by Elizabeth Milligan
I of III
All of them were her guests that day. Some had arrived early and the anxiety of the morning had evaporated. This was the first unveiling ceremony without her husband, Steven. Linda, his widow was calm; some might have said even regal.
The annual unveiling of the Anthology, was held in the parlor of their house; a dark brown clapboard building over two hundred years old. A weatherworn picket fence marked the boundary between the narrow strip of gently tangled flowers between her front door and a sidewalk off of Main Street.
Hidden under a linen cloth, the twenty anthologies nestled in a basket on Linda’s lap. Each volume contained award-winning poetry and prose that had been submitted to Vermont Writers, a group that she and Steven had started in the local library twenty years earlier. After saying a few words about each of the slim volumes, Linda reverentially circulated them among her guests. When the volumes had completed the circuit, Nancy, her overnight guest lit a candle in the candelabra.
All of the guests sat in hard-backed chairs lined up against the white horsehair plaster walls of the parlor. Tall built-in shelves of books, threadbare woven rugs, unmatched wooden furniture, and three many-paned windows surrounded them. Most of them had had poems published in the current year’s anthology and were waiting respectfully to read them aloud.
The fire-eater and his poetess arrived together and late. The poetess took the last empty chair; it was near the front door. Linda recognized the fire eater from a carnival on Main Street earlier that week. He draped his tall frame along the doorframe nearby, ready to listen to his poetess read her poem, "The Sphinx".
II of III
Later, in the evening after all the day guests had departed, Linda showed Nancy a framed photo of herself as a pigtailed child grinning over the rim of a large metal washtub on her family’s farm in northern New Hampshire. She had just been found out in a game of Hide & Seek.
As a child, Linda knew only that members of her family rarely spoke to each other and that money was scarce for them. She knew that with a dipper full of water, she could mold the hard-packed dirt on the farm into all kinds of shapes. She also knew that with a little water and a five & dime watercolor set, she could paint anything.
"My brother and I would drive two hundred miles without saying a word and we would think nothing of it…. When I was older, I studied art at the state university. I did not know what else to study.
I was very shy. When my mother saw that I had earned all A’s, she remarked that she would rather I make B’s and C’s and be well rounded. That comment was devastating to me. From then on, I scraped the bottom, academically. My self-esteem was very bad. Later, I learned that my mother had never earned better than C’s at her prestigious woman’s college. Perhaps she was jealous. I don’t know. In any event, you see how a single comment can be such a blow to one’s self esteem.
My first marriage was to a fellow I met at the university. He was a very talented painter and potter. He was very emotionally needy, as well. We divorced when our son, our only child, was twelve. It was devastating. He is all grown up now and living in VA where he is a eye surgeon. I have not seen much of him. Now that Steven is not here, I hope to see more of my son. I hope to have a private conversation about the pain we both went through at the time of the divorce.
I met Steven at an auction not far from here. He says that he knew he had to meet me when he leaned over to pick up a pencil and saw my long legs in the back row! He really was such a joker! Also, he tells people we know that when he met me, I never spoke. It’s true, I was afraid to speak. It took twenty years, but I do speak, now!
Several years after his divorce in the 1970’s, Steven bought this house from a painter and Francophile. See, that entire wall is painted with a map of Paris. We have a lot of the previous owner’s paintings hanging on the walls. One day, we found a big box of various letters addressed to the previous owner. We sent them to the owner’s son in Boston and he in turn sent us two of the owner’s woodprints. As you can see, one of them is the cover of this year’s Anthology.
Steven earned his Masters in English at Williams and he is a big reason there is now a Masters program there in Creative Writing. He got his PhD from the University of Iowa. I sat in on all Steven’s PhD classes; so really, I almost have a doctorate, as well.
Because of Steven, I earned my Masters in Social Work at the University of Vermont. It was rough at first, getting used to being a student again, but after that rough part, I earned good grades. I wrote about my grandfather, the founder of homeopathic hospitals in this country. The people at the univerity liked that. Then, when they learned that I had transcribed all Steven’s interviews, interviews with people like Margaret Mead, Noam Chomsky, and John Kenneth Galbraith, and had them archived at Williams; when they learned about how I worked with Steven to create Vermont Writers, they asked me to write about them. So, I did. They liked what I wrote so much that they gave me three credits for each paper – that meant a big savings for me – and they published excerpts from my work in their literature. I don’t know that I could have survived Steven’s death without having had the confidence booster of earning my Masters.
Yesterday, everyone who came to the unveiling was such a special person and all of them were the very people who most needed to be there. I was truly amazed. And they all brought food and flowers, too! Altogether, there were twenty people here, one for each year of Vermont Writers. The prize winner who came late and her fire-eater boyfriend made twenty-two, the same number of years that Steven and I were married."
Then, the two women rose from their seats and busied themselves with cleaning up. Linda swept the rugs with a broom so that the mice would not be tempted, packaged uneaten food suitable for leftovers, and scraped the rest for composting. Nancy washed and dried the cutlery and crockery.
When everything was put to rights, Nancy climbed the narrow steps to the spare bedroom. Linda, new sole Director of Vermont Writers, fastened the three locks on the front door, and retired to her makeshift sleeping room on the first floor. As her window darkened for the night, the asters outside began to bloom.
III of III
The next day, after the drive home to Massachusetts, Nancy started to tell her family about her week-end in Vermont. Her daughter glanced at her and asked incredulously,
“How can you be in the same room as a fire-eater and not ask how he can eat fire?"
Elizabeth Milligan ©2009