I first wrote about Connie last January in the Oak Bluffs town column. Something unusual, actually supernatural, had happened between Connie and me, back in that frosty month, and I had to share it.
Constance MacAllister was a friend of mine, an older woman who lived with her daughter, Gwyn, also a close friend, in a drafty Victorian house only a few blocks away from me on Samoset avenue.
A charming recluse, Connie was made still more reclusive by various diagnoses, none of them hopeful. The previous summer she had basically been handed a death sentence, along with the usual promise of some ineffable small gain by the administration of harsh drugs. Connie wanted no truck with the chemo. She would spend her final months doing it her way. Her way included smoking contentedly and eating chocolate chip cookies, and whatever other lovely desserts came her way. And, man-oh-man, did they ever come her way. Either through the agency of her son, Matthew, in Rhode Island, or Gwyn who adored sweets herself, and other stray visitors, the MacAllister sideboard was invariably heaped high with brownies, cookies, chocolate kisses and a constant rotation of pies.
A winter visit to the MacAllisters evoked a sense of ceremony. You crossed the empty porch and opened a creaky set of double doors that brought you into a dim, Dickensian front parlor. In this icebox of a room, Gwyn stashed heaps of vintage clothes, old furniture, candlesticks, hardback books, artwork including a superb copy of The Girl With A Pearl Earring, and extra platters of pies and cookies.
Of course I entered with my dog who considered this his home away from home (and the better home at that, since varieties of meat could usually be found in the kitchen whenever he begged appealingly enough). After we tottered around the cold dark antechamber, we came upon the communicating door, knocked, opened it a foot, into which Huxley smashed with the energy of ten canine kings, to announce our arrival.
“Well, look who’s here!” Connie always said.
She was forever seated at the far end of the sofa at the far end of this interior parlor, a bay of windows shielded by tan damask curtains. She had always been slim, but her last year of illness made a petite 85-pound person out of her. Her skin was pale, with a porcelain light to it, eyes a vivid blue, hair white and sculpted around her face. She had a wardrobe of black or white slacks and a different, beautiful sweater every time I saw her. When I complimented her on each sweater, she always said, “Gwyn gave it to me.”
We were both minders of the English language, she as an editor, I as a writer, and our tastes constantly dovetailed. We both loved The New Yorker, Fawlty Towers and mystery novels, although Connie tended more toward the cosy and romantic, such as Martha Grimes and M.C. Beaton, while I leaned more toward hard-boiled crime shot straight from the hip, such as Lee Childs and Robert B. Parker. We shared a love of history. In January 2012, Connie was addicted to the BBC series, The Tudors; consequently I got her hooked on Philippa Gregory’s books about stories spun from the reign of Henry VIII.
The MacAllisters are WASPs with links to Scottish clans (forgive my stereotyping) so there is little chatter of a personal nature among them, and hugs are generally tolerated with arms held straight to their sides. Nonetheless, Connie, incandescent and quirky in her thinking, enjoyed occasional frank discussions about the drama in my life. A whirlwind romance? She found it sublime and amusing. The middle-aged version of a shotgun wedding? Why not? A summer in Paris with both accidental spouse and dog? I must send her updates! And finally, during the great unraveling in January 2011, followed by divorce in 2012, she helped me get through the ties that unbind and encouraged me to to view it all as the passing caravansary.
One early morning this past January, I was up early as usual, in bed with a still-snoozing dog, and I heard a faint knock at my door. I listened, frozen, unwilling to answer for man or beast. There was no repeat knock, and no telltale wheeze from the pneumatic door-pull of my neighbor, nor of the exterior door leading to the stairs.
Now I was awake, and so was Huxley. We bundled up and forced ourselves outside, stumbling down one street after the next. I lost track of our route, but suddenly we stood at Samoset and Kennebec, just below the candy-box shape of the Union Chapel. The streets were empty and palely-lit in the late dawn. To my left, I saw the flashing red lights of an ambulance.
Huxley and I hurried towards the lights, the frightening lights.
Later, after Connie recovered from a heart attack and a weekend-long coma, she said her only flash of memory from that entire ordeal was opening her eyes as she lay on the gurney to see me and Huxley gazing down at her.
Sometime later I told her about the knock on the door, and the unfathomable route that carried me to Samoset and Kennebec, my sense that her spirit had come to collect me. Ever a skeptic, she chuckled and said, “Next time I knock on your door and lead you to my house, can you pick up some things in town for me?”
Connie had another eight more months of a very full life on borrowed time. For me that meant more conversations seated at the other end of her sofa. It meant I had an opportunity to share my new novel with her, all the way up to chapter 17. Her eyesight was in decline, so I printed out the text in large type. She offered helpful advice and she liked the story, was engrossed by it. “I want to see what happens next,” she always said, which I translated as, “I want to live long enough to read more, to smoke more, to visit more with my loved ones, to see the full 12-show canon of Fawlty Towers one last time.”
About her smoking, no doctor would tell her to quit. For what? After her heart attack, she returned home nicotine free. She held off for a couple of days, then picked up a fresh cigarette. Even with that God-awful habit, her thoughts were original. “I’m not convinced tobacco is bad for us. I think about all those old Italian gentlemen smoking in the piazza. It hasn’t hurt them a bit!” she declared.
Who could be so churlish as to ask for statistics about life expectancy of Italian gentlemen smoking in the piazza? Not I.
My last visit with Connie, a few days before she died at the end of August, I kept her laughing with a story about how my mom and I had managed to climb on a West Tisbury bus heading in the wrong direction.
“I love your stories!” she declared, her lovely face aglow. Those were her last words to me.
“I love you!” I replied, breaking the MacAllister code of refraining from displays of affection.
I’m so glad I told her.
Gazette contributor Holly Nadler lives in Oak Bluffs.