Note: I wrote this about the two sisters who were my neighbors when I first moved to the Shenandoah Valley.
The sisters were way up in their eighties if they were a day. During the two years I lived one farm down from them, I passed Marjory and Elizabeth most mornings on my way to work—Marjory, driving the tractor; Elizabeth, riding shotgun; heading out to tend the sheep, or plow a field, or mend a fence. Sometimes they’d wave and sometimes they wouldn’t; having on those days, I’m sure, more interesting things to pay attention to than me.
Marjory and Elizabeth ran sheep and cropped hay, grew an abundant garden, and kept their barns and outbuildings in fairly good repair. Their house, however, was somewhat less spiffy in appearance. I think the kindest way I could describe would be to say it looked “disheveled,” as—if the truth be told—would be the kindest way to describe Marjory and Elizabeth, as well. Our other neighbors seemed to think they were weird. I, however, thought they were wonderful. I saw the sisters as true mavericks; like myself, only more so.
I’ve always been drawn to happy, unconventional, un-helpless people. As I make my living telling stories on public radio, I told Marjory and Elizabeth I was a journalist and asked if I could record their story. Elizabeth is deaf, so Marjory shouts, and she shouted at me they’d have to think about it. After a couple of weeks, I checked back and they were still thinking. Six weeks later, however, there was a fortissimo message on my answering machine: “This is Marjory. If Martha still wants to hear our story, tell her to come on!”
It surprised me at first that the sisters weren’t better storytellers, more aware of the color the story of their lives would bring to this conventional old world. Perhaps they just weren’t interested enough in the past to talk about it in any detail—which would make them the only eighty-year-olds I’ve ever met who aren’t. “The past is over!” Marjory bellowed into my microphone. “Who wants to talk about the past?” But she did play a recording of Elizabeth and her singing hymns, and she let me leaf through dusty albums of grainy, fading photographs from which two dark-haired sisters in pretty hats and flowered frocks smiled out at me—Elizabeth, drop-dead gorgeous; Marjory, handsome and clearly nobody’s fool. It struck me that these were the photographs of women who could have gone anywhere, done anything that women were allowed to do in the mid-part of the last century; yet here they were, and here they obviously wanted to be. Even when talking into a microphone, they felt no need to explain or justify their odd course to the rest of us.
“Did you ever think about marrying?” I asked. They were, after all, of a generation of women who usually did.
Marjory hooted. “Awe, fellows asked us, but we didn’t pays ’em no mind. One came around just a couple of years ago, crying how his girlfriend had died and he was all alone and wouldn’t one of us marry him. Elizabeth told him to get a dog.”
I’ve moved a lot and had a lot of neighbors. Most of them have come and gone without leaving anything permanently useful inside me. But my life is richer and steadier for having lived for a while one farm over from Marjory and Elizabeth. I simply haven’t met many other women—many people, really—who are living as they truly wish to, without worrying at all about the sideways glances of the rest of us. Seeing Marjory and Elizabeth in the morning on my way to work would usually mark the beginning of a productive day. The sisters were good for my morale and for my focus. They made it easier not to sweat the small stuff, all those annoyances and frustrations that any day in any office will generate if you let it.
The only bumper sticker I’ve ever put on my truck is one my daughter, Lizzie, sent me years before I met the sisters. It read “Uppity Women Unite,” and when I put it on my truck’s bumper, I thought, “There! That’s who I am!”
After meeting Marjory and Elizabeth, however, I realized I am a mere wannabe in the uppity woman department. In hindsight, I think I should have asked Miss Lizzie to send me another bumper sticker to give to the sisters. It would have really belonged on their tractor.