The Center of Town
A snow squall came whipping in this afternoon, pretty much out of nowhere. Whiteness blanked the mountain. A wicked wind scooped some of the paper bags of recyclables I had just loaded into the pickup, and took them up up and away. I don’t know where they went. I was in the garage, in the process of charging the battery in the tractor — it did not see much action this summer as the ground was so dry, no grass grew — and once it was charged, there was nothing to do but take it for a spin in the back field, even though the weather was most inhospitable. I didn’t want it to lose the charge that took so long to gain but it was a bitter fling, snow stinging my cheeks and the wind biting right through my pants.
Yesterday the skies were blue when I went to the funeral of a wonderful woman who lived in the center of our town. No mistake, she was the center of our town, leading the school board, heading up the effort to build a new school for the town, creating our little library, and, always, holding forth with her strident Democratic point of view. Originally from California, she came to this area in the 1930s to perform in a summer theater. Essentially, she never left. She married into the Colony family, the family that ran the woolen mills in this region, a lofty entry into the rural New Hampshire countryside. When the mills went bankrupt in 1970, the family turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse, eventually establishing a historic district, raising the mills up out of their ghostly hollows into a place ranked first as a National Historic District and later as a National Historic Monument. Peggy led the charge. Just about every brick has been polished in the process and Peggy’s house, where she lived for 69 years, is the jewel in the crown of this ring of mills. Aside from all else, she was the mother of seven children, all of whom live here in town, either full-time or seasonally, with their families, none of them small. She presided over this massive family (their Christmas dinner could be mistaken for a town meeting) with what her husband referred to as her “iron whim” and what others called her velvet glove. In the last election, when the family was gathered in full, she held a straw poll and asked everyone to vote for either Hilary Clinton or Obama. When the results were tallied, more than half were in favor of Hilary. Those who favored Obama, she declared, her fist striking the table, are out of the family.
But mostly, she was celebrated for her positive outlook (nearly every encounter she made, be it ice cream or fall colors or a new novel, she sang out was “the best” she had ever experienced), and for her hospitality — parties, family visits, stray visitors from anywhere on earth, everyone was welcomed, quite literally with open arms. What was one more? John, her co-conspirator and beloved husband of 65 years, died six years ago. Peggy carried on with spirit. Speaking at her funeral, her son-in-law bemoaned that he had lost the “president of his fan club.” The point was, we all had. She boosted us all and boasted of us, as if we were all, this massive number of friends and family chief among her concerns, chief among her foundlings. She was the Queen Mum not only of her family but of this village.
A couple of years ago, Peggy asked me to come over and go for a walk with her. This town is laid out like a harbor, the village homes ringing the shores of a small lake, the lake’s outlet passing down and in some cases under the buildings in the center of the town. Long ago, this gush of water was the town and the mill’s source of power. Off like a peninsula is the town’s cemetery which is called Island Cemetery though it is not an island and likely never was — part of the poetic aspect of this town. Peggy’s house is in the center of the village, high up above the tumbling waters that rush through town and the mill. That day, she wanted to walk to the cemetery and show me her John’s relatively new grave. When I got to her house, she came out of her back door, reached out her hand and took hold of mine. This was her custom, a way, it seemed to me, not only of gaining extra support but also of guiding. So off we went, hand in hand, much slower than any walk we had ever taken. We crept our way to the cemetery, one slow step at a time. It was a glorious fall day and the sun was warm, though the wind was a bit chill. But we talked on as we walked and neither of us noticed any discomfort. When we reached the family plot, she talked about each of those who lay there, resting. After she had introduced me to the family tree, she led me a bit further where there was a memorial bench, looking out over the water. We sat there then and talked about our missing men, my husband who had died years earlier at the age of 39 and her husband who had died much more recently at the age of 89. She had the ability to make everything in one’s life seem significant and she did that day as well, recalling my young husband to me as if she had known him much longer than she had. We watched the lake waters capping like a small sea. When the wind became too much, we started back through the carpet of fallen leaves to her waiting house and a cup of tea. This is how I remember Peggy, someone who had more family members than most political parties yet someone who could make time for any one of us as if we were the only one.
And she was a realist. Once, about four years ago, as she was about to turn 90, she said to me, “Well, Edie, I am going to be ninety! I mean, this is getting serious!” I got her point — I had not thought of it until that moment but, once one turns ninety, the number of years left are likely in the single digits. That is serious. So at that time, she had about three years left. But when she said that to me, she spoke with the conviction of a 60-year-old. And she went on to see Obama win the presidency, whom she did, after all, prefer to George Bush, who, she declared on more than one occasion, ought to be in prison.
In the last year, she’d faded from us a bit which caused a sadness all its own, as if a great masterpiece had been left in the sun and lost its color. Names vanished from her tongue, faces ceased to be recognizable. But she could still laugh and she had not completely lost the sparkle in her eyes. Babies, especially, earned her attention because they signified new life and hope. Once late last summer I enjoyed a soup-and-sandwich lunch with her and two of her daughters. That day, she proudly showed me a two-volume set she had had made for her children and their descendants, the pages filled with her letters and with family photographs, an amazing chronicle of an amazing life. Even though she had printed only enough for her family members, she was determined to give me a copy, which I declined, smiling to understand the pride and excitement she clearly felt in the existence of this, the summation of her life. She wanted so much to share that.
One night about two weeks ago, I was coming home late, passing through the village on my way home. I turned, as I always did, to look at Peggy’s house as I passed by. I often looked to see if she was still up, signified by a light on in her big living room. If she had gone to bed, the lights were off downstairs, on upstairs. It was 11 o’clock at night and all the lights were on in the house, something I had never seen before. My heart sank to realize she must have died. Indeed, she had. She got into bed at 7:45 and, shortly after, her daughter had gone in to tuck her in and turn out the lights only to find she was gone. I don’t think I’ve ever known of anyone who had such a fortunate life, which included a companionable and loyal husband, travel to foreign lands mixed with the steady closeness and constant rhythm of a small town, all those children and grandchildren surrounding her until she finally closed her eyes for good, one peaceful November evening. I don’t think life on this planet gets much better than that.
And so, you see, we will miss her, I will miss her. And that is what I was thinking as I drove the tractor through that snow squall this afternoon, how quirky life is, how fortunate it was that this bitter weather had not come up yesterday, how a village is its own world, its own universe, and how nourishing and sometimes just plain lucky this can be, even in death.