On the Bay, Chapter II
A farming village in central Massachusetts
She ran past the lake through her hometown of Moguncoy; the sky was daffodil-colored with lavender shapes of clouds dotted against it, and she was clutching a brown-paper package to her heart, like a girl in an old-fashioned novella. She had almost gotten to Bear Hill, upon which the white Taylor farmhouse sat, when she suddenly ran into a stranger on the side of the road who was impetuously pulling up wildflowers by their roots. She was as young as Meredith, dressed in a green-checked gingham, and had brilliant red hair, tied back. Her bouquet was white anemone, delicate toadflax, and whimsical Dutchman's Breeches, but she had a rare genius for making that delicious bunch look straggly. The impossibility of it added to her appeal.
Meredith slowed her steps. “Hello,” she said, for some reason more shy than she had been with that boy in the pantry. Though it is true, as I had said, that she viewed both boys and girls as being worthy companions, girls were much more…vital…to her at that point. And thus more was at stake when she met another creature of her own kind. One of the unspoken longings in her heart, half-known to herself, was to have a twin, a non-blood-related sister, more than she knew - and much more than she needed a man.
The girl looked up and, seeing Meredith, took Merry off-guard by dropping her wild bouquet to the grass unheeded and immediately going up to her with both hands out. She took Meredith’s slim hand in hers in a warm and friendly shake, with the radiance of several suns in the universe combined, as if she had been waiting for Meredith all of her life - or at least all of two days - and had been feeling lost in her surroundings and thus was so glad to hold onto something warm and alive. She spoke with apparent and great faith in humanity, in a voice that brings love to the world and unquestioningly expects love back: “Hi, I’m Joy; I’m new here; I moved in on Thursday; I know you live on the top of the hill; I live in That Peach House down the lake road; I’ve been waiting to meet you because mummy told me there was another girl here, and there are all boys on the other farms, and I was afraid I'd be the only girl. What’s your name? I’m so glad you’re here!” - all in one breath. Truly, she had not stopped to swallow air in any of this. It was like she had been thinking it for a while and had been waiting to get it out, so she couldn’t stop for destiny to possibly interfere. She must rain down her golden net into Meredith’s ocean and see what her cast pulled back; and she allowed the next silence daringly to see what potentiality brought her.
Meredith felt drawn naturally; she glowed and answered, “I’m Merry Taylor,” but did not know what to say after that. She tried to remember Mrs. Taylor and her best-china parlor-hospitality and rallied like a grown-up: “I didn’t know you had moved in! How do you like it so far?” feeling as if she were doing the honors of the Bear Hill and superiorly draping the mantle of welcome over the girl.
“I like it, but I miss Minnesota. That’s where I’m from - but daddy’s farm failed so he’s back to work at the shoe factory as floor manager again.”
"Oh... my father is a farmer, too."
Merry's repertoire of parlor-talk - those small words to fill up the necessity of time - was not ample, and the children paused and looked at each other, without knowing a formula to get to know each other better. Meredith was not quite a child enough to not find this awkward; they were no longer babes with fingers in their mouths that could stare frankly and silently at their new companions, uncaring what the other was thinking, and not having their world depend on whether a bond was formed. But Merry did find this crucial, and she burst out, "Do you want to come see me sometime?" and then retired, smiling.
They trysted to meet at the top of the hill the next day, and then Joy had to run and bring the bouquet to her mother, who was ringing a cowbell somewhere in the distance - a common supper-signal to the Moguncoy vagabond children.
Merry also ran up to her home, into her kitchen, past Mrs. Taylor who was doing the dishes, and upstairs. Merry always felt a twinge of guilt seeing her mother working alone, but she had been in a fairy world all day - and dirty dishes and fairy worlds never meet and kiss.
She hurried up to her bedroom and she shut the door. (A shut door was as good as locked in her house.) Laying on her quilt, and, with as much delight as opening a shiny-papered Christmas present, she ripped the cheap brown paper off of the packet, and looked down hungrily at what was inside. The object lay in its unwrappings, glorious and sacred. She had never seen anything so beautiful in her life. It was a journal, and it cost fifty cents - all of her birthday money combined. It was calfskin-bound, soft as new-churned butter, and creamy-white. The pages inside were scrolled at the top with gold curls and scattered with miniscule rosebuds across the foot.
But it was not only the beautiful journal that excited Meredith: it was her beautiful idea. She was going to write letters to her mother, and her mother was going to write back. The very thought made her smile and feel as though a blanket were being wrapped around her shoulders - and as if she were being cuddled on her mama’s lap again, who used to sit by the crackling fire at night, creaking back and forth on a rocking chair, to make her daughter fall asleep. Meredith still remembered the honeysuckle perfume on the sprigged farm dress or on the elegant Sunday delaine. She could feel the carved whalebone brooch under her fingers, and smell the rosemary in Mrs. Taylor's hair… and feel how warm the fire was on her back and the contact of her mother’s arms around her. Her new communication would be the same idea - being held and loved - but brought to a newer and taller, more mature, level.
She could see it now: she would tuck the journal into the sewing box, an amenity Mother had recourse to almost every single day. Mother would find it, wonder, “How did this beautiful book get in here? - Where did it come from?” and open it up - and, seeing that the book was to her, her eyes would grow wide. While reading it, she would enjoy the sweetness of bodiless contact, as her daughter’s soul reached out to touch her soul - like a baby’s hand going for the soft breast or motherly face, but in the eternal form of a letter.
She curled up with a pencil her brother had sharpened for her and began. For all the magnitude of the idea, Meredith penned something that would not quite be called profound - but it was poured forth from all the girlish confidence and trust in her soul.
It was also written with love, though perhaps at this time she loved the idea of her mother more than her mother herself. She certainly was addressing the letter towards the Idea of a Mother, and not quite towards Mrs. Taylor - but the sentimentality must be forgiven, because her desire was correct. And at the moment, if her words transitioned from being as stiff and distant as a school composition to being as clumsily emotional as an eleven-year old girl can possibly catapult herself into being - Mrs. Taylor would not care one bit because she would look past her daughter’s fledgling awkwardness and see its sterling purpose: to connect mother and daughter, and help the slimmer, younger one on her way to becoming a woman. She would understand that this was the intention, and would know that if the letters were encouraged by an adult, casually and soberly - the best way to make a child feel important and equal - the self-expression could only mature; and if her communications were continued to be treated frankly and honestly, Meredith’s emerging authenticity would blossom.
With this in mind, perhaps Mrs. Taylor would write to her in the very next minute! - if she had time, of course, and was not mending a vital sock - and bestow on Meredith the very exact maternal indulgence she expected, with all the caressing advice and womanish sympathy motherly words provided. She needed that sorely, coming soon into raw and delicate Twelve: she knew she would need a mother-staff to guide and advise her, and to assure her that her thoughts were worth being heard. She knew she needed this just as much as she was half-conscious that girlhood was approaching; that childhood was going to be slipping away, like crumbling leaves making way for fresh, strong growth. This was as primordial a wisdom in her soul as the tight bud feels the thin movement of the first petal and intuits that the powerful process of blossoming has begun. Just as the plant then all the more rigorously draws nutrition to itself, Meredith was experiencing the instinct to gather all the support she could.
With thrilling drama she carried the book inside her pink dress out into the hall. She felt like a princess bearing a gift for a queen. She reached her mother’s room and slipped it into the box. Then she hurried downstairs and could barely restrain herself from putting a skip and a hop in her gait, and she tried to keep her cheeks from glowing too red as she entered the kitchen. She was so bubbling from her plot - Mrs. Taylor would notice!
She did not notice... but Mr. Taylor’s eyes twinkled at her that night over the liver and onions.
“You’re sparkly tonight, Mer,” he said.
Father was so sympathetic.
“Oh, yes; you are,” said Mother, looking at her with surprise. Then she smiled knowingly. “And I know why.”
“Oh, you do?” asked Merry, helping herself to the mashed potatoes, trying to sound airy. But she caught - and shared - a companionable grin with her mother. She and her mother never grinned companionably. It was lovely.
That night when her mother came up to say goodnight, she sat on Meredith's bed and put her hand on Meredith's hair. Meredith was always aware of the whoosh, whoosh noise her hand made when it passed her ear, sounding like ocean waves rolling in and out, and the sound was too loud, but this had turned into the only carress she got at eleven, and she would take anything.
"I know why you were sparkly tonight at dinner," said Mother.
Meredith dimpled. "Do you?"
"Yes! It's because you met Joy Conyngham for the first time."
Meredith was disappointed, but only briefly. Joy was an interesting subject to talk about.
"You're probably wondering how I knew; I saw you two from the kitchen window. She seems like a nice girl - I met her mother. I'm glad for you, Meredith. You need a girl friend. Goodnight, dear." She leaned over and kissed her, and then went to tuck in her other children.
There was always a deathlike, final feeling when the door closed and the parental source of life retreated and the darkness was left to her to swim solitarily in. It was the only time when Meredith Taylor felt alone - truly alone - a sensation which not even a walk in the woods could elicit. But presently she knew she would hear her parents downstairs, and it would be that quiet hour when the adults sat by themselves and and the little Taylors were bundled all up in their beds, asleep or not asleep. It always gave Meredith a secure, snug feeling to know that they were down there: Mama at her rocking chair, creaking-creaking in front of the dying kitchen fire, finishing her sister Marianne’s spring dress, never pricking herself with the needle as Meredith did, and Father reading.
Soon Father would go to bed, and Mother would be able to take the creamy-white journal out from under the rocking chair cushion, where she would have been hiding it from all male eyes, and then… as the clock would tick sleepily on towards deep-blue ten, she would pen out her love and good wishes and affirmations of Meredith’s development.
The next day Meredith did not wake up to find the journal slipped under her pillow. However, she did know that she could not count on her mother to be too spritely. She sat up and stretched; but it was neither on her bedstand. Perhaps her mother was discrete: she opened the bedstand drawer and looked. But, no.
The sun lay on her golden floor like sticky honey; the birds were already at it; she went to the end of her bed and looked past her frilly white curtains to the elven spring morning: the young leaves glittered in the light breeze and danced like the sea - the lake in the distance through the trees shimmered - and the smell of the air from outside was fresh, earthy, and warm. It was a day of impossible beauty, but Merry felt - with youthful elevation - equal to it, and able to absorb it all.
She crossed her room to put on her light lilac dress, but… there was no journal sitting on her bureau, either. The only place left, she thought ruefully, as she did up her front buttons, was outside the door on the floor; but that seemed too exposed to her. Shes could not help the shadow at the corner of her rosy mouth as she went down the stairs, though she tried to lecture herself on the interchangeable nature of expectation and disappointment.
“Good morning!” her mother said brightly when Meredith entered the kitchen. “I made you your favorite blueberry johnnycakes! Last jar from last season. I was going to make a pie for my meeting, but I knew you liked this, so I thought I’d use them up in this way.”
Meredith was insensible to this gracious favor, because all she could think of was her journal.
“Oh! also, I think I saw that Joy-girl at the top of the hill this morning…she even looked in the kitchen door window. It gave me such a fright; she really does have an impish face, all round and freckled, like the illustration in your fairytale book. She looks like she ought to be wearing a red riding hood. Do you know what she was wanting?”
Feeling sweetness suddenly flooding her, Meredith remembered - remembered - remembered - and jumped up, almost knocking over her chair. “Yes - trysting - meeting - back soon - maybe never - I mean, later -” She flew out the door.
“Later? Now, wait, Meredith!” called her mother. “There’s the herb garden to edge - Merry - !”
“I’ll be back - I’ll be back,” called Meredith over her shoulder from a distance - for she was a celeritous sprinter - “I have to go!”
She reached the Big Rock quickly, out of breath, but her new red-haired beloved was nowhere to be seen. The field about her was empty, save for the few blueberry bushes - though they had planned to meet there. She spied a note, sitting on the Big Rock, pinned under a stone. It read,
“So sorry merry but Mummy needs me all today. She told me early this Morning and I ankiously came up here to tell you right away because I didnt want to break the Trist but I dont think you were Awake. I love you very much and I miss you already. Joy Conyngham.”
Meredith walked back as if in a dream, but carrying a real-live letter in her waking hands. Happy wheels were turning in her head: she would devise a mailbox system to write to Joy, just as she was writing to her mother. Oh, life was good.
She entered the house again and took a still-warm johnnycake from the griddle, but her mother, rinsing out a bowl, looked displeased about something. She did not look at Merry but spoke to the sink, her tone a bit frosty.
“Really, Meredith,” she said, “You fly off to places altogether too much, and spend less time than you should on responsibilities. You told me two days ago you would edge that herb garden.”
Meredith felt this rebuke to be indiscriminate and undue. “Why, I’m here now - it took me but ten minutes,” she said, surprised into a contradiction.
“Yes, but if you had found this girl, you would have played with her, wouldn’t you have?”
Meredith could not deny it, and was silent in face of this reality, and Mother took advantage of it to advance her lecture:
“Do you want myself or Marianne to be always doing your share? You declared to me that you wanted full charge of the herb garden this year, but believe me” - she spoke with an air of vast experience that never fails to nettle Eleven - “You’ll have to put in much more time weeding it than you’re wont, and I don’t know if you can do it… especially if you’re always going to be running off to see this new friend of yours.” - Somehow “new friend” sounded unpleasant in her mouth. “I cannot always be finishing the work you leave undone.” But she ended, more genially, “I did mend that nightgown you tore, for you, last night.”
Meredith did not care or feel grateful; she was so hurt by her mother’s censure and dark cast on her new friendship, that she found even Mrs. Taylor’s finishing statement a reproach. Her sensitive pride was deeply offended, and a sharp reply flew to her tongue, which her heart did not prohibit from escaping, being very hot:
She had been going to finish her nightgown (though it had sat there for three weeks), and of course she was fit for the task of the herb garden. Her mother didn’t trust her; never trusted her at all. With Mrs. Taylor’s reticence to dole out important household responsibilities, she would never learn to scramble more than an egg.
There was a core of truth to Meredith's outbrust. Outside, she knew she knew the names of wild plants and bird songs and loved the feel of a horse's wiry mane. Inside the house, she was less competent, both from lack of natural aptitude, and from her mother's preference of her own perfect skill. And even then, Mrs. Taylor seemed to trust the four-year old more (who did, indeed, show a predilection for the domestic arts even in her babyhood), and she would give Marianne little pillows to prick and miniature turnovers to mold. But, concerning Meredith - though Mrs. Taylor would not admit it - she had less of an inclination to take on the weighty task of teaching her (most flighty) daughter the substantial charges of the household. Deep down, Meredith had a great desire to learn, especially since it appealed to her budding womanly heart, but she had as little faith in herself as her mother did. This was a topic potent with resentment on both sides; on Mrs. Taylor’s part for not having more of her work relieved of her, and sensitively on Meredith’s side, for not feeling fully promising and able.
The only thoughts that she expressed, however, were solely irritation at her mother for mending her gown and for doubting her - herbal - dedication. Mrs. Taylor seemed subdued: at least, she listened to this tirade, and said gently, “Very well; I believe you,” but to Meredith’s ears, her tone did not imply that Meredith was believed in the slightest.
Choking on the perceived mockery, Merry turned on her heel and stormed out, seeking solace in digging a pitchfork sharply into the soil of the vegetable garden for half an hour (...not the herb garden: no, she was not superhumanly equal to that at the moment).
The girl tried to indulge in tears, for how horribly she had been wronged and censured, but somehow she could only wring out two or three drops. Those few were lovely, but the physical act of plunging the pitchfork into the ground was too relieving, and soon she let go of all of her offense.
No ill-will inhabited Meredith for long; in fact, it was in her nature to attempt to rid herself of perversity as quickly as possible. As soon as her feelings were exhausted, she felt reproached by her conscience and wanted to “make up” with her mother. She would write out her perception of the situation in her next letter in the mother-daughter journal! She would explain herself, and then apologize.
She only then had to wait for Mrs. Taylor to return the book. And if Mrs. Taylor had sewn the nightgown, that meant she had, of course, been into the sewing box. Then - tonight, tonight!
But the journal was not sitting on her quilted, neatly-made bed that evening, either.
Meredith realized that the torn nightgown had actually been stored away in the linen closet for the past few weeks; therefore it was quite possible that her mother had not actually found the journal. But, after days went by, Meredith finally witnessed Mrs. Taylor working on a particular dress that she knew had been in the box, and she was compelled to believe that she had.
Yet, just to be sure - because she still held onto all doubts, thinking maybe the dog or the baby took it out and chewed it - she looked in the sewing box herself. She saw that the book lay, preserved and perfect, at the bottom of the heap, covered with sewing scissors and pin cushions and measuring tape and cloth scraps. She fished it up and opened it.
On the inside was writing - her mother’s handwriting - on the page next to where Meredith’s last letter finished off. It was a spring wardrobe list and notes for the upcoming Sunday speech on the " Christian Aid to Romanian Refugees Society," of which her mother was secretary.
Meredith did not cry. She did not even feel the pain as her dream died. She subverted the feeling so that she would not feel rejected by turning on herself, and thinking humbly that, of course, her mother would not reply. It was a childish idea, a silly idea, an inconsequential idea, a romantic idea, an idea of no importance, an idea of no weight, a request that an industrious mother would never have a second to indulge. Even if she had a moment, it would require more work, more exertion, than Meredith merited, and would not be interesting or even diverting to Mrs. Taylor. Why did Meredith come up with the idea in the first place?
She did not want to take the journal right away. It would be gracelessly awkward. Such a childish act would expose her hurt blatantly and would (Meredith fondly believed) embarrass Mrs. Taylor. So she let it lie, feigning carelessness, for another week to make it look like she had forgotten about it, as her mother had forgotten. If being a grown-up meant to be unemotional thus, and conceal one’s feelings, she would do it.
She would never, no never, lose touch with her feelings on the inside.
When she retrieved it, and brought it back to her room, she knew it would not be missed. She did not rip the pages out. Words were so sacred to her that she had made an unconscious promise to herself that she would never burn anything that had once been, verbally, a part of herself. So she let the pages lie, like roses on the grave, which no one pulls up even when the name on the tombstone cannot respond in appreciation. And she put the cream-white book to rest in the back, deepest back, of one of her drawers.
It is too great of a demand to ask of a child to accept the gift of sadness, and just hold it and be with it until it leaves - because the instinct of a human being, just as it is with an animal, is to do something with the pang; to fling it away in whatever way is most expedient. She could not simply say, "I am grieved," nor even conclude, "When I am older, I will respond in any medium with which my children reach out to me." She only knew she had a mangled pretty thing in the back of her drawer - and she did not want to look at it.
But she did sit soberly in her room for a minute and look at the fields in the distance outside her window, and she came to a dreadful conclusion.
Coming out of childhood, she had cherished many ideals about their relationship, encouraged not a whit less by her own mother’s cozying of her. While packing for the journey into girlhood, she tucked inside her bag a vision of how close she and her mother would be. They would share secrets in the times they found themselves alone and Meredith would bare the most tender, deepest, most sensitive thoughts of her soul. (As a delicate and introspective child, she had many.)
But now Meredith knew: her mother was not the same as she was.
From that moment on - or perhaps it started earlier; Meredith had not been aware of it before - there was a noticeable rift between mother and daughter. At least, it was noticeable to Meredith - and noticeable to Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor watched the change between his wife and daughter with concern, but he knew he had no control over two individuals' relationship. Still, he wondered if he could smooth it over a bit. Before saying goodnight to his daughter one evening, he put his warm, well-worn hand on her head - it felt like a weighty benediction - and said simply and quietly, “You know, Meredith…just because someone is not loving you the way you want them to, does not mean they are not loving you with all they have.”
It was all he said, but it planted a seed. The combined forces of hunger and ideals kept its meaning from exploding into vegetation right away, but as the years went by, and as Meredith's understanding - and her compassion - broadened, her eyes were gradually opened to see that her mother was not verbal, and had never been verbal. Not only was it seen as unnecessary to her, it went against her grain. She grew up in a traditionally silent home, where, as I had said, a separation of children and elders was the rule, and as a young girl, herself desirous of her own mother’s love, she had learned to look for the expressions of affection as they were offered her. She noticed that her mother cared for her brood by always having a warm biscuit in the oven for them, by reading them storybooks at night (even if it was sometimes only from James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women), by putting on gay birthday celebrations yearly, by keeping them in neat and mended clothes, and by perpetually stocking the cookie jar. She professed neither time nor inclination for heart-to-heart talks…though she certainly made time for bustling and messing about the kitchen.
The young Mrs. Taylor had perhaps a more lively and productive sense of survival than Meredith did, because, when Mrs. Taylor looked, she accepted - and found a feast. Meredith would never have been satisfied in such an environment without a critical shifting of her expectations.
And in her own present situation, Merry would have continued to starve, had it not been for her father noticing that his daughter was in need, and more like him. Having been forced at a young age to adapt to a uncommunicative environment, it never occurred to Mrs. Taylor that Meredith should want more than acts of kindness, such as making blueberry johnnycakes and fixing her nightgowns for her. Mr. Taylor knew she need words - words - words. Meredith Taylor could have been starving as an urchin in the troubled old country and been sustained on only words.
In this way Meredith did not wilt as she could have, but she also did not fully develop as she could have, too, because her first attempt at a vulnerable connection with a woman dear to her was branded with pain and rejection. Even when she finally learned to understand her mother, this did not take away her regret that she had to go through the majority of her girlhood separated in emotions from the one of the few females she had as a model for womanhood, and the only woman to whom she wanted to belong.
Yet, at the moment, though she did not understand Mr. Taylor's statement about different types of loves, something in her was still freed: and that night she took out the blank book and began to write, for the first time in her life, as in a diary.