The woman came like the sun in weather fair or foul,
completed her route, then vanished.
After years of searching for a secluded piece of acreage on which to build a house, we had one constructed at the end of a gravel road on a large cul-de-sac. Just beyond our driveway is a narrow two-track dirt road which leads into the towering woods behind the house and on to a few cottages which front on the shore of Long Lake. The first winter in the country was harsh and lonely. At the end of the gravel road nothing moved outside our windows except my husband’s car, our children’s school bus, and occasionally, the garbage truck.
It was on an early spring afternoon when the snow was beginning to melt that a tall, slender figure walked out of the woods and followed the two-track to our driveway. I watched the old woman as she leaned against the wind, just as I had watched the school bus and the garbage truck all winter long. She trudged past my house with her head pulled down into her shoulders, and made her way up the road and over the hill.
I watched the woman again and again – every afternoon. Her stride was the same day after day: long, even, steady. I began to anticipate her arrival. Was it her regularity and her steady stride upon the lonely landscape that beckoned me to watch her until she was lost over the hill or in the cover of the woods?
Time and time again I stood at the window and watched until she disappeared. The woman came like the sun, in weather fair or foul, completed her route, then vanished.
The woman continued to walk in and out of my view, on and on, through spring and summer. In late fall, as snow began to dance in the wind, the woman no longer appeared. It wasn’t until melting snowdrifts had made gullies in the mud that she returned. I watched her walk back and forth again until fallen leaves crunched beneath her feet, and crystal snowflakes blurred my vision of her.
It came to pass that I no longer accepted the robin as a sure sign of spring, only the sighting of the woman. That spring the woman’s arrival was announced by the frantic barking of Noble, our collie pup. The woman hadn’t changed. Her long legs stretched out inside the narrow cut of her cotton slacks. A windbreaker covered her square shoulders. The hat she often wore sat upon her silver-gray head, and her hands were ungloved as usual. She moved at the same strong, steady pace, like a rerun of the years before.
One warm afternoon I heard Noble barking, and saw him following the woman into the woods. “Noble! Noble.” I called as I raced out of the house after him.
As the playful mass of blonde fur darted around the woman’s worn tennis shoes, I leaned over, seized him, and secured the pup against my chest.
Then I looked up. I stood face to face with the woman. Her blue eyes sparkled with life as she laughed. Warm wrinkles gathered around her mouth and the other gentle features of her face. Her hair was short, without style or fuss. Her fingers that stroked Noble were long and graceful. There was nothing about the woman that should have called attention to her, and yet her presence demanded it.
In a voice not frail, but aged, the woman asked, “Do you know anything about the house that is going up east of yours?”
“I don’t know much, but I understand that it’s a spec house. I hate to see it go up. I sort of had the feeling that all this open space is my own private property.”
The woman laughed, halfheartedly slapped at her knee, and said, “Now you know how I felt when you moved in here.” We laughed together at our humanness, at our honesty.
Then she asked, “I hope you don’t mind me walking past your place. Some people get a bit touchy about where I walk.”
She said that her name was Marge Richardson. Then she began questioning me about the people in the neighborhood. Who are they? Do they have children? How is their health? What work do they do? That was the beginning of my yearly update with Mrs. Richardson. I would inform, and she would listen with a concerned ear.
After our introduction that day, I felt free to call out a greeting whenever Mrs. Richardson walked by. And she began to play with Noble for a moment, and then go on her way. When summer cooled into fall, the woman had a name, a voice, and a pleasing laugh as she faded like the leaves under the cover of winter.
When I spotted Mrs. Richardson the next spring, I yelled out, “Hello! Welcome back! Come in, come in for tea.”
Mrs. Richardson returned my greeting with equal enthusiasm. And thus began the tradition of meeting over tea upon her arrival, and meeting again before her departure in the fall. Our talks were usually short because Mrs. Richardson had many things to do.
We sat down together for the first time on a sunny spring afternoon. Steeping in the pot between us was apple cinnamon tea. In the next hour and a half, Mrs. Richardson shared that she had raised three daughters and one son. Her husband had died suddenly of a heart attack when her youngest child, Phil, was 13. She had attended a college out East as a young girl, and decided to finish her degree in special education, and began teaching in Traverse City in her late ’40s. But after just five years of teaching, she gave it up. I never learned why she quit, but I suspect it was her long-denied spirit of adventure.
Mrs. Richardson said that after teaching, she joined the Peace Corps. She spent two years in Tonga, one of 150 Polynesian islands in the South Pacific. While there, she ran a Tongan nursery school. She replaced the Princess of Tonga, who was about to be married. She said that the natives were very considerate, and that she was happy there.
“The culture teaches respect for old people, so I got a lot of respect,” she laughed.
“Well, I better be getting home,” she continued. “My kids and grandkids will be coming soon, and I’ll have family in the house until September. I’ll call you if I get a break. Maybe you could come to my place for tea. It isn’t much, and I’m not much of a housekeeper.”
“I’d like to come, Marge, but I’m not sure where you actually live?”
She laughed and explained that if I would follow the two-track through the woods, veer left, and then take a second path to the right, down a steep slope, I would be at her cottage.
A couple of weeks later, Mrs. Richardson called. I left my house and walked the trail beneath the giant, swaying trees. When I reached the quaint, brown cottage, Mrs. Richardson tiptoed out to meet me.
“Sh..sh..sh,” she said, a finger raised to her lips. “A robin has a nest up there. Right there, just above the door. The babes have hatched, and the new parents are busy feeding them.”
We snuck into the kitchen where I could hear a composition by Tchaikovsky in the background. The cottage was furnished much as Mrs. Richardson dressed: in whatever she happened to have. Books cluttered the living room area, and knick-knacks of special meaning sat here and there.
“Well, this is it, such as it is,” she said as she walked me through the plain, small rooms of her cottage. Then she directed me out to the enclosed front porch, and up a few steps to a lovely, spacious bedroom.
“This is my room,” she said as she moved her willowy arm in an encompassing motion. “I built it myself. It’s my getaway place for when my kids and my grandkids have worn me out.”
I scanned the long room filled with books, photos, other mementos, and an organ against the inside wall. We moved to the sliding-glass-door, and stared out at the beach, the quiet lake, and across to the opposite shore.
She said, “Sometimes I can hear the lonely call of a loon. I think it’s nesting in the cove. It makes such an eerie sound.”
“I’ve heard it too,” I replied as we fixed our eyes on the opposite shore and silently reflected on the penetrating call.
We returned to the dining room to sit at a large table located between a small kitchen and a crowded living room. There Mrs. Richardson offered me a muffin on a chipped plate and tea in a faded cup. The finest serving of high tea at King Edward’s Hotel in Toronto didn’t compare with the pleasure of sipping teas with Mrs. Richardson. I asked how she had become involved with the Peace Corps.
“My daughters Pat and Kathy joined first,” she said. “Pat was in Malaysia for four years, while Kathy spent three years in Nigeria. I had never traveled until Phil and I went to visit them. We stopped in Hawaii, Japan, China, Malaysia and Nigeria. I was hooked.”
Then she added that she was going to re-enlist, and would probably be going to Costa Rica for two years. She expected to be leaving next fall at the age of 68. She shook her head, and said, “I hope my return trip to Costa Rica gets off to a better start. The last time I was there, I tried to prevent a child from falling onto the railroad tracks. I tripped over my luggage, fell down several steps, and broke both my arms.”
She laughed as she relayed her most difficult of traveling experiences. She told me how each winter while Northern Michigan is blanketed with snow, she takes a number of trips to different parts of the world. But each winter she also spends a month or two working with retarded children in an institution in Florida or in a home for children in Buckhorn, Kentucky.
That winter, after visiting her daughter Jan in Ann Arbor, she would be going to Puerto Rico, Australia, and New Zealand. Then, she would visit Pat in Hawaii, and Kathy in California.
That was the end of our visits for that year, except for a few words exchanged as she passed by my house. The following summer during tea, Mrs. Richardson told me that her plans were completed with the Peace Corps, and that she would be leaving in August.
As I watched her walk into the woods, I realized that the images I had of old age – the sounds of creaking rocking chairs, the click of knitting needles, and the shuffle of suede slippers against worn linoleum – might never fit Mrs. Richardson. I found comfort in the hope her life evoked. And I took pride in her free spirit and generous heart, but I would miss her steadily moving figure that would not frequent our neighborhood for a very long time. I gave her a journal, hoping she would share in-depth her adventures when she returned.
Mrs. Richardson worked diligently on her Spanish before she left. When she was settled in Costa Rica, as consultant for special education, she developed teaching materials, and taught parents and teachers how to help special-needs children. While she was there, she lived with a Spanish speaking family in the valley. In tropical heat, she walked a two-mile path each weekday, most of it uphill, to where the school was located. After she returned to the States, she received a letter from the Costa Rican teachers she had instructed. They had named a new special education building “The Marjorie Richardson Building.”
Mrs. Richardson informed me that she would no longer be enlisting in the Peace Corps. At 72, she found that she sometime became desperately homesick. Oh, she would still travel, and work with children during the winter months, but she planned to maintain the freedom to see her family whenever the desire presented itself.
The next winter she had several trips planned, including one to Egypt. The seasons have come and gone. I can’t keep straight just where she has been or where she is going. But I’m always anxious to cradle a steaming cup of tea in my hand, sit back, and listen to life as lived by Marge Richardson.
Late this past October, the phone rang, “We haven’t had tea all summer, the leaves are on the ground, and I’m about to head south. Can you come down?”
It was an unusually warm October day as I strolled into the woods. The magnificent sun was displaying nature in such a way that its beauty could not be taken for granted. I veered off to the right, and climbed down the steep slope to the cottage. I was greeted with a smile, and we decided to take our tea at the water’s edge.
In the kitchen, to a Beethoven overture, we stacked cups, saucers, plates, napkins, butter and muffins. We carried them across the lawn to the water’s edge where carefully placed stones protected the sandy shoreline. There we turned over lawn chairs and a small table, and wiped them off. The sun was so bright that we had to turn our backs to it to keep from squinting. Once we were situated, and Mrs. Richardson was sure that my tea was hot, she dropped a bomb in my lap.
“I’ve been thinking for a long time that I ought to have a permanent home,” she began. “A person my age needs to think about those things before she gets too senile to make a wise decision, I believe that I might put my cottage up for sale next summer. I could use the money. I understand the place is now worth quite a sum. And I could get an inexpensive apartment, one that is accessible all year round.”
I didn’t protest. I didn’t have any right to object. Besides, what she was saying made sense. But I didn’t like what I was hearing; it was cutting a hole in my heart.
Perhaps Mrs. Richardson noticed my displeasure because she waved her limber arms, and said, “Oh, who knows what I’ll do. I probably won’t do anything about it for a while yet, but I’m thinking.”
As a cool breeze developed off the lake, and passed over our empty cups, I asked, “When will you leave for the winter?”
“I plan to beat it out of here before the first snow,” she answered. “I think I’ll be leaving on Monday or Tuesday.”
We said goodbye for another winter, and as I began my trek up the slope to the two-track at the top of the ridge, I thought of how little time I had actually spent with Mrs. Richardson, and yet how very much I valued her friendship.
On Tuesday morning, I stood in front of the living room window, and watched as a storm whipped snow in every direction. The wind howled around the house. I wondered if Mrs. Richardson had beat it out of Michigan ahead of the gale.
I began to fret at the thought of losing my special neighbor, but realized the futility of such thoughts. For now, for at least one more time, I comforted myself, I could expect to look out one early spring day, in weather fair or foul, and find a solitary figure walking out of the woods, or breaking over the crest of the hill, with long, even steady strides.
True, the once-square shoulders are somewhat rounded. And her back, that was as straight as an arrow, is slightly bent. But the women’s joy for life, and her sense of adventure, are unquenchable. Meanwhile in the cupboard, on the top shelf, sits apple-cinnamon tea in a tightly-closed container, awaiting the return of Mrs. Richardson.