Count on Me

by Jonathan Reisman

I first met Ernie in September of 1975 in the hallway of the Dana dormitory on the Colby College campus in Waterville, Maine. It was not love at first sight or a cute moment. I was a junior visiting a friend and was introduced to a freshman woman. I don’t remember who introduced us or what Ernie said. Four years later, we were married and starting a life adventure together. Now I am the memory for both of us.

We were not a couple at Colby, but we did become good friends, especially when she began dating my roommate, Peter. I was focused on academics and preparing for graduate school in economics, with a side interest in the outing club and my other major in environmental studies. Ern was less academically inclined but developed a passion for her double major in sociology and human development. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was excellent training for the jobs she would hold serving children and adults with disabilities, as director of several social service agencies and finally as Human Resources Vice-President at Down East Community Hospital.

I graduated in 1977 and went south to Providence and to Brown’s economics department. In the summer of 1978, I chose to work one last season at Camp Takajo in Naples, Maine, leading canoe trips and instructing my charges in the Junior Maine Guide program. Ern was at her parent’s house in South Berwick, preparing for her senior year. She and Peter had broken up that spring.

I called her up, and she agreed to go on a date with me. On a blistering hot July day, we went to Portland and had dinner at the Hollow Reed, a long-gone vegetarian restaurant that foreshadowed the city’s future as a foodie paradise.

Over the course of that summer, I was welcomed into her family, meeting my future in-laws- father Fred, mother Inez, sister Marianna, husband Clayton, and their daughter Ivy. Brother Fred, ensconced in Oakland, California, would come later. Except for Marianna, Ivy, and soon-to-be conceived nephew Brad, they are all gone now.

I returned to Brown in the fall and made frequent trips to Waterville to visit Ern, now a senior. At Thanksgiving in South Berwick, I asked her to marry me, and she said yes. We told her family late that winter on a visit to Boston in the shadow of the Pru, and we were married on September 2nd, 1979, at Spring Hill in South Berwick. Ivy and her cousin were flower girls. My maternal grandparents, veterans of many summers in Maine, were there- when picking September 2nd, I had not been aware that that was also their 50th anniversary.

As newlyweds, we moved to Providence. Ern quickly found a job as a special education teacher in nearby South Attleboro, Massachusetts. I began teaching at several area colleges, and we spent our second year of marriage house-sitting for one of my econ professors who was in Europe. After that, we moved to an apartment in a converted barn in Rehoboth, Mass, just South of Ern’s job. One of our neighbors upstairs was a teacher and, unbeknownst to me, a University of Maine at Machias education graduate. When I applied to UMM for an economics position in 1984, then President Fred “Deke” Reynolds noted my address and asked his old student for the true skinny on me. I do not know what she said, but we got a job offer in early August.

Ern and I had always hoped to return to Maine and had agreed that if one of us secured a Maine job with a salary of at $10,000, we would go. Thus, we departed for Washington County. Ern had been working steadily since we got married and was planning on taking some time off to enjoy our beautiful new surroundings and good fortune. 

In September, I saw an ad for a sheltered workshop director in Calais, and convinced Ern to apply. She was quickly hired as the first director of the Frank Beckett Center in Calais and began a daily 50-mile each-way commute from Machiasport. Her boss Sharon and co-worker Harper welcomed her, and one of her first hires, Rex, became a great friend. 

In May, we bought a largely unfinished house in Cooper on Cathance Lake to be halfway between our jobs in Calais and Machias. We have been there ever since, even though Ern started working in Machias in the early 90s.

Our first son Asher was born in 1987 and went to work with Ern almost from the start. Rex dubbed him Cathance Fats, the Prince of Cooper. Ern wanted Asher to have a sibling, and his brother Avram joined us in 1991. When I took Asher up to Calais to meet his baby brother, he wheeled out of the room and announced he had “more important things to do.” Asher has followed an education and employment arc to Philadelphia (Haverford, Classics, and Philosophy), Atlanta, and New Orleans and has now returned to Maine with his partner Savannah. A life-long Southerner, Savannah must really love him to follow him north, though I understand she is quite enamored of Acadia and our Bold Coast as well. Asher is working at Orono, and I joke that the University System traded in the fully depreciated conservative Reisman for a more dependable liberal model.

Avram stayed in Maine and went to his parent’s alma mater in Waterville, majoring in Government and Philosophy, and then decamped to Georgetown and the swamp to follow his political and policy passions. Both our boys are decidedly to the left of me and even Ern’s more pragmatic centrism.

In the early 90s, Ern transitioned from the Beckett Center to running the Washington County Children’s Program on Free Street in Machias. Ern joined me in supporting Angus King for Governor in 1994 and worked with the Governor on a funding plan to start a program in Maine to aid new parents and their kids. She became the first Director of Families First in Washington County on the Down East Community Hospital (DECH) campus in Machias. In the mid-2000s, the long-time DECH Human Resources Director was looking to retire, and she picked Ern as her successor. Ern and I had essentially had about the same salary since we got married….that was no longer the case after her promotion to HR VP. It sure made funding college for our boys easier.

In early 2018, an endoscopy revealed I had esophageal cancer. From waking up to that disturbing picture in the DECH surgery recovery area, through months of radiation and chemo in Brewer, to 10 days spent post-surgery at EMMC in Bangor, Ern stood by me and shepherded me back to health. In late 2019 and early 2020, some disturbing neurological symptoms that started when I was sick sent Ern to a specialist. As Covid hit, we got a diagnosis: aphasia and early-onset Alzheimers.  Ern retired and, over the next two years, accompanied me to work at UMM, staying in my office while I taught or had meetings. I retired in May of 2022 to take care of her.

Over the last year, the symptoms have gotten worse, and I have realized that I am actually in a state of grief…my wonderful, competent, loving wife is largely gone. I take solace in Jefferson Starship from the year we began to date:

Count on Me song on youtube

Jon Reisman is an economist and policy analyst who retired from the University of Maine at Machias after 38 years. He resides on Cathance Lake in Cooper, where he is a Selectman and a Statler and Waldorf intern. Mr. Reisman’s views are his own and he welcomes comments as letters to the editor here, or to him directly via email at [email protected].

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