Special Guest post, with permission from Aine Greaney
I watched the woman cross at the traffic lights and start walking up my side of the street. She disappeared among strolling tourists, but then, there she was again. My hackles rose in recognition, and I recalled something Maya Angelou once said: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Eight years after my first and only encounter with that woman, I remembered in an instant how she made me feel.
We met at an out-of-state conference and retreat. The first day there, I played hooky from the late afternoon sessions to hang out on the conference center porch. It turned out that lots of us had the same idea, so by five o’clock, the rocking chairs were full and the ocean-front porch loud with laughter.
Some veteran attendees produced illicit bottles of wine (the conference center had a nudge-wink no-alcohol policy), and we passed around plastic cups. One of my porch mates turned to me suddenly and said, “Wait! Didn’t you say you live in the Boston area? I just met someone else from there. Let me introduce you.”
And there she was: A petite woman with fine, pretty features.
Once introduced, we exchanged small talk.
“It sounds like you’re from Ireland?” she asked.
“When I was a child, we had a maid from Ireland. She lived up in our attic.”
“Good enough worker, but only when she felt like it.” (By now, the woman who had introduced us, embarrassed, had tiptoed away.)
“So are you enjoying the conference?” I asked.
“I can’t remember her name now, the Irish girl.” A dismissive hand flap. “Brigid or something.”
“What sessions have you tak—”
“—My mother didn’t like her, that maid.” Then, with a sniff: “When did you come?”
“Friday night. It was easier to just driv—”
“—No, I mean to this country. Do you work?”
Ah. The penny dropped. Here we were, a pair of women at the same summertime conference, but she had retrofitted me in a black dress and a white frilly maid’s cap. For this woman, our shared New England history wasn’t one.
I am not proud to admit this, but for the next three days, I looked across that porch and those conference rooms where I grouped her with all of those women, past and present, and in all corners of the world, who blithely let other women fetch and carry and clean and nanny without ever wondering what that servant woman’s experience is actually like. In their worlds, this is the inherited and immutable order of things that neither history nor fortune nor happenstance can or should reverse or change.
Now, eight years on, less than a hundred feet of city sidewalk stretched between us. Her hair had grayed (mine, too), and she was even more petite than I remembered.
We were almost shoulder to shoulder, close enough for me to stop and reacquaint. Close enough for her to remember and be mortified. Close enough to give us both a second chance.
Our eyes met. She looked puzzled, then annoyed at this stranger staring at her in the street.
We both rushed on.
Once, I read a veterinarian study in which animal-behaviorists placed 30 randomly selected cats in a room. Some cats instantly clawed and hissed at each other. Others instantly bonded or at least sniffed each other out. There had been no predictors or patterns for which some felines would fight and which would bond.
Since that sidewalk afternoon with that woman from my past, I’ve been wondering just how this works for humans, too. What is it that auto repels us from or aligns us with each other? Is it some secret language between our souls? Or, à la Maya Angelou, is it those careless gestures or words that, unknown to us, wound or diminish the other person so that, years later, this diminishment becomes our dominant memory of the encounter? Or is it our stubborn divisions of social class or race or ethnicity. Are some of us permanently separated by our dueling histories and stories?
Sometimes, I’ve tried to rewrite our story and our two New England afternoons. Sad to say, I have failed to come up with a kinder version—one that reduces or mitigates what each of us women have lost.
If it’s all or mostly down to history, then I think it’s not just our family narratives or chronologies that set us apart or at odds.
No. It’s how we permanently typecast others in our version of their history.
Aine Greaney is an Irish-born writer living in the Boston area. In addition to her five books, her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Salon, WBUR/Cognoscenti, The Boston Globe Magazine, Edutopia and other online and print publications. She has also led workshops and presented at national and regional conferences.