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 had made me feel.
Here we were, a pair of accomplished women in the 21st century, interested enough in the same subject to have devoted a weekend to attending the same conference on it, but she had retrofitted me in a black dress and a white frilly maid’s cap.
We met at an out-of-state conference. 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 din 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. She deftly inserted her college alma mater and her husband and dead father’s occupations into the conversation. I’ve come to recognize this as a distinctly New England tendency.
“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, hoping to redirect the conversation.
“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?”
The penny dropped. Here we were, a pair of accomplished women in the 21st century, interested enough in the same subject to have devoted a weekend to attending the same conference on it, 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. The melting pot had never really melted.
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.
I am not proud to admit this, but for the next three days, I looked across those conference rooms and recast her in a Mayflower getup. More, I saw her as one of those flinty-eyed women who, appalled by another woman’s “other-ness,” lobbed unfounded accusations that ultimately sent her neighbors to the Salem gallows for witchcraft. I admit, it was a leap.
I am doubly ashamed to confess that, each time I tried to shush this inner game of historical tit for tat, I heard my inner 8-year-old say, “But she started it!” Now, nearly a decade later, 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.