Goin’ to Bangor: A song and childhood memory

“How do you say ‘Bangor?’”

“The way it looks,” I said. “Pronounce the ‘O’.”

Bill and I were driving, with ten month old Paul in his car seat in the back, through southern Maine. On our way to Acadia National Park, it was the first time in the state* for any of us. So how did I know how to pronounce one of the state’s larger but still obscure cities?

It took a few seconds, then I realized: a song by Patty Griffin. I found her “Burgundy Shoes” on YouTube and hit ‘play.’

“Head for the bus that’s going to Bangor

In my plaid dress and burgundy shoes.”

There you have it – in the first line, you’ve got the city name and the reason for the title of the song. But I let it play on.

I met Patty Griffin’s music in graduate school, when my friend Matty Griffin (haha) rounded up a crew of us to see her in concert. My love for her music continued beyond that one show, with several of her songs getting into my head word-for-word. I love the way she tells story with each song – yet a story whose details are slightly obscured. Often the true setting and import of one of her songs hits me years after I’ve committed all the words to memory.

“Burgundy Shoes” is one of them. I didn’t really think about it or imagine the flash fiction it’s communicating until Monday as we drove through Bangor.

“In your red lipstick and lilac kerchief

you’re the most pretty lady in the world.


This story is told from the point of view of a child with a beloved person – her mother? They’re taking the bus, they live in Maine, they’re not rich, it’s spring. And as the chorus of “sun, sun, sun, sun” flashes into my ear the way sunlight flashes over the seats of a moving bus, I realize that this child is happy.

More than happy: the prettiest lady, the smiling driver, the cold vinyl seats. The approaching town, the arrived spring (“It’s the first day I don’t wear my big boots”), the sun, sun, sun, sun, sun; this song is made of a handful of images from one moment in the life of this child – one of absolute well-being, safety, love and anticipation. The burgundy shoes capture all of it.

I’ll stop there because, as with most good songs, talking about it lets all the air out of its tires. I will say, though, that by the end of the song, I was in tears and (as with any good song) I couldn’t explain why.

We had a good time in/around Bangor. We had lunch at the Harvest Moon Deli (“Voted greater Bangor’s best sandwiches”); Paul waved at every vehicle we passed while taking a short walk, including a huge Mack truck driven by a grandfatherly type who fairly hit the ceiling of the cab, waving back. We got ice cream at a roadside stand, and Paul got a little taste of my blueberry soft serve.

A baby sits at a cafe table with an eager look on his face
Harvest Moon Deli, voted best sandwiches in greater Bangor.

What of this trip will he remember? None. He’s not even a year old. But as the months tick by he will start to retain sensory bits: the rumble of a passing truck, the green of moss on a rock, the feeling of sunlight on his face. There’s no way I can know what moments his long-term memories will fold themselves around. All I can do is try to fill each moment with as much presence, vividness and love as I can – and to let the world roll our way.

I tweeted about our lunch. The next flick of my thumb brought me to a post by a friend: “An elementary school. How can we go on like this? My god.” Without any other information, I knew what had happened.  It cast a shadow over my moment of well-being, safety, love and anticipation. And it cast a darker shadow over the coming years, when my son will come to understand the darker forces of the world that threaten safety, peace, well-being, love.

The words of “Burgundy Shoes” echoed through my mind the whole trip. The leaves of Acadia were indeed “green and new like a baby.” Like the girl in the song, I didn’t miss the snow. I didn’t wear big boots but rather my minimal running shoes and even sandals. I held my son’s hand as he rode in a new back carrier and waved liberally at sky, sea, pine trees, hotel breakfast bar and mountains.


An adult holds a small child near large rocks at the top of a mountain; sea in the distance
Summit of Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park

*Bill’s parents tell him they went to Maine when he was not much older than Paul. He doesn’t remember.

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