`Mercy me!'

THE young lady on the other end of the telephone started to laugh when I said, ``I'll meet the bus!'' She was coming to visit for a few days, and public transportation avoids our place by a good 12 miles, so I had to be there when the Greyhound loped in. Then she made me laugh, too, when she answered, ``Mercy me!'' We concluded on that mirthful note, both pleasantly reminiscent on our separate ends of the day Bertha didn't show. It's a kind of a story. Bertha was pastry cook at the old Kennebago Camps -- a summer resort deep in the Maine woods of a kind just about extinct, known in their day as ``sporting'' camps. The esoteric word for vacationer was ``sport.''

``I said to my sport, I said . . .'' is the way a Maine woods guide would refer to Mr. Wedger-ley Prendergast Beasley III of Philadelphia's Main Line. The term was never offensive and survives even if guides and the one-time sports are fewer in a new day. In some areas, such as Kennebago, the Philadelphia sport was considered finest kind.

Those old camps had cabins, usually of spruce logs, where guests were lodged, and a main building with lobby, dining room, kitchens, and accommodations for the ``help.'' The food was the best, even at the far end of long woods roads -- guests came to table famished, and a poor table discouraged repeat reservations.

The other cooking at Kennebago was done by the Douglas trio, Ed and Ray, brothers, and Ray's wife, Hilda. But Bertha had her pastry department apart, where she would appear in trim white uniform at 4 each morning to start the popovers, hot biscuits, cream puffs, pies, cakes, squares, and her part of the necessaries for a day's enthusiastic feasting at Kennebago.

Although apart, she was near enough to join in the culinary conversations of the Douglas family and she had a way of emphasizing her remarks by waving a giant French chef's knife and repeating her pet, ``Mercy me!'' Not to menace; just to underscore. She always addressed Ray Douglas, who was the boss, as ``Cook.'' ``Mercy me, Cook!'' she would say, ``I need two tubs of raspberry filling,'' and she would thrust this great knife up under Ray's nose so he was staring at it cross-eyed. ``Yes,'' he would say, retreating.

On Oct. 1, after the season, this cook team would high-tail it to Florida, where the Douglas trio kept a restaurant until May, and where Bertha lolled in idleness likewise. They had automobiles, but Bertha traveled by bus. Somebody would drive her downstate to connect with a Greyhound, and she would go nonstop all the way to be let down at her own doorstep in Floridy -- she had a trailer.

I guess the most important part of this story is that Bertha, at that time, was 94 years old.

In the Maine sporting camp, the term ``opening day'' meant a great flurry of doing everything in a short time. The buildings had been buried in snow all winter. Every camp had to be cleaned; mattresses laid out and beds made. Woodboxes filled. Boats made ready. Food brought in, stored, and dining room set up. The Douglases would arrive and settle in. And during all this hurry-scurry of preparation for the first guests, somebody would have to go to meet the Greyhound and fetch Bertha.

One year I was minding my own business a hundred miles downstate from Kennebago, and Bud, who operated the place, tingled my telephone. ``We're all drove up,'' he said. ``Main water line is leaking, food truck hasn't come, my car's stuck in the mud -- can you meet Bertha?''

``Mercy me!'' I said.

So I met the bus, but not Bertha. She wasn't on it. There followed a considerable Bertha-hunt, and after many toll calls, many of them by the police, it appeared that Bertha had disappeared somewhere between New York City and Lewiston, Maine. She was never found, really.

Instead, she appeared two days later on another bus, and explained that on an impulse she had stepped off the Greyhound in Hartford to visit an older sister. Still arriving, you understand, in plenty of time for opening day. She was too much of a pro to miss opening day. ``Mercy me!'' she would say, knife to the fore, ``I wouldn't miss opening day!''

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