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The Lone Pilgrim
I have been the house pet to several families: friendly, cheerful, good with children, and, most important, I have an acute sensitivity to the individual rhythms of family life. I blend in perfectly, without losing myself. A good houseguest is like an entertainer: Judy Garland, Alfred Hitchcock, Noel Coward. You know what a specific public wants-in my case, groups of two, with children.
For example, Paul and Vera Martin and their children, Ben and Violet. Paul and Vera are lawyers. Paul spends rainy Sundays fishing, and although Vera is a good cook, she is not fond of cleaning fish, so Paul's grandfather's knife is entrusted to me. I do the neat job of a surgeon. Vera, who likes precision, was so impressed by my initial performance that she allowed me into her kitchen, and we have been cooking together ever since. I knew by instinct where she would keep her pots, her baking dishes, her mixing bowls, her silverware. If you are interested in people, their domestic arrangements are of interest, too. That's the sort of student of human conduct I am.
In Maine, I visit Christopher and Jean Goodison and their little son jean Luc. The Goodisons are haphazard housekeepers, but I have their routine down pat. Their baby and I get along famously. We have a few moments together: a hailstorm he observed from my lap; a lesson in crawling; an afternoon with a kitten. The best way with babies, I have come to know, is quietude. Never approach first. Be casual. Pay minimal tactile attention, and never try to make them love you. You can sit on the same sofa with a child and do nothing more than clutch its little foot fromtime to time, and before long you will have that child on your lap.
The Goodisons will leave jean Luc with me when they go shopping, although ordinarily -- with ordinary mortals, that is-they are very protective of their son. When they return, I surprise them with a Lady Baltimore cake. Alone in their house, I admire their Shaker table, the fancy-back spoons I find mixed in with their spatulas, the dried-flower arrangements in their lusterware pitchers.
And there are others: the Hartwells in Boston, who live in a Spartan apartment decorated with city-planning. charts. The rigorous Mazzinas, who take me camping. The jerricks, who dress for dinner and bring you a breakfast tray on Sunday morning: coffee, toast, and a small vase with a single flower in it. My friends admire my charm, my sagacity, my propriety, and my positive talent for fitting in with the daily life of others while holding my own.
The adhesive tape on my mailbox reads "P. Rice." Paula Rice, that is, known to all as Polly. I am the charming girl illustrator. I did the pictures for Hector the Hero, The Pig Who Said Pneu, Fish with Feathers, Snow White and Rose Red, and The I Don't Care Papers-all children's books. Five feet four, reddish hair, brown eyes, long legs. At college, I studied medieval French literature, but kept a sketchbook with me at all times. During the summers, I studied calligraphy, papermaking, and bookbinding, and worked as an apprentice at the Lafayette Press, printers of fine editions. I make a living illustrating children's books, but to please myself I do etchings and ink drawings, which I often present to friends on special occasions -- marriages, anniversaries, birthdays.
On the side, I am a perfect houseguest. I have the temperament for it. Being a designer teaches you the habit of neatness, and an appreciation for a sense of order not your own. Being a houseguest allows you to fantasize with no one crowding you. After all, you are but a guest, an adornment. Your object is to give pleasure to your hosts. Lolling around in other people's houses allows your mind to drift. Inspired by my surroundings, I indulge myself in this lazy, scene-setting kind of thought. For example: a big yellow moon; the kitchen of an old house in an academic community. On the window ledge a jar of homemade jam, a pot of chives, a cutting of grape ivy in a cracked mug. A big dog sleeps in front of the stove. If you open the window, you feel the crisp October air. An apple pie or a loaf of bread is in the oven, and the house is warm with the scent of it. You wonder if it is time to deal with the last pumpkin, or to pickle the, basket of green tomatoes. In the study, your husband is drowsing over an elevating book, a university-press book in blue wrappers. You are wearing a corduroy skirt, a chic blouse, and a sweater of your husband's is tied around your shoulders. You are a woman contemplating seasonal change.
Or you go to the Martins on a rainy night. They occupy two floors of a Victorian brownstone, and as you contemplate the polished moldings and watch the rain through the leaded windows, you feel you are in England in the spring-in a little house in Devizes, say, or Bexhill-on-Sea. Your children have just been put to bed. You have finished reading a book on the life of Joseph Wright of Derby. There is a knock on the door. You start up. Your husband is away, and it is foggy outside. At the door is an old lover, someone who broke your heart, who is in England on business and has tracked you down.
Of course, the fact of the matter is that you live in a flat in New York. Your work is done at an oak drawing table, surrounded by pots of brushes and pens. In other people's houses your perspective widens. You contemplate the Martins' old Spode platter. You know the burn on their dining-room table -- the only flaw in its walnut surface -- is from Paul's cigar, placed there the night before Ben was born. These details feed the imagination.
Oh, domesticity! The wonder of dinner plates and cream pitchers. You know your friends by their ornaments. You want everything. If Mrs. A. has her mama's old jelly mold, you want one, too, and everything that goes with it -- the family, the tradition, the years of having jelly molded in it. We domestic sensualists live in a state of longing, no, matter how comfortable our own places are.The Lone Pilgrim. Copyright © by Laurie Colwin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.