Saturday, April 11, 2009

Here or there

Here is wet and grey. I see the drips through newly-cleaned windows. There--Yorkshire--is quite likely also wet and grey.

There is plenty here to make me feel at home. Days like this remind me of long Sunday afternoons in Hull. I see myself rounding the footpath that ran between the row of red brick council houses and the row of cherry trees along the grass verge. I see myself, in fact, in front of Miss Crackles' house with its unkempt patch of lawn and grimy windows. Our windows shone, cleaned with newspaper and vinegar by my mother on a wooden stepladder. Miss Crackles' windows had neither seen a sheet of the Daily Mail nor any rag in many a year. And if I was quite unlucky, I would run into Miss Crackles herself, who lived alone and liked to buttonhole me in the years after I left and came home regularly to visit, to tell me at length of her academic successes in the field of Botany. Feeling her too close, I would take a step backwards, and she would follow, until we slowly advanced toward the edge of the street. Miss Crackles, who used to be head of the Biology department at my old school, was an authority on the flora of the East Riding, and whatever her shortcomings as a housekeeper, she was no slouch when it came to grasses. It was Miss Crackles who prevented the City Council from bulldozing all the hawthorns along the bank behind our houses, saving the homes of thousands of birds as well as the pink-tinged clouds of mayflowers that appeared every spring.

In the days when I knew her, Miss Crackles drove first a Morris Minor then a Ford, which she carefully garaged at the end of the block until arthritis began to trouble her. It was said that in her younger days she had ridden a motorcycle to school. A misfit in a neighborhood of working class families, Miss Crackles ploughed her own furrow. She had a brother, we heard, but no other family. When she was awarded an MBE and went to Buckingham Palace to receive it, we heard from a neighbor who helped her prepare that she took out her pearls and her twenty-year old tweed suit and found them good enough for the occasion. And possibly they were. My admiration of her independence was equaled only by my dread of ever resembling her--a woman alone in a shabby house, an object of bemused gossip among the housewives, a stooped and knotted figure with a strange name, stepping too close to the only person she would talk to that day. And yet of course her real life held riches we knew nothing of.

There is a Proustian irony in the realization that a figure we view with pity has connections, accomplishments and sources of contentment in a different world than our own. We neighbors who saw only her comings and goings knew little of the passionate interest at the center of her life and her wide network of friends. I discovered recently that Miss Crackles died just a few months after my mother in 2007, at the age of 89.

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Anglo-Brooklyn by Joy Holland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.