Becoming a Classic: Aging with Grace is a blog about aging with enthusiasm, optimism, and satisfaction. No, I haven’t yet figured out how to deserve these labels, but I’m working on it. Through my writing I’ll be looking at what I’m doing wrong (and very occasionally right) and how I can do more to grow as I age. I’ll be sharing my writing because you may have been wrestling with some of the same challenges that have resisted solution for me.
Because I love books—from the greatest classics to the most frivolous just-off-the-press fluff and everything in between—I will relate my musings to things I have read that have given me guidance or ideas, or at least suggested that my feelings and failings are not unique. In some cases, the books and their insights will take center stage.
Update: I shared the letter in this blog post with the deacon who is leading the RCIA sessions for me. In spite of my views, he has responded very kindly, telling me that I am welcome in the Church. I’m grateful to him for easing my mind about a great source of worry and fear.
My letter below represents the next stage in the thinking shared in “Church Bells and a Riptide,” which describes my struggles with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process through which I am possibly converting to Catholicism. I feel great affinity with some groups within the Church but have deep reservations about many of the attitudes and teachings of the more traditional, conservative Church powers.
“Dear Deacon” restates a few of the points in the longer essay posted earlier, but it also reflects new self-understanding: The key to my converting is the Church’s acceptance of me as I am and as someone who can add my own gifts, however limited, to the Church’s wisdom, insight, and understanding. Equality and mutual respect are the basis of all healthy relationships, whether within an individual friendship or family or within a vast country or religion.
You have been very kind to me and have listened to my opinions with great courtesy. I nevertheless am uncertain about the answer to this important question: Are you able to welcome me into the Catholic Church as I am, with my 69 years’ experience, spiritual reflection, education, strengths, and weaknesses? In other words, are you able to feel that through joining the Church, I will, in my small way, bring gifts as well as receive them?
Or do you, in contrast, believe that the Church’s formal teachings are the sole and complete answers? Do you see the RCIA process as one of pouring the Truth into me as if I were an empty vessel?
I cannot accept having any human being set out to change me through the conviction that he or she comprehends the Truth and I don’t.
As a member of the Church, I would have the opportunity to gain immensely from the examples and insights of countless Catholics. For instance, many Franciscans will be—and already are—mentors to me. Certainly as a Catholic—or as I am—I would/will change over the coming years, evolving through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation.
At the same time, if I join the Church, I will bring with me my lifetime of wisdom, mistakes, and understanding. I want and expect all of me to be welcomed. I have much to gain, and I also have something to give.
Here is what I would like to ask of you: I hope you believe and will explain that through the RCIA sessions, you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views. I am eager to learn more about the Church, and I value hearing your perspective. But I also hope you acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding of the Gospel and God. I ask you to recognize that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect.
No one, and no human religion, grasps all the answers. There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered perspectives. And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings. I want to be a part of that process. I want to give to the Church, as well as to receive.
So I’ll rephrase my opening question: Is there room in your Church for me as I am, or only as the strictly conceived RCIA teachings would like for me to be? If there is room for me as I am, I am eager to continue with the RCIA process.
Thank you for your contributions during our sessions and for your thoughts on my concerns.
To my friends and readers who are Catholic: Please forgive me for sharing my disagreements with the Church. I am struggling with the question of whether or not I should become Catholic. To all my friends and readers: I would value your perspective.
On Thursday morning as I sat in church with a dear friend, the bells calling worshipers to weekday Mass took me back to hearing other church bells a few miles away. On warm evenings, my parents and I ate dinner on our screened porch, and daily at 6 p.m., the carillon at the Methodist church out on the main road played hymns. If we sat down early to supper, we might say, “Well, we beat the Methodists tonight.”
As I listened to the Catholic bells this week, I could see in my mind the three of us on our porch at the back of our little white house. I saw the scene from above; I was a ghost revisiting a place and time of joy from a life now past. I wondered, “In some dimension, are the three of us still together, sharing evenings on our porch, listening to ‘the Methodists’?”
So much has changed—is changing—at least that is how existence feels to me. In my spiritual life, too, the past seems to be a distant shore from which I am cut off on this ocean of being. I had thought I was now among those whom the bells call to Mass. I thought I’d found a new spiritual shore toward which to sail. But I fear I am steering toward the edge of my world, of my understanding of God’s world.
I am distressed to find myself caught in a riptide in my spiritual ocean as I meet with the deacon who is dealing with me in the RCIA process by which I am, perhaps, turning from Quaker to Catholic. The deacon is a kind man who does not abruptly reject my views that conflict with his; he even appears to give my opinions some consideration, at least out of courtesy. So ours is not an adversarial relationship, but he and I are spiritually oil and water. Engaging in a process that causes me to focus squarely on the swirling chasm between the deacon’s perspective and mine causes me to question the wisdom of the voyage I have begun.
My Reasons for Setting Sail
I was raised a Quaker and continue to resonate with the Quaker peace testimony, conviction that all people—and that includes men and women—are equal, belief that no ministers or priests are required to intercede between the laity and God, and rejection of rituals as a necessary part of worship. But in the past decade, I have lost the sense of a Quaker home. Like our porch at our family home, the Wilmington Meetinghouse filled with Quakers I knew and with whom I felt kinship has disappeared from my everyday reality.
The Meetinghouse is now frequented by new generations of Quakers, generations with whom I share the tenets of a spiritual philosophy but not the spiritual temperament and enthusiasm I used to feel in our Meeting. When I lived in other places, I never found a Meeting that came up—in my mind—to our Wilmington Meeting. And now the Wilmington Meeting I loved—and the inspired ministry of my parents, others of their generation, and the elders still with us then—lives in timeless eternity. It has joined our little family listening to the Methodist hymns and the katydids as we sit together on our porch.
But through a dear friend, I have come to know the Franciscans. Franciscans and Quakers share a similar social testimony and belief in the value and dignity of every human being. Franciscans are warm and welcoming, as Wilmington Quakers once more vigorously seemed to me. Franciscans love and care for the Earth and its creatures and growing things. Franciscans notably live Christ’s teachings of love and kindness with devotion and sincerity.
And Franciscans sing hymns with a joy I haven’t known in congregational singing since my childhood, when the Wilmington Quakers sang with gusto, too. Music is not part of a Quaker meeting for worship, but we sang enthusiastically beforehand, when Evelyn Young, of my grandparents’ generation, played for us children, and afterwards, when everyone, old and young, gathered to sing hymns. We closed each week with “As We Leave This Friendly Place”:
As we leave this friendly place,
Love give light to every face;
May the kindness which we learn
Light our hearts till we return.
Music no longer lights the hearts of the Wilmington Meeting, in spite of the kindness there. And to me, music is the most thrilling and perfected way of praising God and creation, of expressing joy, gratitude, and the unity of us all.
I crave regaining a spiritual home. I crave a spiritual community in which I find mentors and partners for trying to live the essence of Christ’s teachings: be kind to one another; love one another; act always through kindness and love. I find such a community among the Franciscans, especially the Sisters of St. Francis and their Companions in Faith.
But to join them as more than a welcomed visitor, I need to work through a parish church—thus the deacon. The Church has a need and a right, of course, to ensure that those joining are committed to Christ’s teachings and to being active members of the Church community.
I try to bridge the gulf between the deacon’s religion and my own by telling myself that rather than joining the Catholic Church per se, I am joining the Franciscans. Within the Franciscans, the pieces of my spiritual faith and desires fall into place. I also love the profound contributions of numerous other Catholic groups and individuals on behalf of suffering people around the world and on behalf of peace. And I love the magnificent architecture, art, and music growing out of the Church’s two millennia of devotion to Christ. There is much to love. And the terrible actions of a few do not erase the good of multitudes. But I would be a hypocrite to pretend that I am a fit within the religious picture the deacon is drawing for me.
Manageable Waves or Tsunamis?
I don’t expect a perfect Church. Of course I know that like each human being, no human institution is perfect. Nevertheless I am struggling to decide: Can I in good conscience join a church with which I have significant disagreements? If I had been raised Catholic, I believe I would stay Catholic, revel in the Church’s great attributes and contributions, and work from within for necessary change. Whether or not to sign on at this stage of my life feels like a different sort of decision, however, one that should be made based on a strong concurrence between the Church’s teachings and my own values.
I do not love the Catholic Church’s—and society’s—continued denigration of women. Keeping women out of the priesthood is purely a continuation of many men’s ongoing desire and determination to retain power. Those who don’t realize how much is being lost by barring the door to women priests should come listen to the homilies that our local Franciscan sisters sometimes deliver in their convent chapel.
And I do not love the Church’s placing priests above the rest of humanity, men and women. Priests are not singled out by God, by Christ; they do not stand above us mere mortals. Priests (and ministers and other religious leaders) contribute enormously to their congregations and the world when they are filled with love and wisdom conveyed through their ministry and lives. But priests are not uniquely the descendants of Jesus’s Apostles and keepers of their responsibility to preach Christ’s message. We all are.
I do not need a priest to intervene between God and me. Every human being can commune directly with God. Similarly, priests have no right to believe they alone among people can absolve me of my sins, and I do not intend to ask a priest to do so.
It bothers me deeply to see a priest sitting on a throne-like chair, holding himself physically and symbolically above all others present. At Mass yesterday afternoon, we heard James 2:1, “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” And Philippians 2:3 tells us, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” Verses 5-7 continue, “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Yet within the hierarchy of the Church, the concepts of equality and humility are too often given mere lip service. The position of conservative Church officials concerning LGBT members is another example of Church hypocrisy about equality within the Church and in God’s eyes. In an additional example, the elaborate church vestments worn by priests and higher church officials, while perhaps aesthetically appealing, are certainly not symbols of humility and equality. And, of course, as with any population feeling holier- or higher-than-thou, the sense of entitlement and superiority that some priests nurture within themselves helps to allow them to rationalize abhorrent behavior.
Friend deacon, among the other disagreements I have with you, I reject your message that deep knowledge and insight are infused in the individual through baptism in the Church. Baptism can be a beautiful way of committing oneself to striving to live according to Christ’s example. Through baptism, one symbolically becomes a part of the local and worldwide community of those who have made the same commitment. God does not, however, dump knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding onto the person along with the baptismal water. Knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding can develop only in the course of living one’s life with the guidance of the Inner Light, God’s blessings, and the example—not dogmatism—of others.
God loves each person infinitely regardless of his or her baptismal status. Quakers, who do not believe in baptism, can be as wise and good as any Catholic—and so can Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, agnostics, and so on. And in determining our afterlife status, God doesn’t care one bit about whether we have been baptized. Deacon, you are not wiser—or possessed of greater insight into Jesus—than I am simply because you have been baptized and I have not. By seeming to believe that you are wiser, you inspire me to form a shell to protect myself from your message.
The position of the deacon’s Church on who can take communion is another source of distress for me. (Some Franciscans, such as Father Richard Rohr in his insightful books, also disagree with the deacon’s version of the Church on this point.) I believe Jesus likewise would have disagreed with the mainstream Church’s requirements for taking communion. Jesus said, “. . . I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). Jesus’s teachings and example emphasize inclusivity. But the deacon’s Catholic communion is too much about saying, “I’m in the club and you’re not.”
No One True Humanly Charted Course
I believe we are all seekers who can learn from each other, and some individuals are outstandingly wise, but I have never been able to accept the notion that anyone has a corner on the truth. When I was a senior in high school, a member of the Meeting decided that in our Sunday school—which Quakers call “First-day school”—he would teach us young people exactly what we “ought” to know and believe. In response, I immediately stopped going to First-day school. I have not (at least as yet) decided to stop going to meet with the deacon because I still want to be among the Franciscans as more than a welcomed visitor. But how can I join them without having to pretend to be in agreement with the deacon and the vast elements of the Church that he represents?
Deacon, here is what I would like to ask of you: Tell me that you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views. But then acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding. Acknowledge that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect as the next person’s. No one, and no religion, has all the answers. There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered understanding. And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings.
The Wrong Direction Altogether?
When I am with the Franciscans, I feel as though I have found a spiritual home. It is not the home of my earlier years, the home I will miss forever in this life, but it is a beautiful home, filled with love and deep satisfaction. The bells and music of the Catholic faith are not the bells and katydids accompanying long-ago family suppers on the porch, not hymn-sings in the old Quaker Meetinghouse at 4th and West Streets, but I thought they could be welcoming and meaningful to me.
Am I going to have to turn back into the emptiness of living without a spiritual port, a spiritual home that counts me fully among its family? Do I have to turn away because I am having profound difficulty accepting the lessons I am supposed to be learning in the RCIA sessions–conforming enough for the deacon and those he represents to let me in? Should I join the Church feeling as I feel? I want to be a Franciscan, but for now I am not sure I am suited to be a Catholic.
 Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (even the name bothers me: I am already Christian).
 The formal name for the Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends.
The poem and story I’m sharing here make a companion to my recent post “Embracing Now,” in which I tell about hearing my mother’s voice, in spite of the veil between worlds that separates us for now.
I would know for sure.
Would become vistas
Over all sides of creation.
I could help others,
But above all,
Doubt would disappear
To be replaced by knowing,
By reaching out to you
And finding you,
Not just sometimes
And then forever.
In the fourth grade, our teacher taught us about the Navajos. I loved drawing pictures of pueblos and became fascinated by Native American jewelry.
Under the tree at Christmastime that year, 1958, I found an interesting-looking gift about four inches square and an inch deep. The tag said the present was for me from Mother and Daddy. On one of the long days before Christmas, my impatience overwhelmed my self-control. I slipped off the package’s ribbon and carefully unstuck the tape on the wrapping paper. The box inside was stamped “Marjorie Speakman,” the name of a local store selling children’s clothing. In the box was a turquoise-and-silver pin. My parents had forgotten to remove the price tag, which gave the cost as eight dollars. Thrilled and awed by the present, I reassembled the paper and ribbon around it.
From December 1958 until May 2007, the turquoise-and-silver pin from my parents was my favorite piece of jewelry. The pin—about an inch tall and just over an inch across at its widest point—was in the shape of a three-branch spray of little turquoise leaves, fifteen in total. The silver branches joined toward the bottom and ended in two little silver knobs. I wore my pin on the collars of my blouses, dresses, and sweaters. It came with me to college and to my first apartments. When I was twenty-eight, my parents gave me turquoise earrings for my newly pierced ears, and from then on I wore the earrings with my pin as it continued with me through my years in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Delaware. When my father died in 2004, I moved back into our Wilmington, Delaware, family home to be with my mother. I continued to wear my pretty pin.
On May 7, 2007, my mother moved to the Maris Grove retirement community, and I went to an apartment in nearby West Chester. We shared the same moving van. The movers delivered my mother’s furniture and boxes and then drove the seven miles up Route 202 to my new home.
I had left my clothes, jewelry, and other possessions in place in the dresser drawers. But in my new West Chester apartment, the first time that I opened the drawer where I kept my turquoise-and-silver pin, it wasn’t there. The missing small pin left a cavernous gap. Perhaps the drawer had come open while the men were loading or unloading my dresser. I imagined my pin lying on the bottom of the van, crushed now under the legs of other people’s furniture. Or perhaps, I hoped, I had put the pin in a different drawer or left it on a collar the last time I’d worn it. I searched every drawer and examined every collar I owned, without success. The pin seemed irrevocably lost.
For the four years and three months I lived in West Chester, I missed my sweet pin. In my mind, I saw it as it had been for five decades, among my other jewelry and decorating my clothes. How could I have been careless enough to allow its loss by any means?
In August 2011, I prepared to move in with my mother at Maris Grove. As I was readying my belongings for the movers, I opened my jewelry drawer. Sitting in an open box in clear view at the front of the drawer was my turquoise-and-silver pin.
I cannot unequivocally explain how my pin returned to my drawer after being gone for more than four years. But I have chosen to adopt one of the possible explanations. I choose to believe my late father somehow recovered the pin and returned it to me. The idea is not preposterous. My father in several ways showed my mother and me that he continued to be a part of our lives—as both my parents now continue to be in my life. I believe my father found the means for me to have the pin again. This time, instead of honoring my interest in the Navajos, the gift honored the life my mother and I were to live together, always with my father in our hearts.
“My Turquoise-and-Silver Pin” and the poem “Being Psychic” are from my book A Woman in Time. If you wish to read more about afterlife communication, I recommend the four books I’ve listed at the end of “Embracing Now.”
This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side. If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.
Returning to the Patio
I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together. Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing. But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me. The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring. While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.
The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together. We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then. I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home. Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors. This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.
On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now. Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together. And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.
Holding Back, Weighted Down
In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life. Yet I’m already what most would consider old. If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.” I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly. I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation. It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least. What am I waiting for?
Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.” Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.
You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness. And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what. Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.
Turning Blessings into Joy
I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests. I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian. I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient. I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness. I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces. I have lines to master for the play that I’m in. And on and on. But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.
When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage. I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books. I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment. It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately. And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.
Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings. If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do. I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.
As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what. And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face. Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.
And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy. Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived. Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality. I now choose contentment and serenity. And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.
Hearing an Answer to My Prayer
Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity. In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real. I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known. And then my prayer was answered.
I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady. (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.) To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder. Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC. I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”
When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script. And the singing voice is not mine. To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer. During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep. Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer. On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.
In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice. Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard. Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage. How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in. I am blessed by this gift beyond words. I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible. Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever. And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.
If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec (In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit. I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
In this short story, two sisters confront memories and their strained relationship.
Sarah Bright opened the door to her sister and gave her a welcoming hug. Hugging Rebecca was like hugging a straight-backed chair. Rebecca had never been affectionate, even as a girl, but Sarah tried to act as if the sisterly bond she so much desired actually existed. “Your house smells like cats,” said Rebecca before she removed her coat.
“How’s life at Westside Manor these days?” said Sarah, trying to rescue her sister’s visit from early disaster.
Rebecca rejected Sarah’s offer to hang her coat in the closet. She painstakingly draped the pale-blue coat over the back of the chair nearest the front door, as if to be ready to leave any time.
“I’ve joined a new duplicate-bridge group. They were eager to have me, but I didn’t know whether I’d enjoy a group Marge Amstel organized. She always has to be the center of attention. I decided to go ahead since Helen Clark was joining too.” Rebecca finished smoothing the pleats in her gray skirt and sat down with her handbag beside her on the chair.
“Relax, Rebecca,” Sarah wanted to say. “You look as if you’ve come for a job interview.” Rebecca did not take kidding well, so Sarah said instead, “I don’t believe I met Helen when I visited you last summer.”
“Yes you did. She was at our table for at least two meals. She’s the tall, well-dressed woman—a little younger than you are—who always wears beige.”
Sarah recalled a woman who had not spoken to her except to request something from across the table. “How come your friends seem so unfriendly?” she asked, knowing she was venturing into a risky area.
“I prefer friends who know how to keep their distance. Rebecca looked around at Sarah’s tidy but battered living room. Sarah was still using some of the same furniture their parents had brought to the cottage when it had been the family summer home. “I suppose we’ve each selected friends appropriate to our personalities. That woman I met at your house last year—what was her name—Louisa something?”
“That was it. She looked as faded and sagging as some of your furniture.”
“Louisa’s my closest friend. You’d like her if you got to know her.”
“I can’t imagine wanting to get to know her.”
“We’re picking at each other already. Come sit over here by me on the window seat. I want you to see how pretty the mountain looks with snow on it.”
“I saw snow on the mountain last year,” said Rebecca, but she moved over next to Sarah. Rebecca brought her purse with her to the window seat and placed it between her sister and herself. She straightened her skirt again. “I’ve got to look decent for dinner. I’m sure I won’t get back in time to change.”
“You only come to see me once or twice a year, even though we live just fifteen miles apart, and then you can’t even stay through dinner time.” Sarah gave up pretending to be pleased with her sister. “Every time we finally make arrangements to see each other, I hope this time the visit will be different, but you never change.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t come to see me any more often than I come to see you.”
“That’s because you can never find time for me to visit. In the past year I can think of at least five occasions when you called at the last moment and told me not to come.”
“Things come up,” said Rebecca. She examined the nail on the ring finger of her left hand, took a file out of her handbag, and repaired a corner of the nail that had not been to her liking. “You know how busy I am. I have responsibilities. Why don’t you give up this place and move out to Westside Manor yourself? You complain about not seeing me. Seems to me you couldn’t see much of anyone way out here. One reason I don’t come more often is that terrible road. I’m sure it’s damaged the suspension on my car already.”
“I have lots of friends, and Louisa lives less than half a mile away. We walk over to each other’s house nearly every day.”
“You’re not a young woman anymore, Sarah. If you’re not careful you’re going to turn into one of those eccentric old ladies who live in some forsaken hovel with a dozen cats—the kind who keep money in the mattress and never wash the dishes.”
“Perhaps I am an eccentric old lady, but I keep one cat, not twelve, and you know I’ve always been as neat and clean as anyone. You’re the one who never straightened her room when we were growing up. As for my home being a hovel, have you forgotten that our own father built this house?”
“For a summer place. It was never intended for year-round living. What if you were sick or fell? Who would find you out here?” Rebecca picked up the cat that had jumped on the window seat to greet her and threw him to the floor. “After I visit you, it takes me a week to get the cat hairs out of my clothes.”
“Why do you dislike my home so much? Every time you come to visit you try to talk me into coming to live in your retirement community. I can’t believe it’s because you’d like to see more of me. When we were little, you never could stand it when I made up my own mind about what I wanted. I don’t think you’ve changed a bit. I was your big sister, so I was supposed to be ready for all your commands. If I wanted to ride my bicycle and you wanted to play princess, I had to play princess with you because you needed me to be the ugly stepsister, or the prince, or some other undesirable part. If I didn’t do what you wanted, you ran to Mother, and together you shamed me into compliance.”
“I won’t have you criticizing our poor mother,” said Rebecca. She had turned in her seat to face out the window at the snowy meadow, with the woods and mountain beyond. She stared at the scene as if it drew her into it. Sarah had seen that vacant, distracted look many times before, however. Rebecca was not absorbing the natural beauty; she was doing her best to shut out a discussion she did not want to continue.
“I’m not criticizing Mother,” said Sarah. “I’m talking about you and me. You even told me where I had to go to college. I was accepted up at Bates, but you fixed it so I had to stay home and commute. That way I could continue to be at your service.”
“I didn’t make you do anything.”
“You got Mother and Father to talk to me about responsibility and how you needed me. Sure you needed me—to do your homework for you, to do your chores, to drive you on your dates. I think you still can’t stand not to have me standing by just in case I might be useful.” By now Sarah, too, had turned toward the snow and the mountain. She looked at the scene for the courage to keep trying to tell her sister what she had been attempting to tell her for more than fifty years. At eighteen Sarah had finally begun to understand that Rebecca was controlling her life and that—as much as her parents believed it and forced her to believe it, too—Rebecca was not helpless.
For more than fifty years her relationship with her sister had shifted back and forth from anticipation of her visits, to tolerance of her insults, to determination never to see her again. She did not know what had made her feel so resolved to try once more to explain, unless it had been going through the old picture albums yesterday with Louisa: all those pictures of people who were gone; all those people she had loved, tried to understand, and too often resented for the ways they had sometimes made her childhood difficult. Her mother had been a woman who never seemed to want anything but what was best for her family. She had not seen that by making Rebecca the eternally helpless darling, she had doomed her daughters to spending their adult lives as distant acquaintances. Their brother, Jeremy, had left home as soon as he was eighteen because he thought he was a failure in his parents’ eyes. Her father had loved his older daughter best and then, because he was ashamed to have a favorite, had expected more of her than she could give. Her father had never forgiven his son for leaving them and had never stopped blaming himself.
She and Rebecca were the only ones left, but when she looked at the photographs, Sarah could barely connect Rebecca to the tiny girl in the white ruffled dress and pink hair ribbons. They had all loved her so dearly. And finally Sarah had seen photos of herself, almost as tall and big boned at fourteen as she was now at seventy. After Louisa had left yesterday, Sarah had gone through the pictures again. It was something much more than a little lingering resentment that made her ache.
“Do you think Mother was happy?”
Rebecca seemed startled by the question. “I imagine so. She loved our father. She loved us. I suppose Jeremy’s leaving so young and moving across the country hurt her. She never talked about him much after he left. I guess she was about as happy as most women of her day.”
“Yes, but what did she want out of life? What did she want to achieve? You wanted the prestige of a wealthy husband and socially prominent friends. That wasn’t for me, but I always assumed you found pretty much the life you were looking for. I wanted a career, and the chance to be as independent as I pleased. I’m still living that kind of life. I even feel I’ve been a little bit useful to some of my students and not such a bad friend to my neighbors. But what was Mother looking to find? We always just expected her to be our mother, even after we were grown. The year before she died I was still calling her up for advice about handling my students.”
“What’s gotten into you, Sarah? I think you’re making a whole lot out of nothing. Women’s lives were different then.”
“Their lives were different, but were the women themselves so different? Inside, what did they think and feel? We never asked ourselves that about our own mother.”
“I’m getting uncomfortable sitting here,” said Rebecca, who had turned back away from the wide window. She picked up her purse and moved to an overstuffed chair by the stairs. She sat forward in her chair, as if she were waiting for a convenient moment to stand and say goodbye.
The big Burmese cat settled into Rebecca’s vacant spot on the window seat. Sarah scratched him between his ears. She forced herself to keep talking. She had lost the chance to say all she wanted—all she wished she had said—to her parents and brother, but Rebecca was alive. “For years I’ve been saving some things to show you. Come with me. Don’t worry about your purse or your coat. Willy doesn’t claw things.” Sarah walked over to Rebecca and extended her hand.
Rebecca stood but ignored Sarah’s hand. “I really can’t stay long. I promised to pick up a pair of gloves for Helen at the new shop that just opened next to the bookstore.”
Sarah led Rebecca up the stairs to the large bedroom over the living room. “I bet you haven’t been upstairs more than a dozen times since the summers we spent here as girls. This was our parents’ room. Do you remember?”
“Of course I remember. I’m not senile, although I’m beginning to wonder about you. You’re starting to live in the past. The past is dead and gone. Why bring up what can’t be changed or brought back?”
“Mother and Father kept this wedding picture here. I’ve tried to keep everything on the bureau the same as it was. I guess it’s because Mother’s fancy little bottles, and Father’s mirror and brush, and the wedding picture are part of the people Mother and Father were, part of the complete human beings, with likes and dislikes and disappointments and plans for the future that I never thought much about because they were just Mother and Father. They fed me and kept me safe and made me be nice to you when I wanted you to disappear. In my world they were just parents.
“Now when I touch this little violet perfume bottle, I see Mother picking it out and setting it here so the room will be pretty and homey. I imagine Father brushing that wavy dark hair of his each morning so he’ll look handsome for Mother.”
“What else do you have to show me? I don’t have much more time.”
“Remember that wicker chair by the window? You probably hated it because Father made you paint it once. That was the only real work I ever remember him asking of you, but I had the flu and for some reason he wanted it painted right away. Do you recall how you and I used to pretend that chair was a throne? We’d put our dolls in it so they could hold audiences with their subjects. Of course your doll always got to be the young queen. But we didn’t fight every time. We made up some lovely stories using that chair. Beyond the mountain was the Kingdom of Flavoria, and we had to protect our people from the evil Flavorian count.” Rebecca looked at the chair, but Sarah could not guess what she was thinking.
“Come across the hall a moment,” said Sarah.
Rebecca stood at the door, and at first Sarah thought she would refuse to enter the tiny room that Sarah now used as a study because it had the morning sun. “I told you I don’t like to think about the past,” said Rebecca. “Why have you kept my room this way when you hate me? I think you’ve planned this little tour so you could have lots of opportunities to remind me how awful I’ve been to you. Do you think I need reminding?” Sarah was not sure, but she thought Rebecca’s voice was a little unsteady.
Sarah sat down on the single bed in the far corner. “I know you won’t believe it, but I kept your bed just as you had it because I like to think of you in this room the way you were when we first started coming here. You were the daintiest, prettiest little girl I’d ever seen. I was so proud of you. I wanted all my friends to see my beautiful little sister.”
“I was five when father finished this cottage,” said Rebecca. “Mother and Father let me pick out the bedspread and bring up my favorite doll to set on the pillow. Why don’t you get rid of that spread? It looks as if it will disintegrate with one more washing. I don’t know why I liked that silly doll so much; she’s really quite hideous.” Rebecca picked up the cloth doll and turned her over to examine the back. “There’s the place where I ripped her dress trying to yank her away from you. I wouldn’t stop crying until Mother made you mend the hole. I could be a brat sometimes, couldn’t I?” For the first time all afternoon, Rebecca smiled.
Rebecca continued to speak as she sat down on the bed next to Sarah. “The first summer here doesn’t seem like over sixty years ago, does it? I don’t remember when I stopped playing with this doll. One day she wasn’t a toy anymore, just a decoration for my room, and then before long my room wasn’t my room any longer. I married Jim, we made a life together, and then that life was over. You think I’ve just bulldozed my way along, getting what I want and not caring about anyone but myself. If I’m so selfish, why is it I feel so terrible right now, thinking about everything that’s gone by?” Rebecca stood and walked over to the side window, where she looked down at the brown remains of the garden poking through the snow. Sarah came up beside her, and Rebecca let Sarah put her arm around her waist. Unlike earlier, Sarah felt she was holding a living woman and not a piece of furniture.
“Even by the time we started coming here, the losses had begun. Jeremy had left the year before. That’s one of the reasons why Father wanted to build this cottage, so Mother could get away from our house where he had grown up. We only saw him once after that, so I always felt I’d lost my brother before I could ever know him. At least you were old enough to remember him.”
Without conversation Sarah led Rebecca into the third bedroom and sat down on the battered hope chest at the foot of the twin bed that matched the one in Rebecca’s old room. Rebecca sat beside her.
“Sometimes when I was sure you wouldn’t catch me, I used to come in here and just sit,” said Rebecca. “I used to imagine that I was you, that I was tall and sophisticated and beautiful like you, and that I was smart in school and had lots of friends. I was sure you’d marry someone handsome and rich and then you’d leave me. I thought I’d be stuck at home and be the baby sister forever, always waiting for you to come back and pay attention to me so I’d be happy again. I envied you because you always knew what you wanted to do without asking anyone. Mother even helped me choose my clothes until I was married, and you told me which boys were nice and which ones to watch out for. Except for painting that one chair, Father never made me do any real work. I just helped with little chores like making beds and setting the table. I remember when you and Father built those bookcases you still have in your living room. I thought I’d never be old enough or smart enough to do something like that.”
Sarah and Rebecca sat quietly. Sarah could hear the old clock downstairs tick and then strike the quarter hour. When they had been girls that clock had stood on the mantel in their home outside Manchester. Sarah remembered early mornings when she would get up before the rest of the family in order to sit on the red velvet sofa and read while the clock made its comfortable, family sounds. Sarah had liked being up alone but knowing her parents and sister were just up the stairs.
“I could never live here,” said Rebecca eventually. “There are too many ghosts.”
“It’s because of the ghosts that I want to be here. I can look at the mountain and think of climbing it with Father, and whenever I bake bread I imagine Mother’s perfect loaves in place of my lopsided ones. Even Jeremy’s here a little. That desk in your old room used to be his. And just as much as I think of Mother and Father and Jeremy, I think of you.”
“I’m no ghost.”
“Until today, you were to me. I sometimes walk through the house thinking of all the things I might be able to tell you to bring you back so you’d be my sister again—not just some woman who disapproves of me and whose life I can’t understand. Mother and Father and Jeremy are gone, but we still have time together.”
Once again Rebecca was quiet. She let Sarah take her hand.
The clock struck the half hour. “I have to be going,” said Rebecca. “I promised Helen I’d be back through town before that shop closes.”
Sarah followed her down the stairs. Rebecca checked her coat for cat hairs, let Sarah help her into it, and picked up her purse. She was almost to the door when she turned back to Sarah and gave her a tentative hug. “I may have a free afternoon next week,” she said. “Do you still have those picture albums Mother put together? I might like to see them.”
I am shaken by sadness and distress over what is happening in our country. A horrifying example is the Trump administration’s actions in separating children from their parents at the southern border of the United States. The facts and implications of this situation show we have not learned the lessons of history. Those lessons might have taught us to turn away from fascism and authoritarianism, racism, and government-sanctioned cruelty and injustice. I do not understand, or do not want to accept, how we have allowed the current situation to fester and thrive.
Yes, I understand that Donald Trump has the desire to have authoritarian control. I understand that he and members of his administration are (based on the evidence of their words and actions) racist and lacking in feeling and empathy for their fellow human beings. I am gratified that a majority of Americans oppose the policy of separating children from their parents who are attempting to enter the United States. But I do not understand why, nevertheless, the majority of Republicans are not also outraged at the administration’s actions. How would they feel if their children were among those being held? What if these Republicans were facing gang violence and threats to their children in their home country? Wouldn’t they try to get their children to a better situation? And if they did try, would they then accept having their children taken from them?
Particularly shocking to me is the support that Trump’s policy is receiving from some who pride themselves on their religious faith. I believe that whatever our spirituality, we need to do our best to follow Jesus’s teaching to be kind to one another, to welcome the stranger, and to recognize love as the law that matters above all others. Many of Trump’s religious followers claim to be pro-life, but how is it pro-life—being loving and supportive toward everyone, especially children—to rip families apart?
The situation here is not one of saving children from untenable parental behavior, such as physical abuse and starvation. Most if not all of the children held at the border are from families trying to rescue their children from violence and poverty—trying to make a better life for them, just as was true for the ancestors of all of us Americans who were not Native American.
Supporters of the Trump border policy air a variety of claims to justify their behavior. Most of these claims are false or are incomplete truths. But none of the excuses matter. No “facts,” no “history,” and no “scripture” can justify what is happening: the cruelty to children and to their parents, the real and enduring harm that is being done to children through the separations, the shocking parallels to the worst of our and the world’s history, and the life-threatening wounds being inflicted on the Constitution and our country’s finest values.
Please: let us care about one another—all of us, about everyone. Please, members of Congress, serve the entire country, and not merely your future as politicians. All of us: please care about people and help people—all people, not only those who look like us and lead the kind of life we lead. If you are pro-life, please be pro-life by working for the needs of all people from the cradle to the grave, not just for their needs before they are born. Please, please, can’t we treasure, respect, and provide for our children—everybody’s children—and one another, around the globe?
Here is another of my short stories about an older woman who is determined to stay fully involved with life, in spite of the challenges. I envision Montreal as the setting for the story.
Emily felt a little stiff as she climbed the steps to the restaurant, but she made a point of keeping up with the young couple ahead of her. Saturday evenings were lovely at the restaurant. Musicians came to entertain the patrons. It was only a cafeteria, but a nice one with wholesome food. Emily liked cafeterias because she could eat just what she wanted and not feel self-conscious about staying long after she’d finished her meal.
Two young men played flute and guitar duets. Some of the melodies were familiar, though she didn’t know the titles of most of them. The traffic on the street below was muted; the melodies drifted above the soft clattering of dishes and whispered conversations. The flute player looked like the sort of young man she’d have liked for a grandson. The smile he gave the audience between pieces was not conceited, and his flute had a sweet tone. If she had been young, she would have hoped he’d notice her.
Over the musicians was a garish painting of a woman with two heads. The pictures in the restaurant changed every few months. Emily studied them to see if any would speak to her, but most were hard to understand. Sometimes she could admire the colors or a whimsical figure. Both faces of the two-headed woman grimaced, although one was young and beautiful. The artist must have been very angry, thought Emily.
Emily placed her book and umbrella conspicuously on the table so no one would take her seat while she went for a second cup of tea. She always had three cups of tea with her dinner. Her little rituals, like the sliver of pie with the third cup, were part of the joy. “Don’t you feel guilty taking up a whole table?” her neighbor Laura had asked recently. Emily had told Laura she’d feel more guilty not getting out to enjoy life—and what was she supposed to do, stand all through her meals?
At a nearby table, a young family with two children finished their dinner. The girl and boy had started a game of rock-paper-scissors while their parents listened to the music. Emily had played the game when she was a girl, all those years before. The woman was sturdy, not beautiful but healthy and self-possessed. Her husband watched her as she watched the musicians. The little boy, the younger of the children, whispered to his mother, and the family cleared their table and left. Emily saw them pass on the sidewalk below, each child on a parent’s shoulders.
Three girls sitting in a corner of the room stared worshipfully at the young musicians. One of the girls was heavy, with long dark hair; she wore a startlingly skimpy pink top over her jeans. Her companions were slim and attractive, a gift of their youth. Emily wished the heavy girl would realize that she was lovely, too; it pained Emily to see young people trying too hard to be accepted.
Among the many couples were a man and woman of nearly her own age. The man had plenty of white hair; Emily liked a good head of hair on a man. The woman was smartly dressed in a blue linen suit that didn’t even look wrinkled. She had artistically draped a gauzy scarf around her neck and anchored it with a gold sunburst pin. To Emily’s mind, the most fashionable women were the ones who used scarves and jewelry dramatically. Emily felt her own attempts at fashion flare were notably unsuccessful. She always looked so prim: the perfect slim little old lady whose only extravagance was her refusal to wear sensible shoes. Oh well, she didn’t much mind. She was hardly unique.
During the day Emily saw many other older women alone. Independent old men were somewhat rarer. This morning, walking along one of the city’s most fashionable streets, she had passed a woman with jaundiced skin and dirty, torn clothes. How long could the woman survive—certainly not through another long northern winter. How long had the woman survived in the streets, with nobody?
Strictly speaking, Emily had nobody, either. Most of her friends had moved in with children or found a retirement home to suit them. Emily kept up with her friends, but she rarely got to see them. An only child who had never married, Emily didn’t find it strange to be alone.
On Saturday mornings in mild weather, she visited the open-air market near her apartment. She never tired of seeing the rows of flowers and lush fruits and vegetables, or of watching women from the city’s ethnic neighborhoods buy the ingredients they’d combine in a thousand different ways. She had so many places she liked to visit, especially the bookshops near the university. Tonight they’d be open late.
Fifty and more years ago she’d walked near the university with her young men. She’d had her opportunities, but in the end she chose none of them. Without a husband and children, she’d had more freedoms than most women of her generation. Summers she had traveled, teaching herself to read a map and to make her needs known in other languages.
Young women who live alone have an easier time as old women, Emily believed. She knew women who wouldn’t leave their apartments after dark, who were afraid to ride the Metro. Until they were old they’d never been alone. They didn’t know how to learn self-confidence now.
The evening world was a world of couples and companionable groups. If she wasn’t on her guard, the useless melancholy would find her. She was lucky not to be hiding in her apartment like so many of the others.
The young men were playing another familiar melody. Her parents would have liked it here this evening. Her father had loved music, and her mother had loved people. It would be easy to be sad; they’d been gone so long. The hardest times were early in the morning and late at night, just before sleep. The trick was knowing which memories to let in.
When she was twenty, she’d had long hair, and at least a couple of boys had thought her pretty. One had wanted to marry her. They’d picnicked by the river and played duets on her parents’ old upright. Silly girl—it had seemed so important to her to be pretty and to have a fiancé. But he’d had a temper that she knew one day he’d turn on her, so she had broken the engagement.
Her parents had paid for her to go back to college when she was twenty-five. Already she had a teaching degree, when many girls of her time never had a chance to go past high school. The master’s degree made her more determined to be an independent and strong woman, but then she turned thirty and the longing for a child grew more instead of less. Still the men were not right for her, and she turned forty and moved forward into spinsterhood. She had a career and parents who loved her and never pushed her to be like other daughters. Nearly every fair Saturday night up through the summer of her forty-fifth year, the three of them had gone together to hear the orchestra play in the park. The smell of warm August nights still carried on its fragrance the memory of her family and those Saturday evenings.
It was better not to walk down the street where she’d grown up, at least not to pass the house after the lights were on and Emily could glimpse the life going on inside. It was too easy then to believe her life had ended in another era.
She wouldn’t let herself feel like an intruder in the young people’s world, in the world of couples. From where she was sitting, Emily could see the old couple holding hands under their table. She turned and looked at the girls. They had so much life to get through.
While Emily was finishing her third cup of tea and slice of walnut pie, the musicians put away their instruments. Maybe in one of the shops she could find a good copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She’d never read enough from the reclusive poet who shared her name. In her master’s degree, she’d concentrated on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, never realizing then that no man, no matter how perceptive, can prepare a woman for the life she will live.
Near the bookshops she would watch young people milling around outside their music clubs and hear their rhythms spill out on the sidewalk. The floating flute and guitar melodies mustn’t make her forget that life still drives forward.
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.”
I am reading the novel Trick, by Domenico Starnone (New York: Europa Editions, 2018, trans. Jhumpa Lahiri). The original title, in Italian, is Scherzetto (Rome: Giulio Einaudi, 2016). The novel is told from the point of view of an aging artist who fears he has lost his edge. My own version of that feeling has been having a starring role in my life.
May 30—Memorial Day each year before it was moved in 1971 to the last Monday in May and became a national holiday—was Lower School Field Day at Wilmington Friends School. I liked Field Day, on which classes were canceled and the whole elementary school took part in races and other competitions. I have a vague sense of having participated in burlap-bag and three-legged races, but the clearest recollection I have is of taking part in the long jump. We had a sand-filled long-jumping pit that I can still see in my mind. I was good, that is for a small grade-school girl.
My friend Lee was better, but she was taller and a year older—and anyway, I was a close second. Other children must have taken part in the long jump, but my memory houses only Lee and me, jumping away and feeling good about the results. I liked being good at things. Long jumping, dancing, playing Becky Thatcher in our fourth-grade production of Tom Sawyer, and beating the boys in math were an antidote to ostracism by the class bully and her court.
All these decades later, I continue my mix of feeling socially inadequate but hoping to win notice for some physical and intellectual skills.
May 30, 2018, brought the first of this year’s three performances of The Follies, our community’s annual talent show. For the sixth time, I am tap dancing as part of a small group. This year three of us are dancing to “I Got Rhythm.” I always get nervous when I dance or act in front of an audience, and now I have let my nerves unbalance my confidence even more than usual. The root of the problem is my reputation for dancing competence—I’m afraid of not being able to live up to this reputation. (The syncopation in “I Got Rhythm” adds to my fears because it makes timing the steps somewhat more difficult.)
Each year, of course, I am a little older and a little more tired. I think to myself, “I may not be able to do as well as I did last year. And [here’s the key] people may talk about me and say, ‘Winnie’s slipping; her dancing isn’t as good this time.’” Do I think my right to a place in the world demands that I never lose a step, literally or figuratively?
That is exactly what I’ve been thinking. Not surprisingly, I let my nerves sabotage me during the two full-cast rehearsals for the 2018 Follies, experiences that then added to the pressure I felt for the opening show. The mistakes I made during the full-cast rehearsals did remind me that audiences pay more attention to the overall pizzazz in a performance than to the exactness of the details. Nevertheless, I was worried. I knew I could do the dance when no one was watching, but my close friends would be in the audience for the opening show, and the production was being filmed for our community television.
On May 30, 2018, I awoke feeling good, in spite of the ongoing sleep problems I’ve been having—largely from agonizing over the focus and purpose for my writing. For a show day, I was even reasonably calm. Showtime came, and the dance went well. The timing was a little suspect at a point or two, but the three of us were together and the steps were solid.
Did I love the compliments that followed, including a kind woman’s saying, “You could be on Broadway”? You bet I did! My confidence roared back into life.
But how am I going to use the fact that I got through the May 30 show? Am I going to ratchet up the pressure for the remaining Follies performances? I hope not: I have evidence now to tell me, “I can do this,” and the performance with my close friends in the audience went quite well. More dangerous is the effect on me for next year’s Follies tap dance—and for all other future public displays of whether I still have it or not.
Really, am I going to live the rest of my life the way I’ve lived it since second grade: believing that I can hold my head high only through prowess in the skills by which I define my acceptability?
It’s long, long past time for me to live—and not just give lip service to—this principle: The reasons for doing something such as acting in a play, learning a language, writing poetry or prose, dancing, participating in sports, studying literature, or playing music include personal satisfaction and growth, the desire to create, and the wish to share aspects of ourselves and the things we love with others. The reasons do not include proving our worthiness to take up space in the world.
I do think that enjoying congratulations for something done well or in a manner that is pleasant for others is okay: We naturally value another person’s appreciation of us and prize our own skills. But if we are performing in order to impress or prove ourselves to others or to keep ourselves from sinking into the despair of not counting, we are probably addicted to praise. Praise addiction brings with it the suffering of withdrawal when praise doesn’t come. Praise addiction also brings a suffocating fear of aging and all other reasons for “losing a step.”
Okay, I get it: It’s in my power to stop letting the false gods of approval, expectation, and judgment trample my joy in self-expression, and any good my self-expression may do for others. It’s a lot more important for folks to see an aging person who is still dancing, creating, and learning—and having fun doing so—than for them to see me getting every one of the steps right.
Update: During tonight’s Follies (the second of the three shows), I didn’t entirely live up to my newest resolution. I intend to keep working on it.
Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book [Falling Upward] is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture. -Richard Rohr*
I’ve been in a slump—hunkering down with a brick wall in my face: the brick wall of “I don’t have any ideas worth writing about”; “My friends are going to get sick of me, if they aren’t already”; “I’ve messed up so many things in my life”; and “If I don’t hurry and get it together, it will be too late.”
Don’t get me wrong: all sorts of wonderful things have filled vast expanses of my most recent slump time: happy and deeply meaningful experiences with friends, the arrival of the beautiful weather and blossoming brilliance of late spring, the royal wedding (which I watched live and then watched again later in the day). . . . But the sense of time ticking past with frightening speed while I fail to catch hold has once again thrown me up against that brick wall. Life has been and is profoundly good to me, but I’m not doing my share, or so it seems.
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest with an embracing and ecumenical spirituality, not only writes of the value and strength of later life, he also does the same for our mistakes: “Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey” (Falling Upward, 21). Richard Rohr’s books and daily meditations, available by e-mail, speak in harmony with my needs and personal philosophy. They give me comfort and encouragement. But I have continued feeling bogged down along the path of my particular journey.
And so, as I have before, I asked my Loved Ones in the Light to give me their perspective. Here is what I think they told me today:
We think you’re doing pretty well, better than you recognize. But there is room for improvement for the sake of your peace of mind and sense of purpose. This is a prime time in your life. You think that many possibilities are behind you—and they are, those of your now-past life stages. But the possibilities available and offering themselves to you now are just as vibrant, interesting, and important as were those of your youth. Such is the case for everyone.
The key is in not regretting what has slipped through your life and into the past but, instead, valuing the lessons distilled from
Missteps, wrong turns, right turns, and byways along life’s journey
Opportunities—taken or not
Challenges—muddled or surmounted
And dear memories
Who you were, you are now. Your four-year-old self and your forty-year-old self are with you, transmuted but not abandoned or lost.
You know very well that if you spend your days mourning what no longer seems possible, fearing you cannot meet your own high standards and others’ expectations, and feeling like residue left behind after those you love have crossed to the other side, you will damage or destroy your health, your serenity, and much of your joy.
This evening, you have finally wrestled aside your fear enough to pick up a pen again after a long siege by the paralysis of self-doubt. Look at the pleasure that writing even these few lines has given you. This small success has reignited a sense of living life instead of merely bouncing around with its buffeting—back and forth between happy times, like those with friends, and the desperation of sleepless nights spent tangling with the What Am I Going to Do Monsters:
What am I going to do to bring life and purpose to my blog?
What am I going to do to become calmer and stronger?
What am I going to do to be a better friend to my friends?
What am I going to do to bring order to my days?
What am I going to do to bring stability to my finances?
And so on.
Richard Rohr reminds his readers of the value of mistakes. To give our own analogy: wrong notes cue you about what the right notes are as you continue playing your life symphony. As the late Adlerian psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs, an acquaintance of your family’s, said when someone pointed out a wrong note he had played on the piano, “But look at all the notes I got right.” Besides, the “wrong” notes you have played may not, in fact, have been mistakes so much as modulations into valuable new improvisations, or into the development section of your current symphonic movement.
Okay, so some of the notes you played really were sour. Yes, entire measures of your life have been filled with missed accidentals and a failure to follow the key signature. But you are now a much more skilled musician of life as a result. While you may not be able to present your life’s music with the full force and vigor that you could muster when you were fifteen or thirty, you are able to play with greater finesse, passion, and virtuosity. And remember that pianissimo moments can be captivating and lyrical; they complement the fortissimo, con brio, and con fuoco passages.
So play the melodies of your days with gusto, even in the minor keys. Remember that while nothing, including practice, makes perfect, practice in interpreting life with determination and courage makes meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Play on.
* Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 139 (Nook edition).