That circle of people you may have seen on Federal Street some noons, near Wiscasset’s Ancient Cemetery, is a family, as far as they are concerned. All Federal Street residents have been meeting regularly since the March 2020 lockdown.
First, they met in face masks, kept their social distance and rang bells together downtown as churches and others took to ringing, out of unity and hope. The neighbors called themselves the Federal Street Ding-a-Lings. The bell-ringing ended long after, the vaccines rolled out, the pandemic ebbed, and the group’s mask-wearing and social distancing ended. But they kept meeting.
They are down to two noons a week, usually Tuesday and Thursday. Weather sometimes moves the day or moves the gathering to a member’s home.
Between talk of Schoonerfest sponsors and more Thursday, July 15 at the cemetery, the Ding-a-Lings explained they became a family when no one could see their own; plus, they like to gossip and talk colostomies, childhoods and anything else, just like any family, they said. Terri Wells recalled suggesting they cut back to once a week. “And they were like, ‘No! What’s wrong with you?”
Usually they do whatever she says, Bob Bond said. “But that was an exception.” There is always something to talk about, Wells’ husband Peter said. The Wellses, Billy Blaylock and Palmer Hagestrom, Bond and Ernie Gallerani, and Sherri Dunbar are regulars to the meetups. Judy Flanagan, John Hendrickson, Jesse Perez and Terry Heller occasionally join them. The names are on a poster made several months into the group.
Asked where they expect to be at noon a year from now, at least three of Thursday’s five pointed down to where they stood and said, right here. They all laughed. “We couldn’t give this up,” Bond said.
A woohoo came from a passing United Parcel Service truck. The group waved up to the driver. A lot of motorists stop and talk to them, members said.
They said they have told one another they don’t know how they would have gotten through the pandemic without them. “It took the edge off,” Peter Wells said. Billy Blaylock joined after buying a home on Federal Street last summer as a summer home, but then, as the pandemic wore on, he and spouse Palmer Hagestrom could not return to Holly Springs, Mississippi, even when Blaylock’s brother died of COVID-19 last February.
The couple will head back to Mississippi in October. Blaylock said he is already feeling “withdrawals” at the prospect of not seeing the group.
The group has also become a welcoming committee, Peter Wells said. They go to new neighbors’ homes and sing out front. They brought a pie to one and have had parties up and down the street, Wells’ wife Terri said. They also sing out front when they know it is someone’s birthday. And they have left Federal Street on forays to lunch and once to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens where they surprised Peter Wells. He volunteers there.
When Terri Wells gets new clothes, she models them for the group. “They’re still working on their responses.”
A freight train’s whistle blared out along the Sheepscot River. “That’s the second time today,” Bond said. “Oh, look at the traffic on the bridge,” Terri Wells said.