Anchor and Flares: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope, and Service

Anchor and Flares: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope, and Service

by Kate Braestrup


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Kate Braestrup's life was transformed by the loss of her husband; now Kate faces the possibility that she may lose her son.

As a young mother Kate Braestrup discovered the fierce protectiveness that accompanies parenthood. In the intervening years—through mourning her husband and the joy of remarriage and a blended family-Kate has absorbed the rewards and complications of that spirit.

But when her eldest son joins the Marines, Kate is at a crossroads: Can she reconcile her desire to protect her children with her family's legacy of service? Can parents balance the joy of a child's independence with the fear of letting go?

As Kate examines the twinned emotions of faith and fear-inspired by the families she meets as a chaplain and by her son's journey towards purpose and familyhood-she learns that the threats we can't predict will rip us apart and knit us together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316373777
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 04/12/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 822,557
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kate Braestrup serves as chaplain to the Maine (Game) Warden Service. She is the author of a novel, Onion, and several bestselling memoirs. She has written for O, the Oprah Magazine, the New York Times, More Magazine and the Huffington Post. She lives in Maine with her husband, Simon van der Ven, and their six children.


Lincolnville, Maine

Date of Birth:

June 5, 1962

Place of Birth:

Washington, D.C.


Parsons School of Design, New School for Social Research 1979-81; Georgetown University 1983-1986; Bangor Theological

Read an Excerpt

Anchor & Flares

A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope, and Service

By Kate Braestrup

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2015 Kate Braestrup
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-37378-4


When I was a little child, I lived in hot places (Algeria, Thailand, Washington, DC) but I prefer the hazards, inconveniences, and forced modesty of a cold climate, so now I live in Maine. Blizzards and black ice are easier for me to cope with than cholera and political turmoil, and I like knitting sweaters more than sweating, so though my first (late) husband, Drew, was a Southerner, our children were reared where the climate provides, as Mainers say, two seasons: winter and July.

Simon's children also call Maine home. Simon is my second husband. Between us, we have a total of six (four of mine, two of his; three boys, three girls), so, one way and another, separately and together, Simon and I have done a fair amount of parenting.

Now Zach, our eldest, and his wife, Erin, are going to have a baby. All the bliss, none of the hassle, proselytize our grandparent friends, and we are beside ourselves with anticipation and joy.

The newest family member (whom I refer to for the time being as our grandfetus) is now big enough to startle his dad-to-be with kicks and bumps visible on the outside of his mother's belly. I've got booties to knit and children's books to purchase in case Goodnight Moon and Charlotte's Web go out of print in the next four months. And I am trying hard to remember what I did right and wrong as a parent so I can pass my experiences along to Zach and Erin as Useful Advice.

When I was having babies, the sex of a child wasn't necessarily something one found out ahead of time. Should some other potential problem necessitate an amniocentesis, the answer to "XX or XY?" might be provided, but only incidentally. Nowadays, it's normal to know, so Simon and I know that our grandfetus is a boy.

The baby squirrel who fell out of one of our huge, old oak trees last week was a boy, too. Did he fall or was he pushed? My theory was that the heat affected the mother squirrel the way it affects me: in winter (which is to say, most of the time in Maine), she and I are serene, cheery, cozily accommodating ... but not in July.

Summer had brought a return of all our beloved sons and daughters from far-flung places. The thrill of reunion had long since waned. We all were forced to relearn the skills of parent-child cohabitation, but with new handicaps. Our college-age children had spent nine months making messes and mistakes out of range of the parental eye, while Simon and I had gotten used to greeting the morning in a clean kitchen and storing our towels in the bathroom closet rather than on our daughters' bedroom floors. Then there were the girlfriend/boyfriend questions — who sleeps where, and for how many nights? Must they, too, be fed and permitted to hoard towels? What is the etiquette for occasions in which, for example, a significant hookup brings a dog? Or when, on the following morning, that dog pukes up a condom under the breakfast table?

One hot day, the mother squirrel and I both had the urge to kick our offspring permanently from the nest, the difference being that I yelled at everyone and retired to the back porch with a book while she followed through on her impulse.

The baby squirrel survived his rapid descent from nest and favor without apparent ill effects. Oh lordy, was he cute! And snuggly, wrapping his little front paws around my thumb with the faith of the defenseless, willing to accept me as surrogate squirrel-mom no matter that I was large, fur-free, and proffered only a single, enormous nipple that tasted of rubber and leaked. He was, frankly, a lot more fun to mother than the dipsomaniacal towel- thieves now occupying my premises.

I am a law-abiding citizen, an ordained minister, and I serve as chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It's my job to provide support and comfort to the families of folks who've gone missing when the wardens are called out for search and rescue operations; snowmobile, ATV, and boating accidents and drownings; plus suicides or homicides that take place in or around the Maine woods. But comforting a squirrel was new: I don't ordinarily have much to do with the fish-and-wildlife part of the game wardens' work. Even so, I can't blithely pretend that I didn't know that keeping wild animals as pets is illegal.

But I was entranced by the warm, quivering little creature curled in my hand, so I tried to play up my connections. I telephoned several game wardens, hoping to find one who would tell me, "Oh, it's okay! Keep the squirrel, Kate! Being chaplain to the Maine Warden Service is ample qualification for rehabilitating wildlife!"

None did.

They were sympathetic — these guys like animals — but firm.

"It's better for the squirrel to go to someone who knows what she's doing," said Warden Chris Dyer. "A baby squirrel grows into a bigger squirrel, and he'll need space to practice climbing and leaping. The certified wildlife rehab folks have cages big enough to protect him from predators while he builds those skills."

Besides, he told me, when squirrels reach adolescence, they become moody and disagreeable.

"I know all about moody and disagreeable," I said.

"Well, and that's the ideal moment to release 'em into the wild, but if you send the little bugger out to seek his fortune in, say, October, the squirrel may be eager to go. But he'll be facing the winter without the caches of nuts that his wild relations will have spent months setting aside."

"Fine. I get it," I said sadly.

"He's a wild animal. He needs to be wild to be happy."

Your squirrel is not your squirrel. Isn't that what Kahlil Gibran wrote? "They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself."

So I drove the squirrel over to the Belfast Animal Hospital, which has a sideline in taking care of lost wild things. I signed forms. One affirmed my understanding that if the veterinarian's humane and expert judgment so decreed it, my — that is, the — squirrel would be euthanized. ("Not likely," said the receptionist cozily, "but we have to say it, don't we?") The other form stated plainly, in black and white, that the squirrel would not return to me. I signed and with a last, longing fingertip caress of his soft little head, I reluctantly took my leave, and went home to miss him.


Zach himself was born in another, even hotter July. His father and I had been living in Washington, DC, where we had family, but Drew had just been hired by the Maine State Police, so we were headed north ASAP. The photographs of our very new family show all three of us sweating profusely, surrounded by cardboard boxes.

I arrived in Maine with a newborn, a still-healing cesarean wound, a painful case of mastitis, and a husband who would, for the next four months, be home only on weekends. During the week, he would be training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, and Zach and I were to occupy one of two cruddy little apartments fitted into the space above a convenience store. The advantage of our new dwelling was that it was cheap, but there were certainly a few disadvantages.

The convenience store's parking lot turned out to be where local drunks gathered when feeling convivial, and the odor of their urine rose from the asphalt to mingle with a background reek of fried food and cigarettes. The neighbors in the adjacent apartment enjoyed whim-based lifestyles in which sketchy lovers, toddlers, fights, and ferrets came and went. If all this weren't discouraging enough, Drew was earning far less than he had been and I'd left my job behind in DC along with everything and everyone else, so even the low rent wasn't really low enough to allow the new ends to meet.

Zach was healthy and reasonably happy: I'd love to be able to say that my awareness of our good fortune in this regard helped me to bear the unfamiliar isolation, loneliness, and relative poverty with grace. But I bitched. I wept and whined more or less continuously, to my sister by phone during the week, and to Drew on weekends. I bitched to myself, lamenting aloud my still-smarting incision and aching boobs, until my neighbors — usually inclined to forbearance by substance abuse and their own sins — got fed up and thumped the walls. At least I was lucky enough to be spared the truly crippling form of postpartum depression that can interfere so painfully (if generally temporarily) with a woman's ability to respond to her offspring.

Indeed, in that first year of Zach's life, I was so besotted that motherhood felt like a spiritual pilgrimage. I persuaded myself that the elders of my family — aunts and uncles who had made this holy journey before me — could desire nothing more than a chance to relive this most self-evidently definitive period of human life.

I sent a letter around, inviting them to contribute stories and advice to a parenting manual (by family, for family) I was hoping to put together. Zach happened to be the first grand- and great-grandchild, but there was no reason to think he'd be the only. Mine is a large and reasonably close-knit family yet, oddly enough, I didn't get a single reply.

However old they might have seemed to me, my aunts and uncles were in their forties and fifties, women and men in their prime, not venerable sages. They were busy. This was probably sufficient explanation for their reluctance to contribute, though I imagined I detected a more specific ambivalence.

I wondered: What if my aunts and uncles aren't sure about whether their parenting has actually been a success? I mean, yeesh! Just look at how some of my cousins have turned out!

There's irony here. For every cousin dutifully chugging down the good-college-good-career track, there was another like, well, like me, who would have to bloom late if she bloomed at all. In spite of an expensive parental investment in my higher education, I'd married young, gotten knocked up, and was now completely dependent on the earnings of a man employed by what was, at the time, the lowest-paid State Police in the country. Drew and I qualified for food stamps, for God's sake (which, frankly, I wish I'd known: food stamps would've helped). And we kept on reproducing with the monotonous regularity of woodlice; I wasn't exactly a postfeminist success story. At family reunions, I was probably not the kid my folks boasted about.

But maybe no one was boasting? My cousins and I were in our late teens and early twenties, right around the age my kids are now. It is a stage of life my husband Simon has vividly dubbed "perineal." Just as the terrible-two teeters between baby and child and the thirteen-year-old shifts uneasily from kid to teen and back again, so the late adolescent/young adult is 'taint this, 'taint that.

My Aunt Ellen's son and daughter were Ivy League college students the first time I heard her declare that you can't really tell how a child has turned out until he or she is forty. Lise and Tom were offended, but one's kids take everything parents do and say so personally.

For instance, my own kids get prickly when I admit that their conceptions were accidental and unwise, even though obviously it's not Zach, Peter, Ellie, and Woolie specifically whose conceptions a wiser person might have avoided. To the extent that their father and I used birth control, it was in an attempt to control our lives, not theirs.

Similarly, when Aunt Ellen made the "don't count your chickens until your eggs turn forty" remark, I think she was identifying the moment that her own human life began to reveal its trajectory — she was the one who was forty, after all, not her daughter or son. She had "turned out."

At forty(-ish), Simon and I met and married just in time to share the parenting — for better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health — of a half-dozen perineal persons, three sons and three daughters all sauntering, sprinting, staggering, tiptoeing and/or being yanked up to and across the threshold of adulthood. Their transition will, willy-nilly, be our transition, too. Once grown-up, they won't need parents and we'll be finished, perhaps in all senses of the word.

In the meantime we, too, are going to be a little "perineal," another pair of 'taints waiting to go where our elders and their elders, all the way back to the beginning of human time, have gone before.

My aunts and uncles' silence makes more sense to me now. I, like my Aunt Ellen, am not yet prepared to render judgment about whether, on the whole, my childrearing has been successful — nor even what success might look like when and if it comes. On the other hand, given the impending arrival of the first representative of the next generation, it would be nice to think that Simon and I might have at least a few practical tips to offer and a little wisdom to pass along.

* * *

Dear Zach,

You and your siblings liked to play with this while it was still warm. It is a soothing activity for fractious, cranky little ones. While this dough isn't a particularly good medium for real sculpture, it's a lot of fun to squash, roll, poke, and smash. Yes, you all took a bite of it at least once, but the taste proved discouraging enough to make parental intervention unnecessary. Still, I put peppermint oil in as a scent instead of vanilla because it seemed cruel to make the dough smell like cookies. And by the way, you were the one who called it Play-Go.


When my children were very small and learning how to speak, there were glitches. Zachary, for example, was very fond of lurgik. Forced to estimate, I would say Zach said lurgik for maybe six weeks, until his ear and tongue aligned and he began asking for yogurt. His father and I, on the other hand, went on saying lurgik for years. We were charmed into it the way we were charmed into repeating Peter's equally short-lived but adorable "I yuv you, Mama!"

Surely we weren't the only parents to find our offsprings' transient speech impediments irresistible and catchy? Nor could ours have been the only family in which the jargon of one member's occupation turned up in ordinary conversation? I'll bet my local pharmacist's family proclaims its affection in doses and warn one another of side effects.

As "PKs" (preacher's kids), my children grew accustomed to being greeted, soothed, and lambasted with biblical verses, and since I am also a law enforcement chaplain and their dad was a State Trooper, our family's slang is strongly tinged, too, with the language of police work.

I can (mostly) keep myself from referring to our family car as a "vehicle" and I've yet to answer the question "Do you have children?" with "Affirmative, three Caucasian males, three Caucasian females, last seen headed southbound ..." but I have been known to answer Simon's suggestion that we meet up for lunch with a brisk "10–4, what's your 20?"

Like soldiers, truckers, and anyone who communicates over occasionally untrustworthy radio waves, American police use numeric codes to supplement or replace the spoken word. The codes vary from place to place: "10–4" always and everywhere means "affirmative." But in Maine, the code for "subject has mental health issues" is "10–44," whereas officers with the LAPD would describe him as "51–50."

The last words I heard Drew utter weren't actually words at all. It was early morning and he was leaving for work. His State Police cruiser was still in the driveway, the driver's side door ajar, his German shepherd K-9, Rock, turning circles in the back seat, "flattening the grass" and settling in for a day on patrol.

I was standing on the driveway in my bare feet, though it was April and a light snow had fallen the night before. The strong spring sunlight was already starting to melt the snow off the black asphalt, which was beginning to warm. "4–12 Augusta, I'm 10–8," Drew said to the dispatcher. Neither the dispatcher nor I needed to translate this remark into English (Trooper James Andrew Griffith is on duty and ready for service).

The dispatcher answered, "10–4, 4–12," and I mused affectionately to myself, What a cool job he's got. No wonder he loves it, as I went back into the house to finish getting ready for the day — though not for the day it would turn out to be.


Excerpted from Anchor & Flares by Kate Braestrup. Copyright © 2015 Kate Braestrup. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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