah Magazine. She lives with her husband and twin daughters in Freeport.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book? Was it something you had wanted to do for a long time? Was it a way of processing what happened to your sister?
A: Both. I’d always known I wanted to write about it. I actually had this moment where I felt like these people were in the TV show “Cheers” or something, where you just feel like you know them so well, and I wanted to share them. I wanted to share these characters with other people. We all were so close back then. There was this camaraderie.
But then I was like no, I can’t write about this. And I really resisted it. I realized that I had all this fear about the things that happened. I just got really afraid of writing about it, and really didn’t want to go there. That’s when our twins were born, and it kind of came up in a big way for me because I think when you have kids, it really reminds you of your own childhood.
Q: How did your parents react to the idea?
A: It started off that they didn’t know that I was writing the book. I just started asking a lot of questions, and I didn’t say I was working on the book. I didn’t even really know myself, I guess. I just really wanted to know what happened, and I wanted details.
My dad was really cute. He would talk about some of the things he was really proud about from that time. You know, how he was 30 years old and he created the farm and built the house. It’s really incredible, the work he did. So I think he felt it helped him kind of reconnect, and he felt a lot of pride about that time in his life that had been tarnished a little bit by how things ended. So it was really good to talk about a lot of the joy and the good things that happened.
My mother, on the other side, it was cathartic for her to talk about it. She really had a lot she wanted to sort of get off her chest. So I listened. I really listened. And it gave me a lot of compassion for my parents because I think before that, you go through your 20s and your 30s and you think your parents did everything wrong. They messed up big time. Why did they have to get divorced? Through talking to them, I felt huge compassion. I was able to understand why things happened, and that it was really hard, and they did the best they could.
Q: I had a lot of compassion for your mom as I was reading the book, obviously because of the loss of a child, but also having young children and having to do all that extra work — all that canning and hauling the water. That must have been really difficult.
A: Absolutely. I was always, like, “Oh, why weren’t my parents more there for me? Why weren’t they more attentive or whatever?” And I realized, well duh, they were really busy. So I think while it was hard for them when they found out I was writing the book — they were nervous about it, and it was hard for them to revisit the hard things — they’ve been really good with me as well, about understanding that this was what I needed to do.
Q: Would you want to raise your own children this way?
A: As we say in my family, my sister’s the farmer, and I’m the writer. (Clara’s) the farmer. She’s an amazing farmer, and she’s every bit as talented as my dad. She’s got Four Season Farm West, as we call it, out in Colorado. She has a beautiful farm out there, and she does the same process as my dad — the greenhouses, and the carrots even taste the same. She was much younger, so she didn’t feel the tragic events as head-on as I did. So for me, that might have something to do with it.
I don’t know if that sort of made me say “OK, no thanks, I’m not doing that.” But I think it’s more just who we are as people. I always wanted to be a writer, even when I was little, and she always wanted to be a mom and a farmer.
Q: There were a lot of great things about your childhood, and it sounds as if you are quite proud of your father and what he’s accomplished. But of course some terrible things that happened as well. It also seems like you were awfully lonely sometimes. How do you feel about your childhood now?
A: I try to be as honest as possible in the book about everything. I just felt like I had to write about it how it was, and not sugarcoat it. If I could have written the book for me, it would have been really joyful. I didn’t want to have to write the sad things because really my childhood, to me, it was very magical. It was a wonderful way to grow up. And that is what I’m left with, too, after writing the book, is not sadness for my sister, but joy that she’s come back to life on the pages of this book. To me, it’s a joyful story in which some bad things happen. I mean, that’s life.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: