Little Selves

Margaret O’Brien, a great-aunt and seventy-five, knew she was near the end. She did not repine, for she had had a long, hard life and she was tired. The young priest who brought her communion had administered the last rites—holy oils on her eyelids (Lord, forgive her the sins of seeing!); holy oils on her lips (Lord, forgive her the sins of speaking!), on her ears, on her knotted hands, on her weary feet. Now she was ready, though she knew the approach of the dread presence would mean greater suffering. So she folded quiet hands beneath her heart, there where no child had ever lain, yet where now something grew and fattened on her strength. And she seemed given over to pleasant revery.

Neighbors came in to see her, and she roused herself and received them graciously, with a personal touch for each.—“And has your Julia gone to New York, Mrs. Carty? Nothing would do her but she must be going, I suppose. ’Twas the selfsame way with me, when I was coming out here from the old country. Full of money the streets were, I used to be thinking. Well, well; the hills far away are green.”

Or to Mrs. Devlin: “Terence is at it again, I see by the look of you. Poor man! There’s no holding him? Eh, woman dear! Thirst is the end of drinking and sorrow is the end of love.”

If her visitors stayed longer than a few minutes, however, her attention wandered; her replies became cryptic. She would murmur something about “all the seven parishes,” or the Wicklow hills, or “the fair cove of Cork tippy-toe into the ocean”; then fall into silence, smiling, eyes closed, yet with a singular look of attention. At such times, her callers would whisper: “Glory b’t’ God! she’s so near it there’s no fun in it,” and slip out soberly into the kitchen.

Her niece, Anna Lennan, mother of a fine brood of children, would stop work for the space of a breath and enjoy a bit of conversation.

“Ain’t she failing, though, the poor afflicted creature!” Mrs. Hanley cried one day. “Her mind is going back on her already.”

“Are you of that opinion? I’m thinking she’s mind enough yet, when she wants to attend; but mostly she’s just drawn into herself, as busy as a bee about something, whatever it is that she’s turning over in her head day in, day out. She sleeps scarce a wink for all she lies there so quiet, and, in the night, my man and I hear her talking to herself. ‘No, no,’ she’ll say. ‘I’ve gone past. I must be getting back to the start.’ Or, another time, ‘This is it, now. If I could be stopping!’ ”

“And what do you think she is colloguing about?”

“There’s no telling. Himself does be saying it’s in an elevator she is, but that’s because he puts in the day churning up and down in one of the same. What else can you expect? ’Tis nothing but ‘Going up! going down!’ with him all night as it is. Betune the two of them they have me fair destroyed with their traveling. ‘Are you lacking anything, Aunt Margaret?’ I call out to her. ‘I am not,’ she answers, impatient-like. ‘Don’t be ever fussing and too-ing, will you?’ ”

‘Tch! tch!’

“And do you suppose the children are a comfort to her? Sorra bit. Just a look at them and she wants to be alone. ‘Take them away, let you,’ says she, shutting her eyes. ‘The others is realer.’ ”

“And you think she’s in her right mind all the same?”

“I do. ’Tis just something she likes to be thinking over—something she’s fair dotty about. Why, it’s the same when Father Flint is here. Polite and riverintial at the first, then impatient, and, if the poor man doesn’t be taking the hint, she just closes up shop and off again into her whimsies. You’d swear she was in fear of missing something?”

The visitor, being a young wife, had an explanation to hazard. “If she was a widow woman, now, or married—perhaps she had a liking for somebody once. Perhaps she might be trying to imagine them young days over again. Do you think could it be that?”

Anna shook her head. “My mother used to say she was a born old maid. All she wanted was work and saving her bit of money, and to church every minute she could be sparing.”

“Still, you can’t be telling. ’Tis often that kind weeps sorest when ’tis too late. My own old aunt used to cry, ‘If I could be twenty-five again, wouldn’t I do different!’ ”

“Maybe, maybe, though I doubt could it be so.”

Nor was it so. The old woman, lying back so quietly among her pillows, with closed eyes, yet with that look of singular intentness and concentration, was seeking no lover of her youth; though, indeed, she had had one once, and from time to time he did enter her revery, try as she would to prevent him. At that point, she always made the singular comment, “Gone past! I must be getting back to the beginning,” and, pressing back into her earliest consciousness, she would remount the flooding current of the years. Each time, she hoped to get further,—though remoter shapes were illusive, and, if approached too closely, vanished,—for, once embarked on her river of memories, the descent was relentlessly swift. How tantalizing that swiftness! However she yearned to linger, she was rushed along till, all too soon, she sailed into the common light of day. At that point, she always put about, and laboriously recommenced the ascent.

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