At first I thought it was just an eccentricity; when Vicki Starr drove, she only made right turns.
It was almost the first thing I learned about her, as the subject quickly came up in a conversation about following her car to get to her house. Steve and I were going to be living for a few months in a cabin on her property, until the house we were moving into was ready for us. It was the one occasion I knew her to compromise and turn left, and she did it more out of concern for our eighteen-year-old cat than for us; he had been on a three thousand mile road trip, and she wanted him to feel at home right away.
As I got to know her better this oddity made more sense. The reason why Vicki only turned right? Turning left was too stressful: cars behind her, cars coming toward her. For years her life included her struggle with a tyrannical form of cancer. Part of her arsenal of survival skills was to make sure that stress in any form had a minimal presence in her life, so it didn’t nibble away at her strength. She planned her errands so each was a right turn from the last, and the final run spun on a rotary and boomeranged her home. Vicki had many similar rules: she drove within a circle scribed by a radius of no more than 15 miles from her home, and not on any Interstate. It became clear, later, that she didn’t trust her reaction time or peripheral vision.
Vicki lived alone in a barn on her family’s Turkey Hill property. She oversaw the process of turning it into the most wonderful home I ever saw. The lower level guestroom, originally the stable, was still subdivided for horses with single beds in each stall. The stall Vicki dubbed the “matrimonial suite,” because it was large enough for a double bed, was originally the birthing stall. The upper floor with its cathedral ceiling was turned into a loft—or rather it morphed from its original use as a hayloft, one she played in as a girl. The main division of space was a double-sided bookshelf holding thousands of volumes which had left Cambridge years ago, traveled with her to homes in Rome and Chinon, France, before returning to Hingham—with nary a one lost along the way and a few more who joined the club. They were not noble first editions—everything from paperback mysteries to Quaker tomes to C.S. Lewis sci-fi. For some of the time I knew her, the bookshelf also housed a flying squirrel—dubbed Jerome after the saint—brought indoors by one of Vicki’s many cats one fall. Vicki fed him all winter and released him in the spring by opening all of the windows and firmly informing him that it was time. Her major work of art, after the barn, was her garden. She reclaimed the property from second-growth forest and shaped room after room in the landscape, in pitched battle with ticks and poison ivy.
Every day had a pattern which at first seemed to me arbitrary and rigid: weekday morning coffee and a muffin at the bagel shop, Saturday morning coffee and patisserie at the French bakery, Sunday lunch after church at the restaurant by the harbor for the scallop dish she loved. The same dish every Sunday. Vicki’s often-mentioned Virgo tendencies were not the only reason. Because she lived alone, there was nobody to make sure she hadn’t fallen and couldn’t get up. This predictable rota of habits was maintained so that people would notice and look for her if they didn’t see her.
Chief among her many habits was her attendance at church services. She sat at the aisle end of the front pew, pulpit side, for the 10am service. It was a perfect seat to glare at the young children coming in mid-service from Sunday school—any child younger than seventh grade wasn’t “interesting” to Vicki. Her grandmother built the church, and paid for most of the windows, so her sense of ownership came naturally. At her funeral, her request that a large cactus be placed in her seat was honored, and—why stop there?—it was also there the following Sunday. She attended every mid-week service, and especially relished the Bible study afterwards. If there is a typical Episcopalian (which I doubt), she wasn’t it. Vicki maintained, defiantly, that she was a “Liturgical Quaker,” her personal variation on her family’s connection with the Friends. She famously withdrew her Confirmation—writing a tart letter to the Bishop–when she didn’t like a church policy. She liked silence, and music. She listened for the Holy Spirit and applauded every sign of her. Vicki had a questing spirituality, and a list of tough questions she intended to ask God when she got to Heaven: why was He so cruel as to kill the Egyptian soldiers at the Red Sea? Did He really mean for the Israelites to put away their “foreign” wives and children? Why did all of the other animals have to drown during the flood? What did they do?
Last year, Vicki died as she lived—just the way she wanted to. In her last weeks, a lifelong friend said she looked forward to visiting Vicki in Heaven. Building junkie that she was, Vicki replied asking if her friend wanted to see the house she had designed for her eternal dwelling. She produced several beautifully crafted scale drawings and elevations, complete with garden design. The house design includes a music room, a dark room, a number of guest rooms, a swimming pool, (kitchen, bathrooms, catboxes…) and a tower with a picnic room at the top so all of her friends can enjoy the view. For me, the image of a woman with a terminal illness peacefully working out the plans for her heavenly mansion seems like a wise preparation for death. A spiritual practice.
Many times, Vicki would threaten to haunt us if she didn’t approve of something: if a hymn with the wrong hymn tune was played at her funeral, say. Turns out, she haunted some of us anyway. One of her great loves was the local community theatre. She volunteered there for years. After she died, when sweeping up the stage, someone brought the theatre director, a close friend of Vicki’s, a coin he found. “What’s this?” A French Franc. That stage had been swept hundreds of times since Vicki was last there, and France doesn’t even use Francs anymore. Did Vicki fish it out of her past in Chinon? And my experience: I was driving home from the Cape one Saturday, and passed a landscaping truck, noticing that it was called “Heavenly Gardeners.” That earned a smirk. The next car I saw had a vanity plate: Vicki. I was more than 15 miles from Hingham, but it felt like Vicki was greeting me in her wry way. Later that day I walked the dog through the cemetery, as I have daily for several years. I was thinking about Vicki, and pretty much dismissing the idea that she was hailing me from beyond the grave, when for the first time ever I saw a tombstone engraved with the words: He Yu. Hey you back at you, Vicki. There are other stories like this; believe them or don’t, as you wish.
I have copies of Vicki’s drawings in my office at church—all the help I’ll need to find her if I ever get to Heaven myself. I’ll just head for the tower. My guess is the road to her mansion will require only right turns.