In Memoriam: One Real Pip

The auctioneers sold all of Maxine Smiley's things. The dry sink, the cherry chest of drawers, the round table with the Lazy Susan that sat on the porch: all of them belong to someone else now. At least the house went to a family, people with children who are going to build something bigger up the hill, where the stream starts. The oil painting of the swamp with that strange yellow electrical-storm light is now over the sideboard in our dining room. Someone else bid for me. I'll never enter that house again.

One woman of 86, who said matter-of-factly last Christmas, her husband and her sisters and all her friends gone, "I'm ready." Buried on Sept. 10, on the last everyday morning of the rest of our lives. Terrorists marked the end of an era, but for me an era had already ended when I realized she would never again tell me she liked my hair better the other way. Why were the pews filled with middle-aged women, their faces crumpled and wet as the tissues in their fists? She seemed as good a candidate for immortality as anyone we'd ever known, with that strong character, that unflinching eye, those uncompromising opinions. You want role models? Oh, we had one.

"She was a pip," someone said after seeing the obituary in the local paper. That's code. It means direct, difficult, not to be trifled with: it's used mainly for women, in the same way that prickly is. When we bought the house next door, our daughter and Mrs. Smiley became two pips in a pod. We cut a hole in the hedge so the little girl could go on her own to visit the old woman. "If I was mad at my mom and dad I would go to her," Maria wrote in an essay once, entitled "My Best Friend." Both of them were outspoken and stubborn. "It's time for you to go home now," Mrs. Smiley would say if Maria was becoming restive, and suddenly I would see a small figure flouncing across the lawn, skirts and curls in high dudgeon. "Mrs. Smiley is crabby!" she would growl, and bang the door.

In all the years I knew her I never told her I loved her, and I rarely called her by her first name. I suspect that was fine by her. I think she believed all the fashionable mewling about feelings and all the casual informality was a cheap and easy substitute for something more difficult and more dignified. She did not pour out her heart, even over her habitual gin martini. She would have considered this tiresome, although her life story was not. She left a small town to go to Kansas City and become a nurse, then worked as one of the first flight attendants for TWA, went into the Army during World War II and spent several years of her middle age living on a sailboat. Amid all of this she fell in love with a married man, and later she married him herself. She was not ashamed of this, but neither was she casual about it. In his eulogy her nephew said, "During the years before her marriage was approved by church authorities, she played strictly by the rules, attending mass every Sunday but never receiving communion."

We shared recipes, not secrets or confidences. She was a woman who would eat alone on a television tray and have grilled salmon with a caper cream sauce and a Greek salad, and who would say, as we left a restaurant, "We could have done better at home." The only times I've ever taken a table in the smoking section were when we dined together; she refused to give up cigarettes, and if you didn't like it you didn't have to come around. She read omnivorously and self-diagnosed, mostly correctly, sometimes driving the doctors mad. If you complained about the development, the covey of ersatz colonials, that had grown up around her barn, she would shrug. "People have to live somewhere," she said.

She was a character; that's code, too. It sometimes seems that in the name of psychological health or peaceful coexistence the people of this country have eliminated all the sharp elbows and hard edges from their personalities. Plain-vanilla politicians, leaders who seem less like Teddy Roosevelt than Ken dolls. From time to time someone bewails the lackluster characters moving like sleepwalkers through modern novels. But perhaps writers are only reflecting what they see around them, people who set their barometer to the comfort level of the greatest number of bystanders. Maybe the men and women of Dickens and Twain leap off the page because the men and women of their times did the same.

Maybe a nation as various as this one can manage only so much diversity at a time. When Mrs. Smiley was growing up in Beattie, Kans., throwing such a tantrum once that her father dunked her headfirst into a rain barrel to cool her off, there wasn't much of what we mean by that term today. People who were not alike tended to live separately. The great diversity was in personality, the flagrant flirts, the solemn parsons, the wise women, the scolds.

Today, of course, even in some small towns there are Latinos and lesbian couples, interracial marriages, kids who can trace their lineage through Dublin, Moscow and Milan. So colorful, except for character. The mute suburban housewives of "The Feminine Mystique" burst forth from their cable-knit prison to become surprisingly well behaved, knowing that not suffering fools gladly would be a real handicap in the world of work. Not suffering fools was one of Mrs. Smiley's hobbies. Two world wars, a depression and all the hand grenades life throws at you: I guess the women of that now evaporating generation figured they had nothing to lose by being their authentic selves.

Mrs. Smiley told me once that when she first started flying cross-country they would stop half a dozen times to refuel, and there were always passengers who got off and didn't get back on. The story was as much about the woman who stayed aloft as about the people who couldn't manage it. What was it they said about the old stars in "Sunset Boulevard"? "They had faces." And strong wills. And long memories. And guts. "Do NOT use flavored yogurt. PLAIN," says the handwritten blueberry-muffin recipe she gave me. Yes, ma'am. Whatever you say.

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