Margaret Howe Freydberg of Chilmark was 104 in March and celebrated this month with the publication of her 11th book, Cruachan: The Battle Cry of Scottish Chieftains. It is a long short story, originally written many years ago, after her first and only visit to Scotland in the 1950s. Recently, she discovered her old writings while exploring a trunk. Reading over the manuscript, written so long ago as to be the product of a comparatively young woman, she realized the work called for a revision. And so, she emphasizes, the book is not just some old jottings found in a trunk. She has made it new.
Its heroine, in a sense, is her Scottish grandmother. Growing up, Peggy knew that her grandmother “wasn’t like other girls’ grandmothers,” she recalled the other day. She had a Scottish burr when she spoke, but it was more than that.
She was “a lavender-and-old-lace lady,” Peggy recalls in her book, “but beneath the taffeta and lace, Grandma was an unruly Scot. She loved a good joke, even an off-color one. She loved a wee drap of whiskey. She was strong-willed and opinionated . . . a spunky and assertive spirit who loved to read aloud from the poems of Robert Burns.”
Because her grandmother — for whom she was named — lived in Oak Park, Ill., and Peggy and her parents lived in Rochester, N.Y., their visiting time together was usually one month a year when her grandmother would come East. But during those visits, Grandma Scott made sure her granddaughter knew there was something Scottish in her, too, and she shouldn’t forget it.
It was inevitable that Peggy would visit Scotland. Her husband, Nick, joined her on that trip half a century ago. They started in London where they bought an MG, and set off on what Peggy remembers as a long, long road trip “and once we got to Scotland, that whole world seemed to be composed of sheep. The land was dotted with them like snow.”
In the new book, Peggy does, indeed, proudly discover her Scottishness.
Cruachan is decorated with pictures of Grandma Scott “with a fine-boned beak nose like a parrot’s” and of Peggy’s handsome grandfather and of the Scottish border town of Jedburgh, where her story is set. She evocatively describes her arrival there.
“The late sun was thin and silver as we approached the town and our introduction to it was a broad, lush sweep of jade green May meadow grass through which crossed the river. Then a gentle rise. And there, atop it, incredible, the gray lace arch on arch of a ruined abbey, open to the sky.”
Peggy Freydberg knew from the time she first held a crayon that she wanted to be a writer, but it took a long while. She came from a more scientific than literary background. Her father, Winthrop Keith Howe, was an inventor who designed the signal system for the New York city subway system and the Oakland Bay Bridge in California.
Her years notwithstanding, Peggy is still gracious and elegant and alert, and — fine storyteller that she is — recalled attending, as a young girl, the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. She was enthusiastic about going to a boarding school because, she said, “I assumed it would be all about writing home for cookies and talking in bed after lights out.” But she wasn’t really prepared to have to study.
“And so I was called to the dean’s office after six months and I was told I would be expelled if my marks didn’t improve. I’d been in a suite with four other girls, but they put me in a room all by myself and they said ‘Study.’ And I found that I loved to study. I’d sit in the library surrounded by all those books and it was wonderful. I did stay in school and on graduation day, girl after girl would be called up to get a prize, and I was sitting there wishing that I were going to get a prize and I was jealous. And then the dean said ‘And now it is my pride to announce we have a student we thought couldn’t possibly achieve what she wanted in school, but she did it. She passed every course with all her might and we are extraordinarily proud of Margaret Howe.’”
“The Masters’ slogan is ‘Do it with thy might’ and I still weep when I remember that day. I think it was the greatest moment of my life,” Peggy said.
Though she has more trouble walking and seeing than she had a decade ago, and she has more difficulty deciphering her own handwriting, Peggy Freydberg remembers both past and present clearly. She frets a little, as a writer who has always written her books by hand on a yellow pad, about the difficulty she is having with her penmanship. Because she wants to continue to tell stories, she is thinking about recording the poetry and prose that she would still like to write. “Do it with thy might” remains her motto.
Soon after her graduation from the Masters School, at a dance at Princeton University, she met Sam Sloan. “Oh, he was elegant.” It wasn’t long before they were married. Sam found a job as an editor at the New York publishing firm of Harcourt Brace.
“And we moved to Paris because Sam’s job was to find French authors whose work Harcourt might want to publish in English.”
They stayed in Paris two years and not long after their return to New York, Sam and two young fellow editors at Harcourt Brace decided they would form their own publishing company, Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
“And many of the authors they’d had at Harcourt Brace left to publish with them instead — people like Lewis Mumford and Louis Aragion and M.F.K. Fisher, Wallace Stegner and Erskine Caldwell and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.”
Peggy became a young mother of two children and a helpful wife to a successful publisher, but she had yet to do any writing herself. That would not happen until tragedy struck. After a fall in which his hip was fractured, Sam died during the hip operation. He was not yet 50-years-old.
At the time, the young Sloan family was living in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Among their neighbors was a man named Nicholas Freydberg. Two years later, Peggy and Nick were married and Peggy began work on her first novel, The Bride.
“Nick had a sailboat and we were out sailing and I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I write a book about the first day of a woman’s married life, and that was exactly what I did.”
Like Sam, Nick was in publishing, founding, with the late Arthur Rosenthal, Basic Books.
Every morning, Peggy busily wrote on her yellow pad. Her next book was The Lovely April.
Peggy and Nick’s first trip to the Vineyard was a visit to their lawyer’s home at East Meadow in Chilmark.
“We were sitting there at dusk and the breeze was blowing across the fields of honeysuckle and roses and Nick and I looked at each other and said ‘This is where we will retire.’”
So it was that in 1968, they moved to the Vineyard and Nick became involved in conservation and real estate while Peggy wrote until noon and then took a walk on the beach, often with a setter at her heels.
“Writing,” she told C.K. Wolfson in a Gazette interview in 2003, “is an absolute need for me — the need to express myself and express experience. Nick never understood why I needed to be published. He thought that the writing itself should be enough. Well, if I never thought I was going to be published, I’m sure I would write anyway, but I don’t think that the work you’ve done is ever complete until it’s been received.”
Nick died in 1994. At the time Peggy was at work on a memoir, Growing Up in Old Age. Near the end, the memoir reflects some of their life together in the house they built on Chilmark’s Stonewall Pond. It is there that Peggy still lives, accompanied by her 17-year-old white and black cat, Poossa.
The view out her living room window is of the pond and wild grasses. Ducks and geese pass by. Otters climb from the water and deer occasionally peer in her windows. Her two children Sam and Laidily, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren are occasional summer visitors. But even when she is alone, Peggy Freydberg smiles quite happily reminiscing about her long and fruitful life and remembering her writing of The Bride, The Lovely April, Catherine’s House, Winter Concert, The Consequences of Loving Syra, Growing Up in Old Age, and her three books of poetry; Evening on the Pond, In Other Words, and Waiting.
And now Cruachan, her Scottish remembrance, has been added to the list.