The True Story of Arbutus and Sea Gull

The True Story of Arbutus and Sea Gull

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The True Story of Arbutus
and Sea Gull

My grandmother had an enemy named Mrs. Wilcox. Grandma and Mrs. Wilcox moved as brides into next-door houses on the sleepy elm-roofed Main Street of the tiny town in which they were to live out their lives. I don’t know what started the war—that was long before my day—and I don’t think that by the time I came along, over 30 years later, they remembered themselves what started it. But it was still being waged bitterly.

Make no mistake. This was no polite sparring match. This was war between ladies, which is total war. Nothing in town escaped repercussion. The 300-year-old church, which had lived through the Revolution, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, almost went down when Grandma and Mrs. Wilcox fought the Battle of the Ladies’ Aid. Grandma won that engagement, but it was a hollow victory. Mrs. Wilcox, since she couldn’t be president, resigned from the Aid in a huff, and what’s the fun of running a thing if you can’t force your mortal enemy to “eat crow”?

Mrs. Wilcox won the Battle of the Public Library, getting her niece Gertrude appointed librarian instead of my Aunt Phyllis. The day Gertrude took over was the day Grandma stopped reading library books— “filthy germ things” they’d become overnight—and started buying her own.

The Battle of the High School was a draw. The principal got a better job and left before Mrs. Wilcox succeeded in having him ousted, or Grandma in having him given life tenure in office.

In addition to these major engagements, there was constant sallying and sniping back of the main line of fire. When, as children, we visited my grandmother, part of the fun was making faces at Mrs. Wilcox’s impossible grandchildren—nearly as impossible as we were, I now see—and stealing grapes off the Wilcox side of the fence between the gardens. We chased the Wilcox hens, too, and put percussion caps, saved from July 4th, on the rails of the trolley line right in front of the Wilcox house, in the pleasant hope that when the trolley went by, the explosion— actually a negligible affair—would scare Mrs. Wilcox into fits.

One banner day, we put a snake into the Wilcox rain barrel. My grandmother made token protests, but we sensed tacit sympathy, so different from what lay back of my mother’s no’s, and went merrily on with our career of brattishness. If any child of mine . . . but that’s another story.

Don’t think for a minute that this was a one-sided campaign. Mrs. Wilcox had grandchildren, too, remember, more and tougher and smarter grandchildren than my grandmother had. Grandma didn’t get off scot free. She had skunks introduced into her cellar. On Halloween all loose forgotten objects, such as garden furniture, miraculously flew to the ridgepole of the barn, whence they had to be lowered by strong men, hired at exorbitant day rates.

Never a windy washday went by but what the clothesline mysteriously broke, so that the sheets walloped around in the dirt and had to be done over. Some of these occurrences may have been acts of God, but the Wilcox grandchildren always got the credit.

I don’t know how Grandma could have borne her troubles if it hadn’t been for the household page of her daily Boston newspaper.

This household page was a wonderful institution. Besides the usual cooking hints and cleaning advice, it had a department composed of letters from readers to each other. The idea was that if you had a problem—or even only some steam to blow off—you wrote a letter to the paper, signing some fancy name like Arbutus. That was Grandma’s pen name. Then some of the other ladies who had the same problem wrote back and told you what they had done about it, signing themselves One Who Knows or Xanthipee, or whatever. Very often, the problem disposed of, you kept on for years writing to each other through the columns of the paper, telling each other about your children and your canning and your new dining room suite.

That’s what happened to Grandma. She and a woman called Sea Gull corresponded for a quarter of a century, and Grandma told Sea Gull things that she never breathed to another soul—things like the time she hoped that she was going to have another baby but didn’t, and the time my Uncle Steve got you-know-what in his hair in school and how humiliated she was, although she got rid of them before anyone in town guessed. Sea Gull was Grandma’s true bosom friend.

When I was about 16, Mrs. Wilcox died. In a small town, no matter how much you have hated your next-door neighbor, it is only common decency to run over and see what practical service you can do the bereaved.

Grandma, neat in a percale apron to show that she meant what she said about being put to work, crossed the two lawns to the Wilcox house, where the Wilcox daughters set her to cleaning the already immaculate front parlor for the funeral. And there on the parlor table in the place of honor was a huge scrapbook, and in the scrapbook, pasted neatly in parallel columns, were her letters to Sea Gull over the years and Sea Gull’s letters to her. Grandma’s worst enemy had been her best friend.

That was the only time I remembered seeing my grandmother cry. I didn’t know then exactly what she was crying about, but I do now. She was crying for all the wasted years that could never be salvaged. Then I was impressed only by the tears, and they made me remember that day worthier of remembrance than a woman’s tears. That was the day when I first began to suspect what
I now believe with all my heart, and if ever I have to stop believing it, I want to stop living. It is this:

People may seem to be perfectly impossible. They may seem to be mean and small and sly. But if you will take 10 paces to the left and look again with the light falling at a different angle, very likely you will see that they are generous and warm and kind. It all depends. It all depends on the point from which you’re seeing them.

Louise Dickinson Rich

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