|About Constance Crawford|
Local author Constance Crawford, 67, is like a modern mountain woman with a knack for the written word. She always packs her computer journal when she heads for the Sierra Nevada.
She grew up in the mountains of Southern California and has always been a lover of nature. For Crawford, then, it is almost natural to write a story that takes place in the mountains. Indeed mountains, from Mount Olympus to Mount Sinai, have awesome literary and symbolic merit. But for Crawford the mountains are a place to just be.
Her story, "Don't Bother the Nice Lady" is about a Mrs. Burroughs who experiences a slice of summer life in the mountains. In fact, the idea for the story evolved from Crawford's journal entry this summer.
"Something similar happened to me one day in the mountains. When I go to the mountains, I always take my computer and write."
Mrs. Burroughs wants to capture in watercolor the fleeting moments she experiences and the two little boys she meets. She tries to paint but fails.
"Tackling a creative project is always a risk," Crawford said. "Writing is what I do. It is a constant struggle."
Although the fiction story is loosely autobiographical, Crawford said she is not a Mrs. Burroughs.
"She's a little older than I am, a little more rusty and remote. She's a lonely woman," Crawford said.
Crawford said the stories of Anton Chekhov influenced the character development of Mrs. Burroughs.
"Chekhov's characters just come right in. So I decided that I'm just going to have this woman walk in. Here she is in the mountains. For better or for worse," Crawford said.
Every Monday, Crawford, who has a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Stanford, gathers with a small group of writers--all women--for weekly book chats and progress reports on the latest literary projects.
"I always knew that I wanted to write. It's my life's work," Crawford said. "I don't get published a great deal, but it certainly is the most important thing to me."
One of Crawford's stories, "The Muse of Menus" was published in 1988. She is currently working on a novel about families getting older, siblings growing up and mental illness.
"Don't bother the nice lady"by Constance Crawford
Along the shore of a small mountain lake a woman with a cane picked her way as though she feared to break her long old bones. She was a Mrs. Burroughs who came every summer to paint the wildflowers of the high Sierra meadows. She wore what she'd always worn in the mountains, tattered jodhpurs and ancient boots that laced to the middle of her calves. Slowly she advanced toward the damp ground at the lake's end where, in good years, the wild irises made a wash of lavender against the yellow-green of the short, spiky marsh grass. The trail ended at the edge of this meadow, and there she stopped to look, walked forward, stopped again. She saw that it was not a good year for irises. The blossoms of the few clumps were blanched, wind-tattered. Not one was worth trying to paint. Besides, the ground would be too damp to sit on for the forty-flve minutes it would take her to make one of her small paintings. But still, she hesitated, looking about her. A fine scene, even without the irises. There was a group of gnarled whitebark pines beyond the meadow. She knew the trees well, for, years ago, she had taken her own picture against their trunks, the camera shutter on time-release, to prove to herself that her then-new life as a widow might be worth living.
Mrs. Burroughs crossed toward the trees, then saw there was a small domed tent in their shelter. She turned away decisively, retraced her steps through the iris beds, and then a short distance back along the rocky shore-side trail, where she'd seen another possible subject, a clump of full-bloom penstemon growing from a crevice in an enormous granite slab, a few feet above the water. It would have to do--though the plants were the magenta variety, not the rarer and more beautiful blue--for the afternoon was getting on. Wonderful light now slanted into the rock crevice, but later, soon, the light would become too fast-changing, impossible to capture.
Mrs. Burroughs laid down her pack and cane. Careful of her lame knee, she eased to sitting, then lowered herself down the sloping granite to scoop a Sierra Club cupful of painting water, climbed back and settled, groaning a little, with her smeared box of paints beside her, and the block of water color paper on her knee. She wasn't sure she had the energy to capture the difflcult angles in the rock, but she'd try.
She hadn't worked long when, from the direction of the hidden tent across the meadow, two small figures darted into sight. Two little boys, blond brothers in identical green bathing suits, came running barefooted across the iris fleld. The big brother flrst and then the little one plunged into the reedy shallows of the lake, and splashed in Mrs. Burroughs' direction. Annoyed at the distraction, she nevertheless watched the boys, judging they were too young to be by themselves, perhaps six and four years old. If they went too deep into the water, there was no adult except herself to rescue them. And then she saw that there was a man watching from the opposite shore, forty or flfty yards away, still too far if the boys should get into trouble, she thought. The man wore what at that distance looked like a big peaked sun hat of straw, faintly ridiculous, not a usual mountain hat for a man. Briefly the boys disappeared behind some pines, then burst into sight again, galloping through the water directly below. She saw the tops of their identical blonde heads, clipped into what was called a butch in her day. Then the older boy, always in the lead, clambered on his tough little wild-creature feet, straight up the granite slope on which Mrs. Burroughs sat.
"Hello," she said, "Don't step on the flowers."
"Hello," the boy barely breathed at her, keeping his head down as he passed. How do their feet stand it, she wondered, watching how carelessly he placed them, how his little toes splayed and gripped the rough, gravelly rock.
"Wait for me," the younger boy panted, scrambling up behind. But this one paused before Mrs. Burroughs and stared at her paintbox. She glimpsed a broadfeatured smear of face, coarse nose, pale eyes too close together, thin lips, not a pretty child.
Mrs. Burroughs asked the automatic, adult questions, "Is that your daddy over there? Are you camping?" The boys, in motion again, answered in a breathless tumble of words from behind her shoulder, "Camping . . . dad . . . my mom's at work," the essential facts in their child-world.
Across the trail they ran and up the steep face of rock on the hillside above. The little boy couldn't quite make it. "Wait for me," he panted again, not afraid, just slower, less agile. Mrs. Burroughs remembered pleading with her sisters to wait. She herself had been the youngest child.
"Be careful now," warned Mrs. Burroughs. "Don't fall."
The man across the lake called to his boys, "Don't bother the nice lady." He did not shout; his pleasant voice carried clearly across the water.
"They aren't bothering me," answered Mrs. Burroughs, not raising her voice as much as aiming it directly toward the man, all that was necessary in the clear mountain air. "They are nice boys," she added.
"Thank you for saying so," he said. She had the sensation of liking this man in the hayseed hat; he was more civil, more refined than she had expected. Why the surprise? The little boys, though so well turned out, so normal a big-and-little brother, so classic and clean, their hair so short, yes, they were nice boys, but still the glimpse of the little one's face had seemed common to her, and the big one's would be the same. It was the kind of face she'd seen in grammar school, in the Depression, on the boys of the okie family, wandering sharecroppers. When one of them sat in the desk next to hers he'd had a bad smell.
Mrs. Burroughs saw it was a class judgement she had made of the little boys in bathing suits.
Meanwhile the brothers had given up trying to climb the rock face. They plunged down to the shore again and ran, knee deep, top speed, back toward their father, no hesitation from pain or caution or fear of harm.
To make amends Mrs. Burroughs called to the man in the big hat, "I'm amazed how tough their feet are. They must go barefoot all the time."
"You can't believe," he said, "how hard it was to keep their shoes on just to hike up here."
Now the boys were near the rock on which he sat. She heard the words "nice lady" again, the father questioning them or maybe it was one of the boys who said something about the nice lady. My persona in this place, thought Mrs. Burroughs. The nice lady painting a little picture. But her brush was still, the paints in the box drying.
The man had a rope and some sort of bucket. He told the boys he was getting water. "Will you help me?" But they were climbing along the bleached trunk of a fallen tree which made a bridge a few feet off the ground. The little boy seemed stuck and for the first time Mrs. Burroughs heard a bit of fear in his voice, a call for help. Neither brother nor father did anything for him, and the little boy solved whatever dilemma it was by himself.
She turned back to her painting where she was struggling to capture the sharp granite lip that jutted out above the penstemon. Every time she looked up again the swift-moving little boys were in a different place. Mrs Burroughs thought of her father and his love of children, "young animals," he'd call them, admiringly, and that's what these were, glorious common young animals in the fresh water, wind and light.
Their father was still fiddling with his rope, calmly letting the bucket down, up. He did not instruct the boys much, there was no word of caution.
What about the mother who was working? Were they divorced, Mrs. Burroughs wondered. Had the father brought the sons up here on vacation, offering what he still could, for a few days? Or was the mother working nearby--Mrs. Burroughs imagined the tired ordinary blonde woman as a clerk at the resort across the pass or in the casinos at Tahoe or bookkeeping in a dingy office in Markleeville. And would she park her car at the trailhead in the evening, hike up for supper with her family? It was possible, Mrs. Burroughs thought, for the trail that caused her old bones such effort and pain, the young could take at a bound. She hoped that was it: the mother hiked out each day, drove to her job, came back at night--soon now, for it was after six and the light was long, golden and beautiful--and after supper the darkness would come down and she'd snuggle with her man in the sleeping bag, look at the stars, the boys sound asleep in the little dome tent.
Mrs. Burroughs made a few desultory strokes of her brush, looked up again and the man and boys had vanished. Gone, so quickly. She felt a pang, missing them. She could not hear their voices, though over by the tent she thought she saw a towel hanging at a different angle than before.
Nice lady, she thought. Not so nice. She'd driven those boys away with her fuddy-duddy cautions. She'd shrunk from even showing them her painting, those coarse young harum-scarum boy animals who would not care about her no matter what she did. But the man's voice echoed pleasantly in her memory and she was glad she'd at least said the right thing about his sons.
Later, when she had admitted to herself what she'd suspected from the first--that today, now, the subject she'd chosen was too much for her--she gave up on the painting. But though her bones ached, she still sat, knowing that she must not let herself give up everything. She took out a pencil and wrote across the picture's upper corner, "Painter cannot render this." Painter. She liked the feeling this gave her, and she went on writing, every which way across the dry painted strokes, "Granite, red in it," and "Shadow," and "Late sunlight under rock, sharp edge toward the painter. Difficult." "Roots over stones," she wrote and let the pencil draw the little circles that made stones there. Then it made crude shapes that brought leaves into the green blotch below her gray rock. Her old woman's effort and caution and fear of failure fell away as she marked up the painting. She was ruthless. The soft lead bit gratifyingly into the rough paper. She took her brush, made crude bluish wedges over the words, "water of Frog Lake" and the water finally seemed to lap against the stones. She could use all she had, everything.
Finally, on the diagonal, across the painted rock, the pencil drew an arrow pointing up, off the top of the paper, right toward the place where the man had got his water and where she'd last seen the little brother clinging, froglike, to the bleached white wood of the fallen tree. Along the arrow she wrote, "Two little blond boys, green bathing suits, dad in big hat way across, out of this frame, but giving the painter cheer."
Born of the Depression and falling prey to the dissatisfactions that often accompany growing old and living alone, the narrator of this story tries to control her world by capturing it on canvas. Some moments, however, defy capture, as "Don't Bother the Nice Lady" richly reveals.
Despite an excellent grasp of mood and detail, initially I had concern that the author of "Don't Bother the Nice Lady" would sink into the sentimentality that plagues its subject--landscape painting. However, I was pleasantly surprised by its strong conclusion, which so aptly describes the frustration every artist must feel as he struggles to confront his limitations within his medium.
One of the many pleasures of this masterful story is its honesty--the clean word choice, unpretentious comments on art, and the main character's clear-eyed assessments of her projects. The plot builds with clever subtlety as we watch small events fuel an artist's work, and see the daily victories of will needed to survive a loss. Quietly, with wonderful timing, the author leads us to jubilance.