Margaret Atwood – Young Babes and Old Babes

Margaret Atwood – Young Babes and Old Babes

Margaret Atwood, now eighty-three, recently published a story, “Babes in the Wood” (in a book of the same name), about two old women staying at an old family cabin on a lake, far into the woods.  It’s a good story about sisters and memory and the limits of things; I recommend it.

Mostly, though, it reminded me of another excellent Atwood story, “Death by Landscape,” which Atwood wrote in her younger days and about very much younger people.  Although the story is framed by an elderly woman (Lois) looking at artists’ renditions of the Canadian wilderness on her living room wall, it is about two teen-age girls, who go to camp together in the summer.  On their last outing, the two good friends take a walk to an overhanging cliff, and while on a “bathroom break,” one of the girls (Lucy) disappears, never to be seen again.  The woods are combed by men and dogs, theories abound, and the camp director – desperate to find a scapegoat and save the reputation of her camp – even insinuates that the other young girl (the old woman of the frame of the story) might have had something to do with it.  Even into her old age, Lois surrounds herself by pictures of the Canadian wilderness.  All her life she has felt an empty space, an “echo” where her friend Lucy used to be.  Lois imagines her turned into one of the trees in the landscape, for what could have happened to her?  She lives in the empty space in Lois’s mind and in the landscapes on the wall:

Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is.  She is in Lois’s apartment, in the holes that open inward on the wall, not like windows but like doors.  She is here.  She is entirely alive.

In “Old Babes in the Woods,” two sisters at the old family lake cabin are also preoccupied with people long gone. They have come even though they really can’t handle it – water must be pumped, firewood scrounged, and laundry drying (“toasting”) on the dock falls into the water and must be retrieved.  Wading in the water, trying to pick up clothes with her toes, Nell says to herself: “You old ninny, you really shouldn’t be doing this… One of these days you’ll break your neck.”

Unlike the young girls in the wilderness, the old women in “Old Babes” mostly know how the story comes out.  Parents are gone; spouses deceased.  They are left with ageing bodies in a disintegrating cabin – and everywhere there are reminders of the life they lived and the people they lived it with.  And, unlike the earlier story, there are messages that these people have left behind.  There are notes in the cookbook and on the kitchen walls in their mother’s handwriting: When feeling down in the dump – go for a brisk walk!  These many years later, her daughter reminds herself that she is no longer capable of a brisk walk.  Nell finds a note that her husband folded up with the mosquito netting for the instruction of future occupants.  The messages are both about continuity and  about inevitable change.  The husband knew that he might not be the next one to use the netting.  He is gone and Nell treasures the note from the past – “a cryptic message from the dead.”

There is no mystery in the second story – or the only mystery is time and what it brings.  The two old ladies watch the sunset every night because it is the “best way of predicting the next day’s weather…That plus the barometer, though the barometer isn’t much help because it almost always says “Change.”  And change is what always happens, and yet it surprises us. The two sisters find themselves wondering why the cabin is not designed better for old age:

“He [their father] didn’t intend to get old,” Nell says.

“Yeah, that was a fucking surprise,” Lizzie says.

Well, yes, it is a fucking surprise.  But here we are.  We may not be trying to vacation in an old cabin with minimal conveniences, but we are trying to live in a world that has gone on without us.  Mysteries, for the most part, have been resolved.  We know whether there was a happily ever after or not; we (generally) know how we ended up.  Most of us are not still looking for missing friends in landscapes, partly because missing friends have a way of showing up on Facebook.  But while there may be no mysteries, we are still mystified:  How did we get old?

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