By Mary Cushman
As a kid, I was afraid of Ida. And small wonder: stout and tall, with big hands and a severe face, she was every inch the forbidding Yankee spinster. She lived with a herd of mangy cats in a run-down farmhouse on Chebeague Island, where my family spent every summer. Friends who had experienced Ida as a teacher at the island grammar school only amplified my anxieties. When we quickened our pace walking past her darkened house on a summer night, they whispered, “Thank your lucky stars she didn’t teach you math.” An accomplished math numbskull, I thanked my stars heartily.
Among grown-ups, Ida was an object of tongue clucking from islanders and summer residents alike, in part because of her derelict house, but mostly because she was an eccentric, isolated figure, upon whom others could easily hang a bit of self-righteousness. Once upon a time, she’d subsisted on a teacher’s salary, but no one knew exactly how she got by after that. We took perverse pleasure in rumors of her eating canned cat food and we gleefully speculated on what she might be doing in the solitary reaches of her house. My father chided us for being so uncharitable, but I lapped up the chatter as long as Ida remained at arm’s length.
My idea of Ida shifted slightly one summer morning when I was about 10 years old. My best friend, Helen, was an island girl, and she and I were slipping down the lane past Ida’s house on our way to the shore. We pretended not to notice her sitting in the opening of her barn door, but she spotted us and called out that we should come over and visit with her for a minute. We hesitated, then joined hands and walked across the yard.
Inside the barn, Ida sat in an old wooden rocker in a patch of sunlight, braiding a rug. As she talked and we stood tongue-tied, I was struck by how surprisingly pleasant it was to be there while she went on with her braiding, the sun streaming in. I listened to the creak of her chair, smelled the warm floorboards, watched her big hands deftly forming braids out of faded cloth, and wondered whether she was quite as fierce as her reputation. Her threadbare housedress and shabby shoes made her look poor and worn out, not scary.
I’d have stayed longer, but Helen was not equally mesmerized. Her grandmother braided rugs by the dozen, and I could tell she didn’t much care for this close-up of Ida. She pulled us away after a few minutes, said we were going swimming at the back shore, which brought a gap-toothed, knowing smile from Ida. We were soon giggling on down the lane toward the beach, shivering at this encounter with an outsized figure of our imaginations, now somewhat reduced in size.
In the following years, I saw Ida rarely — maybe as she was pinning a sheet onto a clothesline in her backyard or riding on the boat over to the mainland. She would acknowledge me or someone else in my family by name, knowing well who we all were, but she kept her distance. Whatever the reason for her reserve, as summer people, we weren’t likely to breach it.
It was as summer people, returning to a place we knew as home, that my mother and two younger sisters and I went to Chebeague in the heart of winter to bury my father, now 40 years ago, when I was in my early 30s. The island was bleak in the February cold: shuttered, spare, and quiet. Not much moved except smoke from chimneys and an occasional car easing down snow-packed roads. Even the pine trees seemed lonesome, standing black against the sky like widows staring out to sea. For a family used to the bright blue of summer and the freedom of running through tall, wild grasses, the winter felt confining and harsh — a match for the rough opening in the frozen earth at the island cemetery, where we would soon place my father’s ashes.
In our house that week, there was little to be glad about. We were grateful for simple things — the fire in the Franklin stove, letters that poured in, neighbors’ sympathies, and the comfort of one another as we tried to eat, to sleep, to read, mostly failing at all of these.
One evening, as we gathered in the living room around the fire, in a doleful scene reminiscent of Little Women, one of my sisters thought she heard a rap at the kitchen door. It was late and snowing hard, and as I went to check, I felt impatient and anxious, resenting the intrusion on my sorrow. When I got to the kitchen, I didn’t see anyone at the door. Muttering that my sister had heard a ghost, I yanked open the door to switch off the outside light. I hesitated. Down at the bottom of the steps, in the shadows at the edge of the circle of porch light, there was a figure.
In an icy slant of snow, Ida stood with one arm clutching her tattered coat, the other holding out a large aluminum pan. “I thought you folks might like to have this chocolate cake,” she said. “It isn’t much, but it’s what I’ve got.” She turned to go.Recovering my wits, I stammered out a thank you and then called to her. “Ida, won’t you come in and sit by the fire?” She turned back, bent toward me, and said in a barely audible voice, “No, I won’t do that. But I will remember your father — he was always so kind to me.”
And then she was gone, her 80-year-old frame swallowed by the dark and the howl of wind as she lumbered back up the road: no hat, no gloves, no scarf. Nothing but her gracious offering left behind with me, rooted on the steps in the swirling snow, tears falling down my cheeks.