Saturday, November 28, 2009


We did some modest traveling to reach our family celebration of Thanksgiving. I enjoyed myself there almost as much as I enjoyed getting home again.

Home to me is marked by a constellation of house, yard, cat and neighbors.

In my opinion, neighbors are underrated these days as an enrichment of our lives. So, in honor of all my neighbors, current, past and future, today I'm posting an essay I wrote about five years ago. It celebrates the first neighbors we got to know when Charlie and I moved to the Valley.

It's called "The Sisters."
The sisters were way up in their eighties if they were a day. During the two years I lived one farm down from them, I passed Marjory and Elizabeth most mornings on my way to work—Marjory, driving the tractor; Elizabeth, riding shotgun—heading out to tend the sheep, or plow a field, or mend a fence.

I’ve always been drawn to happy, unconventional, un-helpless people. A month after becoming their neighbor, I told the sisters I was a journalist and asked if I could record their story. Elizabeth is deaf, so Marjory shouts, and she shouted at me they'd have to think about that.
Six weeks later, there was a fortissimo message on my answering machine: "This is Margery. If Martha still wants to hear our story, tell her to come on."

Margery wasn't a particularly good storyteller—she's not at all interested in the past—perhaps the only eighty-year-old I’ve ever met who isn’t. "The past is over!” she bellowed into my microphone. "Who wants to think about the past?"
But she did play an old recording of her and Elizabeth singing hymns, and she showed me a lot of old photographs—two dark-haired sisters smiling in pretty hats and flowery frocks, Elizabeth drop-dead gorgeous, Margery handsome and obviously nobody's fool.
It struck me that these were the photographs of women who could have gone anywhere, done anything that women were allowed to do in the mid-part of the last century; yet here they were, and here they obviously wanted to be. Even when talking into a microphone, they felt no need to explain or justify their odd course to the rest of us.

"Did you ever think about marrying?” I asked. They were—after all—of a generation of women that usually did.

Margery hooted. "Awe, fellows asked us, but we didn't pay ’em no mind. One came around a couple of years ago crying how his girlfriend had died, and he was all alone and wouldn't one of us marry him. Elizabeth told him to get a dog.”

I’ve moved a lot and had a lot of neighbors. Most of them have come and gone without leaving anything permanently useful inside me. But my life is richer and steadier for having lived for a while one farm over from Marjory and Elizabeth. I simply haven’t met many other women—many people, really—who are living as they truly wish to, without worrying at all about the sideways glances of the rest of us.

The only bumper sticker I’ve ever put on a vehicle is one my daughter, Lizzie, sent me years before I met the sisters. It read “Uppity Women Unite,” and when I slapped it on my truck’s bumper, I thought, “There! That’s who I am!”

After meeting Marjory and Elizabeth, however, I realized I am a mere wannabe in the uppity woman department. That bumper sticker would have really belonged on their tractor.

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