Mrs. Lowell died today. She was ninety-one.
We remember her fondly. There was a time when she taught us lady-like things, spidery handwriting and the proper way to serve tea. She belonged to another world. In her little cottage, there were relics of that bygone place and time. A fan open on a marble table top, carved of wood and bone, with a rose tassel, rotting despite all her clean and careful ways. In the hall, a collection of walking sticks from all over the world marched along the wall. One had the fearsome face of a tribal god. She taught us the name, but it is long forgotten.
Her husband was English, the last of the keepers of the empire, she said. They married late in life, when his diligence in the name of a young queen was no longer needed, and they came to her home place in America, the cottage on the bend in the road near our house. Somehow she fit everything they’d ever loved from their life in Africa into those four small rooms.
Once, she gestured to the parlor, saying, “When I was a girl, there was only a stove and a pair of armchairs. The reverend and mother sat side by side, so many years the velvet wore through, and all of the little ones sat on the floor. Now there are more seats than people for sitting.”
She didn’t sound lonely too much when she said that. The colonel, her husband, was long dead by that time. She was used to her singular existence, one supposes, or as used to that as any child of God can ever be. We are never alone, if one thinks about it the right way.
Her hands were slender and pale, the nails always pared just so, though they yellowed in the late years. She tutted over them with a frown, trying to remember something she used to know. White rice vinegar, she said, but there was something else. Her gaze moved out the window, to the soft green brightness of the yard.
“Well, it will come to me,” she said at last. Her eyes were silvered over gently with cataracts. “The vinegar and something else, something hard to get. He brought it from town for me and surprised me. Mother Superior soaked her hands in it and they turned as white and soft as a girl’s hands.”
We sat and listened. The house smelled like old things, old roses. In the pauses, one heard the wood pop now and again, as if the walls were cracking their knuckles absently. Mrs. Lowell drew a breath.
“One mustn’t think she was vein, mind you. Mother Superior. It was only that her hands itched from the dryness. It was meant to make them soft. When it made them young again, it was only a little blessing more.”
On the walk home, we speculated about the other ingredient. But perhaps it was something African, some exotic oil from a flower unknown to us. Perhaps she had only imagined the outcome. If it were possible to find it, we asked ourselves, and there was only enough to fill a small basin, what part of ourselves would we wash? Our hands were already feeling age, mine more than yours. You said you’d prefer your feet, because if they felt as they had when we were young, you’d walk out more, long distances away. Your eyes went a little dreamy. It sounded nice to me, too, and neither of us said we’d wash our faces in the basin. Perhaps we would have just a few years before.
It is sad to think that Mrs. Lowell is gone, the last lady of another era. I never quite learned the knack of her fine calligraphy, but when someone talks of the old British empire, I can think of many relics out of Africa, ones that I touched with my hands. I know what Indian sandalwood smells like when it’s been captured in a rosewood box for thirty years and is released onto the limpid air of a Virginia summer.
A letter fell out and I bent to pick it up her her. Mrs. Lowell trembled as she glanced at the words written on the pages. I recognized the hand, glanced away as one must do. The sandalwood was a spell between us, though only she knew the words. Then she said in a voice that sounded richer and rounder and smoother than her age, “We surround ourselves with old romance, but forget we were ever romantic ourselves. I’m glad you asked to see the box, child.”
I recall we went into the garden then and she told us the names of flowers she’d brought over the ocean, the ones that survived our native soil and even the ones that did not. Mrs. Lowell described them with glistening eyes and color in her cheeks. To hear her, there were shades of scarlet and of yellow we had not yet seen in this world. In these bright spirits, she took us under the oaks and pointed to violets in pots she had nestled among the roots.
“I bring them inside for the winter. They’re beautiful but awfully delicate.”
I fetched three folding chairs of bamboo from the house while you stayed with her and we sat in the shade until the sun set and the fireflies came out, sparkling on the dark green field. The stories she told are forgotten to me, except in bits and pieces, but these are my treasures, crowded in my mind like all the things of her little home on the bend.
Good night, Mrs. Lowell.