In this story, in spite of being alone in her later years, Mrs. Marigold turns her back on loneliness. I created this character to encourage readers and myself.
Old Mrs. Marigold passed in front of Emma’s house just after three o’clock. Watching for Mrs. Marigold was one of the important events of Emma’s afternoon. Her other regular activities were looking for ducks by the stream she crossed on the way home from school, checking under the beds and in the closets for scary people, and exploring along the path through the woods to find interesting plants and wildlife. Emma added pressed leaves and flowers, curiously colored or shaped pebbles and twigs, and the remnants of birds’ nests to the natural-history exhibit she was assembling in her bedroom.
Emma was allowed to play outside after school, but she didn’t want her mother to know about her walks in the woods. Some things were just too special to talk about. Emma let her mother think she found all her nature treasures between school and home. Emma was careful to leave for her walk every afternoon right after eating the snack her mother had laid out for her and to be home in time to set the table before her mother’s bus stopped at the corner.
Mrs. Marigold was alone today. There were never any people with her, but some afternoons a big yellow cat with a thick tail that switched back and forth followed along or ran a few steps ahead. To Emma, one of the notable things about Mrs. Marigold was that she seemed to like walking as much as Emma did. Other grown-ups walked when they had to in order to get someplace—the way her mother walked to work when the bus didn’t come, but Mrs. Marigold never seemed to be going or coming from anywhere in particular. She was just walking.
Emma didn’t know Mrs. Marigold’s real name. She liked to associate the people she met with plants or animals, and to her mind the old lady with the big cat was a flower, just the way Emma’s teacher at school was. Emma decided the first day of class that Mrs. Montgomery was a sunflower—big and bossy with an overpowering cheeriness. But it took Emma a whole afternoon of looking through garden and wildflower books from the library to name Mrs. Marigold. She was a plain little woman, with clean but faded clothes and white hair worn in a bun. Her face was composed of concentric wrinkles that made her always seem to be smiling. Like a marigold, she was unpretentious and small but held her head up proudly.
Emma particularly wanted to see Mrs. Marigold this afternoon because school had been even worse than usual. Mrs. Marigold was always alone, but she never looked sad. Emma thought maybe she could learn her secret if she observed her carefully enough. Today Mrs. Montgomery had read to the whole class Emma’s composition about what she wanted to be when she grew up. Recess had been terrible. Her classmates called her Paul Bunyan and asked when she was going to chop down a tree for them. She didn’t want to chop down forests when she grew up; she wanted to save them. Her classmates were only trying to get even with her because of her good grades in English. Just because she liked to write about some things—it wasn’t a big deal, but Mrs. Montgomery acted like it was a big deal, and then all the other kids gave her a hard time. At lunch Susie Croft and Megan Silvo, the two girls she could usually count on to sit with her, sat with some girls who liked to make trouble for Emma by doing things like ripping her homework papers and making up stories about her. Emma ate her sandwich as fast as she could and then ran out to the willow grove at the edge of the schoolyard to make bracelets out of the willow branches. It would be nice to have some friends you could count on. Emma wished her mother would let her get a cat like Mrs. Marigold’s.
Mrs. Marigold stopped nearly in front of Emma’s house and turned toward the meadow across the road. The grasses and wildflowers were already thick from the warm spring days, and Emma could see bees in the purple clover beside the road. Mrs. Marigold stood with her arms a little way out from her body. The breeze blew the grasses and then moved into the road to billow her skirts and the wisps of hair that had fallen from her bun. To Emma she looked like the scarecrow her father had put up in the meadow when he had turned part of it into a garden and raised pole beans and tomatoes. Emma thought of her father and of helping her mother string and break the beans.
What was Mrs. Marigold thinking about? Was she remembering her parents? Had there ever been a Mr. Marigold, or children, or friends who came in for coffee? Why didn’t Mrs. Marigold ever look lonely? Emma watched her bend down and pick a purple clover. She pulled the petals from the stem and sucked on them, a few at a time. Emma decided to taste some clover herself when she went on her walk that afternoon.
Once when she had been at the county fair with her mother, she had seen Mrs. Marigold looking at the exhibits in the 4-H tent. Emma saw Mrs. Marigold smile and mumble something to herself as she stood looking at a large buttercup squash. Emma didn’t ask her mother about the old lady. Her mother never mentioned her, even after they had stood practically next to her in front of the pumpkin pies. Asking about Mrs. Marigold would mean sharing her, and Emma wanted to keep her special for her private after-school world.
On Saturdays Emma often rode her bicycle past Mrs. Marigold’s house. Emma knew where she lived because sometimes when Emma pedaled by, Mrs. Marigold was in her yard picking off faded blossoms or weeding. She didn’t wear a sun hat or gardening gloves, and, although she stood up slowly, she didn’t groan or say, “Oh, my poor knees,” the way Aunt Rose did when she gardened.
The house was the smallest Emma had ever seen. Two pillars held up the roof over the front porch as if the builder had secretly wished he were constructing a southern mansion. The white paint was peeling up near the eaves, but the shutters hung neatly, and no weeds mixed in with the flowers under the front windows.
Mrs. Marigold resumed her walk and disappeared from Emma’s view. Emma hurried into the kitchen for her snack. She gulped the milk and took the brownie with her as she grabbed her door key and ran outside into the humid late-May afternoon.
Emma’s path started about a hundred yards up the road beyond her house. First it meandered through a small, uncultivated field that belonged to the neighbors. The stubby grasses along the edge of the path tickled Emma’s bare ankles. She kept a lookout for birds and other creatures hiding in the tall weeds. A few days ago a pheasant had startled her by flying into the air from practically at her feet.
The woods always looked dark until Emma was inside. There the sun filtered through the leafy tops of the tall, straight trees and created little speckles of light that lit the lichen and mayapples on the forest floor. Emma wondered who had made her path and who tended it. She liked to think that Native Americans had worn the path by following it to the lake to fill their water jugs. Emma had only once followed the path all the way to the lake. There were so many ferns and mosses and insects that attracted her attention along the way. She had to be careful to start home in time.
It had been hot in the open, but the air felt cool and peaceful under the trees. Emma shuffled along trying to suck nectar out of the clover she had collected in the field. The thin petals felt smooth and pleasing in her mouth, but she couldn’t taste much of anything. Maybe Mrs. Marigold had a special clover-tasting technique Emma didn’t know about.
Emma dropped the clover in the path and picked up a dry twig, which was pleasant to snap into little pieces as she walked along. A butterfly hovered over a plant full of tiny flowers that were almost as brilliantly blue as the butterfly. Emma put a small branch from the plant in her shirt pocket to identify at home. Two chickadees chased each other across the path, scolding and flying back and forth. “Stop arguing,” Emma said to the birds, who noticed her then and flew off.
Walking wasn’t working for Emma today the way it seemed to work for Mrs. Marigold. Mrs. Marigold had no friends that Emma knew about, but she always looked happy on her walks. Emma herself usually liked walking alone, but today the kids at school had made her feel different from everybody else. It was hard to forget school and just enjoy her woods.
Emma scuffed the decayed leaves and twigs under her feet and thought about what she might do. She was so preoccupied with her problem she didn’t even notice the baby rabbit until she was close enough to startle it into hopping away. Emma considered whether all the kids would like her if she curled her hair like Lisa Abner’s and wore nicer jeans. “Maybe I could talk to Mrs. Montgomery and ask her to pretend I’m not any good in my schoolwork anymore.” Emma thought about Mrs. Montgomery reading her composition to the class, and the thought made her so mad she kicked a small birch tree. “Teachers are stupid,” she said aloud. Mrs. Montgomery wasn’t going to be any help. Emma would just have to learn to be like Mrs. Marigold and not need other people at all.
Because she had been thinking about her, Emma felt a little thud inside her chest when she realized Mrs. Marigold herself was just down the path by the old fallen oak that Emma used as a resting spot on her walks. Mrs. Marigold was picking something growing beside the path. Emma had seen Mrs. Marigold in the woods twice before. Emma hadn’t felt scared then. But today she had already made up her mind to speak to her the next time she saw her.
Mrs. Marigold seemed to pay no attention as Emma cautiously walked up to her and stood beside her, watching her pick a small bouquet of violets. Emma’s heart thumped again when Mrs. Marigold said in an unexpectedly strong voice, “I only pick a few flowers so there’ll be plenty left for the bees and for other people to look at.”
Not knowing what to say, Emma said, “My name’s Emma.”
Mrs. Marigold straightened up and smiled. “I always knew you’d have a pretty name, but I’d guessed you’d be called Robin. You’re sturdy and determined like a robin.”
The idea that Mrs. Marigold knew who she was and even had a secret name for her convinced Emma that Mrs. Marigold was as wise and magical as she had imagined. She felt less timid.
Mrs. Marigold continued to speak as cheerfully and naturally as if she had been expecting Emma to join her. “My name is Abigail, but you may call me anything that makes you feel comfortable. My husband used to call me Abby. Some people who don’t know me very well call me Mrs. Waters.”
“Mrs. Marigold,” mumbled Emma.
“Mrs. Marigold it will be. I love marigolds. They’re bright and cheerful, and they aren’t ashamed to be unexciting. Would you like to sit up here with me. I like to rest a little and watch the forest life before continuing to the lake.” Abigail Waters settled herself slowly but gracefully on the broad, decaying tree trunk, and Emma climbed up beside her. Emma was pleased to see that Mrs. Marigold didn’t seem to think at all about whether she would get her skirt dirty.
“You must be in the sixth grade by now,” said Mrs. Waters. “I didn’t enjoy the sixth grade very much. I wonder if children are any kinder to each other these days.”
“The kids think I’m weird because I want to be a conservationist and save the forests when I grow up.”
“I bet they tease you for being smart and liking to study.”
“How did you know?” Emma wondered again at Mrs. Marigold’s powers.
“I just guessed. Tell me why you weren’t more afraid of me. Most children are.” Mrs. Waters smiled her crinkly smile.
“I don’t know,” said Emma, who was trying to find the right words for the question she really wanted to ask.
A sharp, two-note whistle came from a tree to the left of their perch on the fallen trunk. “There’s the father cardinal,” said Mrs. Waters quietly. “I saw him here yesterday. He must have a family around here.”
“Do you come every day? I’ve only seen you on the path twice before.”
“I think mornings are best for visiting the woods, but sometimes like today I have chores to do in the morning. In the afternoon I like to walk down your road and watch the children coming home from school.”
“Why do you walk so much?”
“Probably for the same reasons you do. Tell me more about your school.”
Emma didn’t want to talk anymore yet about her school. She fidgeted with the dry bark and powdery wood from the old tree. She still hadn’t asked the important question, the question that had made her brave enough to make Mrs. Water’s acquaintance. Emma forced herself to stop thinking and worrying and pushed out the question before she could stop herself. “Don’t you ever get lonely?”
Mrs. Marigold’s face crinkled again in a kindly way, and she looked at Emma as she answered. “I used to be lonely sometimes when I was your age. Being eleven is hard. I’m afraid it will go right on being hard for a few years. But you mustn’t think it’s just because you’re a little different from the other kids.”
Emma’s need to understand everything now that she had asked her question made her bolder. “Don’t you hate being different?”
“How many old ladies do you know who get to go exploring in the woods every day, or who can spend their afternoons walking up and down a pretty country road where the breezes smell sweet and wholesome? I have all I need, too. I have my own little home, and Alberta–she’s my cat–keeps me good company. I’d rather live my life than the life of any rich old woman in a typical retirement home–forced to answer to young people who think I’m as capable of taking care of myself as a five year old and stuck pretending I want to play bingo and learn to hook rugs.”
“But don’t you miss having other people around?” In her frustration with not finding the essential information she needed, Emma turned to straddle the tree and face Mrs. Waters.
Instead of responding right away, she said, “Come sit here closer to me if you like.” Emma swung her right leg back over and moved up next to Mrs. Waters. For a few moments they sat together watching a squirrel flap his tail and cluck in response to some unknown displeasure.
“I never had a little girl or boy of my own,” Mrs. Waters said finally. “Sometimes I’ve been sad about that. When I’m baking cookies on Saturday morning I imagine how nice it would be to be listening for my grandchildren coming up the walk.
“Other times I miss my husband. He was a teacher at the college, and when he was alive we had lots of friends among the other teachers. When Oliver died, I lost touch with those friends. I’ve never thought of myself as lonely, though.”
“Can’t you make new friends?”
“I hope I’ve just made a very special new friend.”
Emma smiled up at Mrs. Marigold. She liked sitting next to her. She smelled faintly like the meadow—not the kind of fragrance that comes from perfume or powder but the light sweetness of clover and wild grasses. “I’m not much of a friend for you. I’m just a kid.”
“You and I like some of the same things. I don’t think I could find many other friends who would sit here on a dirty log with me and watch beetles in the rotting wood.” Mrs. Marigold had pulled back a strip of bark to reveal a dozen black insects that she and Emma were examining as they talked. “I can’t expect most people to put up with me. They might not even want their friends and families to see them with someone as odd as I am.”
“Can’t you change so other people would like you?”
“Would you really, deep inside, want to change to be like the children at school who tease you, even if changing could bring you a dozen close friends?”
“Don’t you like other people?”
“O yes, especially my family. I loved my husband and my parents and sister. I liked our friends from the college.”
“But aren’t they all gone?”
“Not in my mind. I’ll always remember them. And I like seeing people when I’m on my walks. I saw you and your mother one day at the county fair. Watching you enjoying yourself made me happy, too.”
They sat silently then, listening to the forest sounds of nesting birds, insects, and squirrels digging in last year’s leaves.
“I have to go. My mother gets home at five.”
“Maybe some Saturday when you’re riding your bike up by my house you’ll stop in for some cookies.”
“I’m very fond of chocolate-chip cookies,” said Emma.
Emma ran every few yards to make up for the extra time she had spent in the woods. She let herself in by the kitchen door, hurried into the living room to turn on the television, and left it on while she went back to wash the plate and glass from her snack. She had shut the television off again and was setting the table for dinner when she heard her mother at the front door. Emma straightened the place settings and went to greet her mother.
“You look happy today,” said Emma’s mother. “Was there a good program on the after-school special?” She felt the television as she walked toward the couch to set down her briefcase. “You watch too much television. I wish you’d try to be more sociable. Why don’t you visit one of your little friends from school in the afternoons. I wouldn’t mind as long as you told me where you were going.
“I have a new friend,” said Emma. “She invited me to come see her.”
“How nice, dear. What’s her name?” Emma’s mother sat down next to the briefcase and slipped off her office pumps.
“Abby Marigold,” said Emma softly.
“Marigold—what an odd name. Well, let me know if you plan to play at her house after school instead of coming home. Find out her mother’s name and her telephone number. Dear, run to the kitchen and get me a glass of ice water. You’ve been sitting all afternoon and a little scurrying around won’t hurt you.”