Here is the next installment of Beatrice Allen Page’s unpublished manuscript, Still Life with Figures:
“Saw signs of life in the old McCaig cottage today for the first time. A man was hacking at the unmown grass with a sickle, a mop was being shaken out a window, and a couple of moppets stared at me with frank but not unfriendly curiosity from the front steps as I walked by.
The house has settle closer to the ground and its lines are no longer straight. With its worn, gray shingles and general air of impending collapse it made me think of an aged woman folded in upon herself. What was once a garden is now nothing but a tangled mass of weeds and underbrush. A rotting stump is all that remains of the huge willow, so good for climbing, which stood where you entered the garden from the road through a gap in the hedge.
Mrs. McCaig is long gone from this earth. She must have been about my present age – older than I like to think or feel – that summer when I was balancing between childhood and adolescence and spent so many hours following her around; but she possessed, as I believe I do, more physical agility than the average woman of our age. There the resemblance ends, however. My life has been far different from hers, and I have not become at all the kind of woman she was when I knew her. Yet over the years, in varying circumstances, her image has risen up in my mind’s eye again and again.
I think I felt as a child, and have perhaps continued to feel ever since, that she knew a mysterious secret which I very much wanted (and perhaps still hope?) to learn.
She was a small, thin, hardy woman with the weathered look of someone who has spent much time in the sun and wind and rain. It was more an inner weathering, however, that marked her. Although the little wavy lines that puckered her forehead may have been the result of inevitable aging and years of combating the elements, they gave the impression that a full, rich life had washed over her and left its traces as naturally as the outgoing tide leaves ripples on a sand bar. I’m expressing it very clumsily, and at the time I couldn’t have put it into words at all, but I felt it.
Her brownish, graying hair appeared to be pinned up with a carefree negligence any old which-way, and no doubt was. I have a recollection of brown or amberish eyes with gold flecks in them but I’m not at all sure, probably because we never sat down in a room and faced each other in conversation as friends normally do. We were almost always outdoors and her eyes were focused on the world about us: flowers, trees, birds, shells, stars. In fact, the only times I ever saw her indoors were just after she had brought from a walk an unfamiliar wild flower and taken it inside to identify. Then she would perch on the edge of the window seat while she pored over the pages of Grey’s Manual, murmuring words that were incomprehensible to my young mind but many of which stuck to it because she herself seemed to relish the sound of them, words like ‘petiole,’ ‘lanceolate,’ ‘sessile,’ ‘paniculate.’ Her voice, which was soft in tone but precise in diction and which still retained a hint of a Scottish burr, made each individual word a kind of miniature poem. She seemed to relish, too, the feel of the manual with its smooth, black, leather binding as she turned over the thin pages with her small, stubby and usually earth-stained hands. Her clothes, too, were earth-stained, as well as nondescript. I recall clearly only the sneakers she wore constantly because they were well-suited to clambering over rock ledges, walking silently through the woods, or working in her garden.
She had six grown children, four sons and two daughters, who all arrived every weekend, the two most recently married sons bringing their wives, and the rest of them all bringing friends. In addition, unexpected guests often dropped in for Sunday dinner. The house swarmed. Looking back on it now, I can’t figure out who cooked the meals and made the beds and created some kind of order out of near chaos. Certainly it was not Ms. McCaig. There was a cook part of the time, I believe, and I suppose the young people all pitched in, but I never saw them doing anything of a practical nature. They were all musical and played the piano, sax, drums, or other instruments. They and their friends seemed to be always clustered around the old upright piano or listening to the phonograph or strumming ukeleles, which had not yet lost their popularity, and singing as they lounged in the hammocks that were hung on the long porch that ran around three sides of the house. I suspect some of them slept in them, too, and probably in sleeping bags as well, because I’m sure there weren’t rooms enough for all.
The marketing was done by Mr. McCaig. I recall seeing him unload the car on a couple of occasions, and the amount of food was staggering. (I never got to know Mr. McCaig. I remember him as large, ruddy and brusque. He wore tweedy clothes and a cap and he usually carried a cane, not as support or for sartorial elegance, but as an extension of his arm when making gestures, to emphasize his pronouncements.”
Sometimes, it is true, I saw Mrs. McCaig sitting in the garden shelling peas or stringing beans, but she did it in a way that suggested a pleasant summer rite rather than a chore that had to be done.
Toward her children and her guests she had a friendly but casual attitude. She enjoyed them but never worried about them. She greeted them cordially when they arrived if she happened to be around, and then went on about her own business and left them to theirs. It was not that she was unsociable. She obviously liked people, but just as obviously she liked to keep her social life on a spontaneous basis. She used to stop by at our house fairly frequently, entertain us all with amusing anecdotes, and respond appreciatively to anyone else’s remarks. Her laugh always took me by surprise, partly because it spilled out so easily and partly because it was so unexpectedly hearty for a small woman with a soft voice.
She always seemed to enjoy these visits but after half or three-quarters of an hour she would get up and leave as casually as she had arrived. People learned not to invite her to dinner or try to make her commit herself to any engagement in advance. However, she was readily available to anyone who sought her out on the impulse of the moment. I discovered three or four retreats she had – concealed nooks in her garden or on the rocky shore or behind a couple of stunted cedars and a boulder in the field – where she liked to go with a book. I never hesitated to break in on her solitude, and this was not due so much to my insensitivity as to her cordiality, for she never showed the slightest annoyance at my intrusion. Sometimes, when I went looking for her, it turned out someone else had found her first. It might be a son or daughter-in-law, a house guest, a neighbor. I was never made to feel any the less welcome. I suspect she meant her hideaways to be discovered by anyone who wanted company.
I had ‘known’ her ever since I could remember, which is to say I knew her name and where she lived and had greeted her politely on many occasions when she had come to our house. But my first conscious awareness of her as a person in relation to myself came that summer day when I was riding along the road on my bicycle and she was standing under the willow tree, gazing up into it. Just as I approached, a little flock of birds flew out of it.
‘Goldfinches!’ I exclaimed, happily astonished at my own knowledge. I had never paid must attention to birds and if I had ever seen any goldfinches before, I was unaware of it. But in a book or magazine somewhere I had seen a glossy colored picture of them which had stuck to my memory.
She gave me a friendly but impersonal smile and invited me in to see her garden. My notion of a garden in those days was a neat, straight-edge border like ours. I had no real appreciation of the carefully planned and cherished informality of hers, which conformed to the irregular contours of the landscape, including outcroppings of bedrock, accepted a scrawny wild cherry tree as if it belonged there, and was as hospitable to wild flowers as to cultivated ones.
I followed her along the grassy, meandering path while she pulled off a dead leaf or a rose bug as she went. She handled flowers in a familiar, affectionate but unsentimental way, rather like a long-practiced veterinarian handling animals. In one spot, there was a clump of brilliant magenta flowers. Ever since I can remember, long before that day in the garden, I’ve had an intense antipathy of purplish-red shades like fuschia, cerise, and magenta. But because I was shy and yet constrained to say something for the sake of politeness, and because those flowers were the most obvious ones to comment on since they were the most vivid, I exclaimed with pretended delight, ‘Oh, look at those!’ She looked and said matter-of-factly, ‘It is a shade I don’t much care for.’ It was the first lesson I learned from her: the fatuity of feigned enthusiasm.
But in my new understanding that one could be honest without necessarily causing offense, I erred a few minutes later in another direction. We came to a bed of white petunias. To me petunias were a window-box flower with an unattractive name, and white flowers had no character anyway.
‘I’ve never liked petunias,’ I said, expecting an approving glance for my plain speaking.
Again she looked – a long, appraising long as if trying to see them through my eyes – and again her response was both unexpected and matter-of-fact: ‘They are lovely in the moonlight.’
For a moment I caught a glimpse of them through her eyes: soft, white, fluted blossoms, palely illumined in the night by a distant moon, and I realized I had never actually seen petunias, I had only identified them and dismissed them from notice because of a prejudice I had presumably picked up from the words of some adult.
This is one of the things I’m grateful to her for – that she taught me, or tried to teach me, to see truthfully. In my eagerness to please, it was a lesson I did not learn easily. I remember, for instance, that one day she told me she had heard there were some ravens in the area. I had never seen a raven, but a few days later I informed her excitedly, certain of making an impression, that I had seen three ravens fly out of a distant tree. I was not deliberately lying, I had seen three large black birds. Possibly they were ravens but more likely my imagination had enlarged three crows.
‘How did you know they were ravens?’ she asked, not challenging me but with her usual adherence to facts. I was ready with an answer because I’d been studying the bird book she had given me.
‘They looked like crows,’ I said, ‘but much larger, and they had shaggy throat feathers.’
For a second her lips twitched mockingly. ‘Your eyesight must be very keen,’ she said, and changed the subject.
More than her straightforward approach to the world about her, her fearlessness impressed me. She was as fearless a woman as I’ve ever known. She was not afraid of vicious dogs, disreputable characters, bulls, germs, poison ivy, getting lost in the woods, slipping and breaking a leg on the rocks, or ‘what people will say’ – all things I had been brought up to fear, and all of which she and I either encountered that summer or ran the risk of encountering.
I recall, for instance, the first time she ever took me to the woods with her. There was a ramshackle little dwelling just off the road at the point where we entered, and I caught a glimpse of an evil face at the window. A moment later, the door opened just wide enough to allow a large, bristling black dog to charge out at us. Presumably its owner knew it would not attack us and just wanted to give us a scare. Nevertheless, I heard from other children that a ‘crazy man’ lived in the shack and the dog certainly showed every indication of intending to tear us to pieces. Mrs. McCaig never changed her pace or expression. She neither spoke a threatening word nor made an ingratiating overture to the beast. She simply continued on her way. I was secretly terrified but knew there was probably more danger in my running than in staying close beside her and following her example. And besides, I was ashamed of my fear in the face of her courage. She ignored the dog as she ignored the swarms of midges that beset us farther on in the woods, regarding both, it seemed, as minor nuisances not worth commenting on or bother about in any way. The dog brought himself up short within a few feet of us, its eyes glassy with menace, growled, crouched part way down in what started out to be a preparation for a spring but turned briefly into an unmistakable cowering movement, then stood up in one spot and barked us out of sight.
About ten minutes later I had to contend with another of my fears. Mrs. McCaig turned off the main path and led me along a narrower one that grew wet and then wetter as it went on and ended up at an almost hidden spring encircled with moss and ferns. It seemed to me that in the damp, cool smell of earth and vegetation I could smell the very greenness and stillness and shade of the woods, and for a few moments I was enchanted.
Someone had placed a few pieces of slate close to the edge of the spring to make access easier, and following Mrs. McCaig’s example, I kneeled down on one. She showed no concern about getting her clothes wet or muddy and there were none of the usual adult injunctions to me to be careful of mine. With a light gesture she swept a few fallen leaves off the surface of the water. A frog jumped out of the bracken, plopped into the spring and disappeared in it dark depths. I jumped a little, too, and she gave me a quick, amused smile as she picked up a battered tin cup that lay on the ground. She dipped up half a cupful of water, swished it around in a casual rinse, poured it out, then dipped again and help the cup out to me.
It was a hot day, it had been a long, road-dusty walk to get to the woods and my throat was parched. But I thought of the frog in the water, I thought of the evil face at the window, and of the dirty mouth that had probably drunk from the cup.
‘No thanks,’ I said, shrinking back a little, ‘I’m not thirsty.’
She drank it herself, put the cup down, and got up.
‘I guess I’ll have a drink after all,’ I said and gingerly scooped up enough for a sip. It was the coldest, freshest, and most delicious water I had ever tasted. I forgot about the man, and the frog in the depths of the spring bothered me no more than the moss growing around the edges. I drank a full cup and felt marvelously refreshed.”