If you’re an avid reader of Sid McKeen’s weekly column in the Worcester Telegram, you might have caught mention that he wrote a new book last year, titled No Time For Moss. Subtitled, “The book a gritty Maine mother never wrote”, No Time for Moss is a story about Sid McKeen’s mother Verna (Thorpe) McKeen. If your copy of McKeen’s 1978 classic Wry and Ginger has sat by itself on your book shelf for 35+ years hoping for the companionship of a second McKeen volume, the long wait is now over.
Sid McKeen (with the help of his siblings and other family members) has pieced together an engaging story of the life of Verna McKeen (1910-1992). With anecdotes and details drawn from diaries, family recollections and some audio tapes, No Time For Moss is a book that Verna herself might have written. In fact, she gave it a try from time to time, and Sid McKeen has liberally sprinkled Verna’s own words into his own narrative about her.
For a woman who was destined to move dozens of times throughout her life, it is perhaps fitting that McKeen’s mother Verna was born in a railroad depot. Her eldest son spends a couple of chapters telling the reader a bit about the circumstances leading up to Verna’s birth and the sort of family into which she was born. Then we learn about some of the ups and downs of Verna’s early childhood — the arrival of her first sibling, her father going off to war (and returning safely), and several more siblings. Verna’s teen years include running off to join a circus at age 12 (her parents quickly caught up with her, bringing an end to her big top career), and running off to Canada to elope at age 16 with her 21-year-old boyfriend, Eddie — which couldn’t be undone by her parents the way her circus plans had been.
Verna’s childhood ended rather abruptly — if an early marriage weren’t enough, she also learned she was pregnant in late 1926. Her first child, Sidney, was born in 1927. The stories that follow, intertwined with historical events happening in those years include several more children, many trial and tribulations, several changes of career and address for Verna and Eddie, numerous hardships during the Great Depression, and then further family upheaval following the attack on Pearl Harbor (Between Eddie and Verna, they would have six brothers serving in the armed forces during that war). By the spring of 1945, young Sid McKeen was finally old enough to enlist and joined the U.S. Navy shortly before VJ Day (he served 13 months on three ships).
The post-war years found Eddie and Verna again changing jobs and addresses frequently. One of the family’s biggest adventures in the early 1950s involved an attempt to relocate to Florida pulling a long trailer behind their 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 98. The car was ill-suited to the task, and three days (and numerous breakdowns) later, they found themselves in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts with a blown-out tire and few funds left. First-born son Sid, now living in West Boylston, led them to a trailer park in Auburn, where they lived for the next two years. (They eventually got to Florida, but not until 1964 when their youngest child Woody was in his final year of high school).
The 1960s saw Verna and Eddie in Florida, Texas and Arizona; Tombstone, Arizona appealed to them, and they spent several years wintering there and returning to Maine in warmer months.
The 1970s were difficult for Verna. Her husband was diagnosed with leukemia in the early ’70s and died in 1975. Twelve weeks after Eddie’s death, Verna’s youngest son, Woody, died.
The final few chapters of No Time For Moss wrap up Verna’s life for the reader, the high point being a birthday roast held in her honor in 1990 in Linconville Center to celebrate the 80th anniversary of her first residence — at the Bangor & Aroostock railroad depot in Bradford Station, Maine where her parents were living when she was born.
No Time For Moss is a delightful read, and was obviously a labor of love for Sid McKeen, his siblings and family. Verna’s story deserved to be told, and now it has been. The reader will be left wishing they’d met her.
No Time For Moss was self-published by McKeen and his family, and is currently only available in a few Maine book stores and libraries. If you’re not planning a trip to Maine any time soon, you can still get yourself a copy by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a tangential note, unless one’s been scrapbooking “Wry and Ginger” for the past half century, there’s a lot of fun reading that is only otherwise preserved in the newspaper microfilms at the Worcester Public Library. Now that Sid McKeen has dipped his toe in the self-publishing waters, one can hope we might see more from him — maybe a “best of” collection of his newspaper columns? Let’s not wait another 35 years, Mr. McKeen!