Her Island History: 100 Years of Tenacious Island Women

Emily Trask-Eaton shares stories of her aunt, the author Ruth Moore, and her family’s connection to Gotts Island.

Oral History:

Oral History Transcription:

Emily Trask-Eaton
Tremont Historical Society
Interviewed by Susan Edson
June 12th, 2020

SE: Welcome, Emmy! Thank you for participating. So, tell me a little about these pictures and your relationship with Ruth Moore.

ETE: Ruth is/was my aunt, sister of my mother. She was a very big part of my life growing up. Spent a lot of time with her. She was just “Uppy” to me and my siblings; she wasn’t a famous author, respected and known… although we knew that about her. She was just very much part of our lives. There were times when I would ride my bike around the harbor to visit her, and I learned very early on not to go in the morning, because she was writing. And she would greet me at the door and say, “I’m writing –– go away.” In no uncertain terms. [Laughs.] Whatever work she was doing.

SE: So tell me about the pictures you have selected. Why have you decided to select one of your great-grandmothers? Tell me about her.

ETE: Well, she was a very strong woman; a very soft-spoken woman, who, in the early 1900s, saved her egg money and sent it to her two daughters who were in college, away from home in college, having grown up on this little tiny island off the coast of Maine: Gott’s Island, off of Mount Desert Island.

SE: And you called her what?

ETE: We called her Nanny. She left the island permanently; her husband died in 1927, my grandfather Philip. She left the island not too long after that. I didn’t know her when she was living on the island, although we spent summers with her at the family house as children.

SE: Was it unusual for Ruth and your mother to go to college back then?

ETE: I think it was pretty unusual. I do know how they got there –– the summer people who came to the island –– and my grandmother took people in. She earned money any way she could. So in the summer, she took people in as boarders, and some of those boarders, after a number of years, would stay. Very well-educated people, women especially, who bought houses there, summered there. One woman in particular lived there year-round, and died in a horrible fire in the middle of the winter on the island, because her house was so isolated. At the moment, I can’t think of her name.

SE: That was quite a famous story. I can’t remember if Ruth used that, ever, in any of her books…

ETE: She did. I can’t tell you which book; Muriel could tell you that. I reread all of her books about every ten years. I go through them all. There’s always something new in her books. I always learn something new that I didn’t remember from before.
So, they were exposed at a young age to very educated people. I think tha’t shte connection; obviously there was a school on the island. I don’t know much about their teacher or their school, but I think those people who came in the summers, the so-called Rusticators who came in the summers, had a pretty profound influence. They took an interest, I think, in the island children. Ruth and Esther were both very bright, and stood out, I think, and I don’t know –– for that or other reasons –– they were encouraged by these folks and given books to read. So that’s how it came out. But I’ve always really admired my grandmother for supporting her daughters in that way, in a time when I think most women just expected their daughters to do what they did.

SE: And Ruth was a little different, too, as far as –– not being traditionally dressed and so forth –– did she stand out, or not particularly?

ETE: I don’t know that… certainly there are pictures of her in casual dresses, and I don’t know when she began wearing pants, primarily. She came to my wedding in a lovely suit, so she had those kinds of clothes, but she was most comfortable wearing pants and a shirt, and working in her garden. It was one of her joys in life.

SE: Tell us about the picture of the house––

ETE: The house on the island, which everyone knows, everyone who’s a fan of Ruth Moore. We summered there as children with my mother, with my grandmother when she was alive, and had many fond memories. We left the house after breakfast and didn’t come back until suppertime. There were other children who came in the summer, other long-term families. It was very idyllic.

SE: Did she use the house as a backdrop in many of her stories?

ETE: She used it in some of them. It was on the cover of one of the books; I think one that Gary Lawless republished, I think he used a photograph showing that house. It’s a very distinctive house. Less so, now, than when we knew it as children, because then, there were no trees around. Just two pointed, connected structures, sitting at the top of the hill on the island. It’s what you saw when you went to Gott’s Island.

SE: I see a sign saying “Groceries.” What’s that?

ETE: Well, my grandfather ran a little country store, and the children — not me, but my mother and siblings — would tend the store, and gather the eggs from the chickens that my grandmother raised. He also ran the post office, he also had a weir –– everyone knows this history. When I was a child, I played in that store, and we played post office, and we played store. My mother says that her teeth were bad as an adult because she ate too much candy from the store. [Laughs.] I don’t know if that’s true. But it was a lot of fun.

I had a little tiny room at the top of the stairs, kind of behind the chimney. I woke up one morning and the ceiling had fallen in, intact. The entire room, including me in the bed, was covered with plaster from the ceiling. Nobody knew. I woke up, and my mother was laughing in the doorway, because the ceiling had fallen down, in one piece. That’s my biggest memory of being in that house. And telling ghost stories –– the older children on the island, including my sister, we would all gather at night in the living room, by the fireplace, and they would tell ghost stories and scare us. Somebody would be in the room, creaking a door… they made it very real.

SE: In this picture –– this is later on, when Ruth Moore and Eleanor Mayo built a house in Bass Harbor, which is still Muriel Davisson, your sister, owns it and lives in it. Tell us about that.

ETE: Well, I was pretty young when they built this house, I think it was in 1947, that’s when they came back to the island to live. So I don’t have the visual image. But this picture, I’ve always admired, because it said to me: you can do whatever you want to do in your life.

SE: To be able to build this house, is it correct that they built it with money that she earned from the sale of the movie, based on Spoonhandle?

ETE: Which she hated. Yes. And Eleanor’s father, Mr. Mayo, was a fine, fine carpenter. He helped them build it. They did most of the work, but he helped them do it the right way. It’s a very nice house, very very simple, rustic, matter-of-fact. It met their needs. They built the basic house, and then a few years later, they built an addition, and then a few years later, another addition… it just grew. So, yeah, the movie! Ruth originally was the script editor, or something like that on the movie. She had an official title, she was paid to do that job. But they didn’t pay any attention to what she had to say. She just finally gave up and got mad and came home. She always said that, what was his name? William Mayer? Was that the movie producer? She said he blacklisted her, because that was the time of McCarthy’s, and she said she was blacklisted so she never made another movie from one of her books.

SE: Tell us about when you would visit Eleanor and Ruth in their home, and what your relationship was like.

ETE: When we were little children, we were just annoying, I’m sure, and they had a large, beautiful braided rug, and we loved to run around and follow the braided rug. It drove Eleanor absolutely crazy, and she took it as long as she could, and then she’d distract us… she was never mean.

SE: Who made the rug?

ETE: I think they bought it from some place, person. And then when Eleanor had really had it, she would get up and leave. But five children in a house that was usually just two adults, I can hardly blame her. I would get up and leave, too. As we got older, we had discussions — there was always very active discussion going on amongst my mother, Ruth, and Eleanor, whoever else was there… sometimes my father. Many of their friends, their literary and artistic friends from all over the world, would come to the island for vacation and come see Ruth Moore and Eleanor Mayo. We were always welcome to participate in those conversations, and got a very good early training in liberal thinking, which has stood us in good stead, I would say. As we became teenagers, we were more and more included, and our opinions were asked. Not just because we were sitting there, but because they really wanted to hear, “What are the young people thinking these days? What’s different? What are we not seeing, as adults, in our traditional patterns?” We had respect for them, but they had respect for us too, and we knew from a very early age that we were a part of the conversation, that was really important to all of us.

SE: Did you see that in her later writing, or not, as far as being more political goes?

ETE: I didn’t see a change –– her themes were universal. They were always there. Feminism, although she would never allow me to call her a feminist. If I said it, she would tell me in no uncertain terms that she was not a feminist. She didn’t like some of the behavior of the feminists, but she was absolutely the original feminist in her thinking. Feminism, racism, issues of poverty, environmentalism –– Ruth always carried a jacknife in her pocket, and she would go and walk on the beach, where there used to be those six-ring can or bottle-holders. They were everywhere, because people just tossed them into the water. She would pick them up, and cut them apart, and shove them in her pocket and take them home, obviously. She was always thinking about the environment and her relationship to it and what she did, and the animals, obviously. What other themes…? I guess it’s time to reread the books!

SE: But mostly based on her life, and her family’s life.

ETE: Absolutely. The one book, A Walk Down Main Street, was a departure from her other books. That time, Eleanor was on the Board of Selectmen for the town of Tremont. And my brother played basketball, and that was a book about basketball, and how the towns idolize their young men, and heap praise on them while they’re playing ball, but don’t encourage them to go off to school and get other training that might give them a different sort of a life. Now, a lot of these kids didn’t want a different sort of life. They were happy to stay here and be fishermen, and that was fine –– that wasn’t what troubled her. What troubled her was ignorance from lack of exposure, and small-mindedness. These kids were used and thrown away, in her mind. They were great stars when they played ball; ten years later, they were still the heroes of the town, but they really didn’t have much to show for it. Maybe they didn’t grow beyond their… when that book came out, there was a fury in the community. People did not like that book; they didn’t like the story. But she was pleased with it. I think she was happy that she wrote about something that was pretty significant.

SE: Was that one of her later books?

ETE: That was maybe three-quarters of the way through. That would have been in the early sixties.Maybe midway through. But she took a lot of grief for that book, for sure. I mean, she’s writing about her own community –– there it was, for sure.

SE: And what about this last picture?

ETE: This was the chair she always sat in; she always sat by the windows. That was Ruth’s place. And we would sit around and talk. Obviously, as we got older, we would — each of us — go by ourselves, and be focused on just by her. Ruth, I believe, was psychic. We never had a conversation about it. She certainly was intuitive, if that’s a word that people are more comfortable with. She had these piercing blue eyes. I used to sit at the other end of the table, here, and we would have conversations. We talked about writing, and writing music –– that’s what I did, I wrote music to many of her poems. She would go in her bedroom, and come out with one piece of manila paper, and say, here, see what you can do with this. They would hand it out to me, one at a time, over the years. I think I was sixteen, the first one I wrote, and she loved it. At any rate, I don’t remember what I said to her, but it touched her in some way, and she turned her head and put those blue eyes on me. And I didn’t dare to say anymore, because I knew she could read my thoughts, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted her to read my thoughts at that moment. So, that was fine. Not too long before her death, my mother was living with her, then. And she went into the room to bring me another song, and she came out — you know a ream of paper used to come in those cardboard boxes? She came out with that whole box, and she said –– it was poems from when she was in college and high school, that had not been seen… in many, many years. And the whole box was filled. And she said, “Here: see what you can do with this.” And she gave me the whole box.

SE: What a treasure.

ETE: Amazing, amazing. That she trusted me… with her children –– those were her children.