Links in a Chain of History

by Steve Hartshorne on March 28, 2008

One of the remarkable things about Walking to Canterbury by Jerry Ellis is that while he meets people very briefly, he really captures their character. I guess it’s like that stranger on the train that you’ll never see again, to whom you tell things you’ve never told anyone before in your life.

One of the most appealing characters in the book is an elderly Irish woman he sits with on a visit to a monastery:

“She seemed to be around eighty years old, but her beauty had not faded. Indeed she was one of those rare persons who had aged with such grace that it was difficult not to stare at the accomplishment, though the painted eyebrows added carnival flare.

“My name is Maggie,’ she said. ‘My husband always sat with me before, but he died three months ago. A lovely man, a doctor. That’s why I’ve come to the monastery. To try to find some direction. I can’t make up my mind whether to stay at our home in London or return to Dublin to die.

“‘Oh not that I want to do it anytime soon, but you know as well as me the train is coming, darling. And there’s no slowing it down. The brakeman is as drunk as a young man at his wedding. Are you Catholic dear?’ I shook my head. ‘That’s a crying shame. You have the eyes of a good Catholic. Warm and strong and you’ve suffered your share. Oh, but I see a wee bit of the Devil’s brother dancing there as well, don’t I, darling? Never mind, we all have our fires to contain.’”

Maggie holds his hands and tells him she has held the hands of the pope himself and John F. Kennedy.

“‘The pope, bless him, was easy to get to because I was in the right line. But President Kennedy was a slippery catch. It was Dublin, darling, and the place was so packed that air itself was getting the life squeezed right out of it. There I was, tiny me, no taller than a weed, with everybody’s elbows banging my ears.

“‘But I had two American flags, and you know what I did? I did right the opposite of all those around me. They waved their flags up and down, but I waved mine sideways with the force of a gale. Darling, I was a woman on a mission, and I didn’t stop waving those Stars and Stripes till the president himself made his way through the sea of Irishmen to pick me from the crowd. When he did, I dropped the flags and grabbed both his handsome hands.

“‘He wasn’t just a man. He was a legend, and right then and there I became part of it in my own small way. Now that legend holds your hands. We’re links in a chain of history, tragic as it turned out to be for him and his poor family and the rest of us who cared.’

“I placed my hand atop hers and gave a quick squeeze. ‘You’re a real fireball,’ I said. ‘You must inspire a lot of younger women.’

“‘Oh, they’re too busy to notice an old rag like me.’ She almost blushed, which made her all the more endearing. ‘But I understand. When I was their age, I couldn’t see the train coming either. Better that they don’t, really.’”

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