Two Women

Miss Elderkirk had apparently invited herself to Thanksgiving dinner at the Arkwrights’ even though she did not know them. How had she discovered where they lived? I drove over, wondering what I should—or could—do. I let myself in by the side garden gate, and found Miss Elderkirk, just as described, sitting under a spreading maple tree on the manicured lawn, recently swept free of fallen leaves. On her lap was a thick open volume of some kind, and like Lear on the heath, she wore a garland of daisies in her hair. Beside her was a white tablecloth, and, incongruously, an empty wine glass. Did she expect to dine al fresco on the lawn? Was she waiting for Mrs. Arkwright to bring her out her meal? Absorbed in her reading, she could not see the youngest Arkwright scrutinizing us from the living-room window. He waved shyly at me. I glimpsed a nervous George by the gate. I then approached my quarry.

“Ah! Your Holiness!” At first I thought she was being satirical, but quickly dismissed this. She was immune to any kind of jesting irony.

“Not me, I’m afraid,” I replied, deciding to resort to self-deprecation. “Only the Bishop of Rome, I believe, goes by that appellation.”

“In truth, he does. Have you come to join us?”

For a long time afterwards, I meditated on my actions that day. The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote of the continuing obligation on us to act “ethically,” that is, selflessly and altruistically, to address the unmet urgent needs—physical, emotional, or spiritual—of the less fortunate, if we are to be true to ourselves. He called this obligation the infinite ethical requirement. It is infinite because there are always unmet human needs, and some of them are our own. It is the nature of the human condition. Miss Elderkirk was the embodiment of that requirement that day for me, if not from that day on. I ended up taking her to our home for a less impressive lunch than she might have hoped for, and then my wife and I drove her home to her dingy downtown apartment building, but her situation continued to haunt me. On the way downtown, Miss Elderkirk had unleashed a torrent of talk, much of it muddled, but occasionally blessed with lucidity. She had been reading Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and wanted to know where the Delectable Mountains were. She seemed unable to separate literal geography from allegorical. As I tried to explain the latter term to her, she abruptly changed the subject to a sermon given by John Wesley, apparently four hours long, under the blistering Savannah sun, and then, inexplicably, she wondered what colour his hair had been, as sunlight bleached the hair of a nephew of hers. As we waited for her to get out of the car (she had turned down our offer to carry up the leftovers we had given her) she suddenly confided, “Archdeacon Grantly and I were to be married, you know, but I was left at the altar. Such embarrassment for one. Such scandal! Of course, he was later defrocked, but I kept the wedding cake in the cupboard until it was eaten by mice, or until it evaporated, I forget which…One does forget as one ages, doesn’t one?”

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Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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