This is a tale of two baskets, twisted willow, flexible strands woven into sturdy strength, the strength of friendship. Baskets now patinated by the touch of decades. Florence and Marion.
Her diary, leatherette the color of fog, spine dingy and cracked, handwriting shaky on the lined pages, is safe somewhere, casually secreted there by me not so long ago. I have spent a day searching in usual and unusual places without success. Still, the book is small like my grandmother and easily overlooked. She of the liquid eyes too dark for polite society, the wavy hair coiled tightly against intrusive questions. An enigma, a person: Florence Ella Abbott Albee. Four feet ten inches delicately sculpted from the clay of pure stubbornness, well below one hundred pounds, yet when her tiny feet were placed just so to her liking, no force in the known and unknown worlds could adjust her a fraction. She never bothered with much of anything for herself, a creature of few needs and fewer wants, who crocheted handkerchief borders and scanned Reader’s Digest and inexplicably became fascinated by boxing matches once we finally owned a television. A creature of habit and habitat. A nautilus.
Throughout those years of my remembering, she consented to leave the house only if driven directly to a restaurant or to the new W. T. Grant’s outside town where she made monthly purchases of plastic flowers when her widow’s pension arrived, selecting seasonal colors and discarding them at whim. She never cared to learn to drive, and—although in sturdy shape from a lifetime of housework—never walked beyond the perimeter of the lawn of the house in which she lived. Never. It failed to concern me as a child. The groceries were either delivered or I myself ran errands. Was she an agoraphobic long before such a disorder was ever considered? I never questioned. I was accustomed to strangeness.
Mrs. True brought to the door fifty cent bouquets for my grandmother and my grandmother paid her the fifty cents for flox and zinnias and snapdragons. At a time when fifty cents was a pound of ground chuck and a loaf of bread, my grandmother, every week during flower season, bought for fifty cents a bouquet from Mrs. True who grew the flowers on her farm outside the city which was really not a city but a place where the roads crossed at night. I remember the woman’s hands with spatulate fingers, hands veiny as the leaves of the zinnias, hands themselves tinted green from the constant contact with things that grew. I remember, I think. Or was Mrs. True the lady who nurtured violets in her basement and carried the plants to Florence, that same Mrs. True who had a Down son in later years, a good boy, a nice man whose name I forget, whereabouts unknown. Was that Mrs. True? The same Mrs. True, or different?
Bouquets of petals and plastic and violets and fifty cents and a nice boy-son and all long gone, only me to remember, and wonder, what good did it all bring, what lesson? I want so much to remember, but really to what purpose? This was my grandmother. I’m sure Florence knew. I wish I could ask her.
And occasionally, Marion would visit.
Since in no way is this an attempt at genealogy, I will pass along the stories and the tradition of rumors that were handed down to me. It was known that Marion and Verge immigrated to Maine from New Brunswick and that Verge worked on the railroad. There were no children and they lived by themselves without relations until the end in a white clapboard cape largely untouched by the twentieth century, heated with wood and coal. Marion cooked on a monstrous cast iron wood stove with pots at the rear keeping water hot for dishes and bathing, pumped a treadle Singer in a racing rhythm, and hand cranked a tub washer, squeezing out the stove-hot water through the wringer before bundling the spotless sheets outside to the clothesline that pulleyed across the backyard. Verge handled the wood chopping, the coal loading, and the snow shoveling. They owned neither car nor television, and Verge listened to the radio or read the paper by kerosene lamp as he sat in the Empire mahogany rocker that I inherited. The rocker in which I sit. The rocker that soothes my back. On those quiet evenings, Marion would braid rugs from scraps of wool leftover from sewing the goodly portion of their clothes and some of mine. After supper, she set the table with the dishes for their pre-dawn breakfast, cups judiciously turned bottoms up in their saucers. There must have been some electricity in the house, because Verge’s radio was a big wooden box of a thing with tubes inside that he would show me if I promised not to touch. He never believed in daylight savings time, harrumphing, “Gol-danged nuisance invented by the government to keep the working man’s nose to the grindstone.” Verge kept all the clocks in the house well wound and oiled and the hours that they struck were his hours, hours that never sprung ahead nor fell back. Of course there was a telephone, because Florence and Marion would talk on occasion, setting up the bare facts of an upcoming visit, spare conversations as if words were precious and to be spent with the utmost care, not unlike change to count and save for hard times to come.
As a pig-tailed grade-schooler I sometimes spent the night with Marion and Verge, and on these visits I became a character in an old-fashioned book, snuggled under a handmade quilt in a carved oak bedstead that loomed around me with comforting shadows, and the flickering of the Franklin grate in the fireplace kept me company. Nothing was amiss in that house. It was secure in ways I have not found since.
A gigantic flowering plant occupied a sunlit corner of the living room between Verge’s rocker and the mantelpiece with the Seth Thomas clock. “That’s a Christmas cactus, child,” Marion said. “My mother had that up in Canada and I brought it all the way here when we moved. ‘Spect it must be already almost a hundred years old. Bright pink flowers like that every Christmas. Pretty thing.”
“It’s like magic.” I remember. That a plant should blossom in the winter only, and live so long.
Everything was cooked from scratch by Marion. Apples from their storm-bruised tree were simmered into wholesome sauce, elderberry bushes yielded jam, produce from traveling farmers became pickles sparkling in Mason jars, and the linoleum-shod kitchen breathed the constant yeast of fresh baking. Yards of hand-pulled molasses taffy greeted trick o’ treaters, loaves of bread found their circuitous ways to Thanksgiving dinners for the needy, her hand knit mittens graced many tables at the church bazaars, and, as regular as Verge’s dependable clocks, every few days she would overfill her willow basket with Snickerdoodles and fudge and march across the street to the hospital coffee shop with her donations. And just often enough, less so as the years passed, her basket crammed with still-warm cookies and elderberry jam, this stout woman with a hidden ostomy bag and the heart of a pioneer would trudge a couple miles along the cracked sidewalks of the small city to visit her friend Florence.
My grandmother wore an afternoon dress whenever she received callers, customarily a solid shade, more somber than the floral cotton housedresses appropriate for morning chores. Marion would be similarly attired, both sporting cardigans despite the weather, both in sensible lace-up Red Cross or Natural Bridge shoes, stockings with straight seams, wedding bands, simple watches and pearl button earrings their only jewelry. Florence brewed tea, which they each sipped plain in floral china cups, saucers balanced on demure laps, Marion’s cookies resting respectfully on a familiar silver tray. They would each enjoy one. Only one. With only one cup of tea.
I would burst in from school, say hello, grab a cookie, run outside. I never knew what they discussed. I never heard them laugh or raise their voices. They were quiet, formal women, and theirs was a quiet, formal friendship which lasted years beyond any raucous one of mine.
When my father’s mill shift ended, he would stick his head into the living room to nod a polite greeting. “I’ll drive you home anytime you’re ready, Marion. Just say the word.” He would gobble a few cookies in the kitchen, where he nursed instant coffee by himself until departure time. It was a formal play in one act whose participants and scenes varied only with the seasons. There was no hugging, no kissing, no joking, no gossip. Only the security of true comradeship. A rare commodity.
What did they discuss, these two close friends, stout, energetic Marion and tiny, elusive Florence? The ladies of the corset and the cardigan, the hairpin and the apron, who never revealed that which was not proper. Did they know passion, wish on the moon, have secrets? Did they speak of dreams undone, or was such talk unnecessary to them? And why do I ache to know it now?
Even before I left for college, the visits grew more sporadic, but in the manner of youth I was more interested in my own blossoming life than in anyone else’s, and I ceased to notice the elderly. Verge passed first, then Marion soon after—suddenly, I believe, at home. Did I never know the details, did I not want to know, to selfishly cradle my memories of a secure place where the bread was fresh and the clocks were wound and the table was always set? These are not questions of importance, but still they gnaw at me.
Today, the gigantic spreading Christmas Cactus graces my kitchen as my one surviving family member, and an ethereal graphite drawing of Marion as a curly-headed Edwardian child stares from across the room, and sometimes, when the light is just right, the pink blooms of the plant are reflected in the wavy glass of the drawing and seem to cast a blush on Marion’s cheeks. The plant blooms several times a year in my house. I think this is just right. Just as it should be.
Except for these personal treasures willed to me, the hospital was the beneficiary of Marion and Verge’s estate. The house was abruptly torn down for a parking lot. It has been gone for years, and I shudder still as I drive by. Someone should have remembered the kindness of all those cookies and the kitchen that baked them. Some doctor should have moved in, but there were no stainless appliances, no granite counters, no cable-ready conveniences. The ceilings were low and the windows were multi-paned and the glass was irregular. The floor boards were worn and there was only one bathroom with a claw foot tub. Unlivable. A storybook house of comfort for two elderly people and a sometimes child, but not good enough for anyone else. For shame.
Our family home, Florence’s and mine, was also plowed under for shiny vinyl commercialism. A huge chain drugstore, a temple of pharmaceuticals, grew on the site, and whenever I buy cough drops and pick up prescriptions, I stand in the same spot where the sun came through our living room windows, and I remember when the forsythia cast gold throughout that place where the ladies sipped their tea, and I marvel that I am here, and everything else is not. There are days when I would trade almost anything to see Marion’s basket on our dining room table.
And just a few days past, when I read that cracked diary, that book I have now misplaced, my grandmother’s simple phrases chatting with no one about the weather and the fact that the folks had gone to the movies and said the show was just fine, in the midst of the weather and the bits and pieces of trivia that Florence felt it mindful to record, in that same casual style, she wrote, “They say that Marion died today. Don’t know why.”
Mara Buck writes and paints within a self-constructed hideaway in the Maine woods—she hopes to leave soon. She’s been published in many of the usual and unusual places, keeping an open spot on the mantel for a forthcoming Nobel Prize. She dusts the spot often and indulges in unnecessary humor whenever possible. She intends to twitter and blog sometime in the twenty-first century.