I wrote about Claire on this blog, back in 2011, but that was more about her writing. Now I want to tell you about this woman, uniquely independent during a time when it was uncommon.
Look at those dimples, those eyebrows, those eyes. I loved her cheekbones, and even more, I loved the impishness of that smile. Even when I was young and she was elderly, I wanted to know the stories behind that smile, the secrets of a life obviously well lived. I wanted to know the joy the cheeky grin hinted at, the path she’d followed.
And yet, her joy in life was of a private sort, and shared with few.
In an age when women married young and lived subservient to their households, Claire didn’t.
Oh, she started out traditionally enough, working as a secretary. But then those long legs of hers took her down a different path.
In the 1940s she traveled the world as a classic pianist.
In the 1950s she returned home to deal with the death of her mother in a house fire, and to take over the care of her aging grandparents. This was still somewhat traditional for the time period, as she was a ‘spinster’.
But things changed. She began to withdraw from the world, and to pull the shawl of privacy over her shoulders. She gathered homeless animals around her. She took in an abused horse, and built a barn for it by herself, living in the barn with the horse until she could build a house. A cat with a gangrenous leg that had to be removed. An old cow that could no longer give milk, with jutting hipbones, left on the side of the road. Dogs dumped in the woods that surrounded her home. She kept them all.
I knew her then (twelve dogs, numerous cats, an ancient horse, and a fat cow at that point). Mom would take us kids out to visit her in the woods, with all those animals and the old growth trees and an outhouse that scared my youngest sister. Or maybe it was the bear that visited regularly. Or the violent dog named Lummox, who had to be chained to a tree when we visited. When Claire’s grandparents finally died, we thought she would move back out into the world. But instead she withdrew even more.
By the time I was in my twenties, and she was in her eighties, she no longer had a phone or a car, or any living relatives. I took over doing her grocery shopping for her, visiting once a week. It was her only contact with people. She chose the life of a hermit surrounded by her animals.
In an era where women were expected to raise a family, she lived alone. In an era where women were tentatively stepping into the work force, she stepped away.
You’d think, from what I just described, that she had maybe suffered some trauma. My mother thought Claire had been jilted at some point in the past, or possibly lost a fiancé in the war. I asked Claire that and she laughed her wonderful, free, musical laugh that I loved. No, she said, that’s just your mother trying to make me fit the stereotype. She said women weren’t allowed to be alone unless something awful happened. She said people thought a broken heart was the only reason a woman would be a hermit.
She said she just liked her own company. The woods. Her writing. Her beloved pets.
I have no photos of her from the time I knew her. But even in her eighties she was still tall and long-legged. The smile was still impish, still hinting at mischief. She wore heavy logging boots, jeans, a man’s flannel plaid shirt, and suspenders. She spent more time outside than in. She kept diaries, one of which I have. The one in which she wrote about the death of my father.
She chose the life she wanted to live, and stayed true to that path. It wasn’t the expected path for women in her lifetime. But then, she always was an independent woman.