This is a tale of two baskets, twisted willow, flexible strands woven into the sturdy strength of friendship. Baskets 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 safely somewhere. I have spent a day searching 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, the 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 planted, no force could adjust her a fraction. A creature of few needs and fewer wants, who crocheted and scanned Readers’ Digest and inexplicably became fascinated by boxing matches once we finally owned a television. A creature of habit and habitat. A nautilus.
She consented to leave the house only if driven directly to a restaurant or to make monthly purchases of plastic flowers when her widow’s pension arrived, selecting and discarding 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. I never questioned. I was accustomed to strangeness.
Mrs. True brought to the door fifty-cent bouquets of flox and zinnias at a time when fifty-cents was a pound of ground chuck and a loaf of bread, and my grandmother every week during flower season bought a bouquet from Mrs.True, her hands with spatulate fingers, hands veiny as the leaves of zinnias, hands tinted green from constant contact with things that grew. Or was it Mrs. True who nurtured violets in her basement and carried the plants to Florence, that Mrs. True who had a Down son in later years, a nice man whereabouts unknown. Was that Mrs. True? The same or different?
Bouquets of petals and plastic and violets and fifty-cents and a nice boy-son — all long gone with only me to remember and to wonder to what purpose? I’m sure Florence knew. I wish I could ask her.
And occasionally Marion would visit.
It was known that Marion and Verge immigrated to Maine from New Brunswick, 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 untouched by the twentieth century, heated with wood and coal. Marion cooked on a monstrous cast iron 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. 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 braided rugs from scraps of wool leftover from sewing the goodly portion of their clothes and some of mine. After supper, she set the table for their pre-dawn breakfast; cups judiciously turned bottoms up in their saucers. 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 the clocks in the house well-wound and oiled and the hours 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 to be spent with 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. 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 a hundred years old. Bright pink flowers every Christmas. Pretty thing.”
“It’s like magic.” That a plant should blossom in the winter only and live so long. Magic to a child.
Marion cooked everything from scratch. 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 a constant yeasty haven 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 handknit mittens graced tables at 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 along the cracked sidewalks to visit her friend Florence.
My grandmother wore an afternoon dress whenever she received callers, customarily a solid shade, more somber than the printed 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 with seamed stockings, wedding bands, simple watches, and pearl button earrings their only jewelry. Florence brewed tea, which they sipped from 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. A formal play in one act varying 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?
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, and then Marion soon after, suddenly, I believe, at home. Did I ever know the details or didn’t I 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 child stares from across the room, and sometimes when the light is right, the pink blooms of the plant are reflected in the wavy glass of the drawing and cast a blush on Marion’s cheeks.
Except for these personal treasures willed to me, the hospital was the beneficiary of Marion and Verge’s estate and the house was plowed under 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 floorboards were worn and there was only one bathroom with a clawfoot tub. Unlivable. A storybook house of comfort for two elderly people and a sometimes child, but not good enough for anyone else.
Our family home, Florence’s and mine, was torn down for vinyl commercialism. A huge chain drugstore, a temple of pharmaceuticals grew on the site. 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.
To honor special occasions, probably birthdays though I can’t recall, I gave away the two willow baskets to those who had admired them. My childhood friend, who munched my grandmother’s cookies and whose name resides forever in her diary as being such a lovely girl, now displays Florence’s basket in her powder room, where it cradles magazines, the Reader’s Digest among them. The effrontery of magazines in the bathroom would shock Florence, who never admitted to any bodily function. Marion’s basket lives quite properly on an antique pine dresser in another friend’s home where it holds, appropriately enough, letters from friends. The baskets will never again meet, separated by a hundred miles or more, and I alone know exactly where they are. When I am gone they will continue their wicker lives, perhaps move to other destinations, still employed for friendly purposes, but never by truer friends.
In that cracked diary I have now misplaced, along with my grandmother’s simple phrases chatting 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 she felt it mindful to record, in that same casual style, Florence wrote, “They say that Marion died today. Don’t know why.”
- Update on How I Write