The High Colonic
Some years ago I bought a four-volume boxed set of hardcover books published by Harvard University Press. The books were on a remaindered table; they were cheap and were purported to be the condensed version of thirty-two years' worth of diaries written by an eccentric in Boston. The fellow was originally from Georgia, and he may have been independently wealthy, or if not exactly so, sufficiently well-off to keep him from having to work for a living. As my title suggests, this man believed in the health benefits of the High Colonic, popular in the 'Thirties (and before then, I am sure), which essentially lauds the value of the daily cleansing of the colon by enema, using large amounts of water and going high up into the colon.
Other practices that he adhered to included hiring persons from the community to read to him, often each day. I suppose it was books, but also newspapers and magazines, certainly, and he made notes, recording his thoughts about what was read to him. I found his writing quite absorbing, interesting and well-written, and so I read all four of the volumes. I can hardly begin to tell you, the reader, all that he had to say, but for purposes of this narrative, I will mention one event that sticks in my mind. And it was this.
He was married (although later, his high colonic doctor ran off with his wife) and he had the belief that women were most assuredly the weaker sex, and that applied definitely and specifically to his wife. Women were not tough enough, too puny ('puny' is my word, however.) As a remedy for this weakness, he believed he must beat his wife daily, beat her in the shins, with a thick, old-fashioned Coke bottle, the kind no longer seen today. It never sounded to me like an appropriate thing to do, and his wife apparently did not appreciate his efforts, but for some reason, she tolerated his behavior for some time, for he banged on her shins for years. I always remembered this abuse above all else from this man's extensive writings.
Years later I was to spend a few weeks at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. It is a retreat for artists and for writers such as myself. When I was younger, I was invited there several times, but today I don't think I could get in, what with the great number of writers seeking admission now. I feel certain this is true, because the last time I applied, I was turned away.
It was at one of my MacDowell stays that I got to know a woman who wrote historical fiction. She was quite successful in getting her books published. I was about thirty at the time, and I suspect she was crowding sixty. I would say her name was Marian, but it could have been Mary, not that it matters to what I have to say.
There were several round tables in the dining hall at MacDowell, with half a dozen or more persons seated at each table. Three tables were set up for dining, and during my four-week stay, I sat at a table with Marian (or Mary) more than once. She was blonde, but could have been wearing a wig; she had a round, fleshy face, to which she applied heavy make-up and bright-red lipstick. It was a friendly face, though, and she laughed a lot and often had quite a bit to say. She had numerous good stories to relate, but I only remember one now, which I shall soon tell.
There was no particular seating assignment at these tables. A person could sit wherever he or she wished, but most evenings, the tables were full, which meant about fifteen were at MacDowell at the time I was there. Marian would often arrive a little late, making her entrance with a bit of a flourish. She usually was dressed in a silky, loose-fitting caftan of some sort, which I have noticed is commonly worn by women who are on the stout side. To me, what she wore looked like bedtime attire, but I suppose it was not. Often, her garments were quite colorful.
I paid no particular attention to Marian, although we spoke occasionally when we'd meet on the grounds. This particular night I am remembering began like any other, with the conversation light and breezy. As the diners at our table finished their meals, they got up to leave, until it was just Marian and I left. I was sipping my decaf coffee—I don't sleep well, didn't, even then—and I am uncertain how a suddenly serious conversation began, but it surely did.
She said, "Ray, you know I had one child, a girl." I guessed, and correctly so, by the way she spoke of her, that she was no longer with us. "She was an adventuresome sort, simply brave to a fault. If she had been a journalist today, she would have volunteered for the hotspots of the world." She never told me what her daughter did for a living, if anything. Or her name. She continued.
"I mean, she climbed mountains, she went deep-sea diving. Anything adventuresome or risky, she was there. I encouraged her, too." She paused as if she was unsure if she wanted to go on. I noticed that her face, ordinarily lively, was sad and tired-looking now. "She was living in London and got involved somehow in ferrying a cabin cruiser of some sort across the English Channel to France, not a terribly long distance, but that stretch of water can be treacherous, and it became just that. And soon after they left, or so I am told. She was the only woman on board, just past thirty years old, and in the company of six men." I was beginning to realize she had told this story before, though perhaps not often. I don't know why I came to that conclusion. She paused again as she seemed to need to compose herself somewhat.
"The craft sank in the rough seas," she continued, "and my daughter perished, but the six men all survived." She said this with no rancor I could detect, but she must have wondered if her daughter was somehow abandoned. How could she not wonder? "You know, Ray, the biggest regret in my life is that I was so encouraging of her risk-taking. I was a fool! I regret that more than anything else. And more so each day."
I figured that was the moral of the story, suggesting to me, that if I had children, that I not make the same mistake she made (later in my life I did have one daughter).
Good advice, good message, of course. Solid.
I felt I needed to say something in reply, and somehow the story of the Coke bottle popped into my mind. And so I told Marian about the eccentric individual from Boston, by way of Georgia, and how he pounded his wife's shins with the soda bottle almost daily to toughen her up for life. And then I found myself saying to her, in great seriousness, that if her daughter had undergone the toughening up with the Coke bottle I spoke of, might she have somehow survived, perhaps?
Marian laughed a weak, confused laugh at the absurdity of what I was saying. The pure ridiculousness of my thinking, I suppose, struck her, but she replied, "I guess," and quietly excused herself, saying no more.
I noticed at future dinners—for I had two more weeks at MacDowell—Marian always sat at the most distant table from where I was sitting. I really didn't then understand why, although from today's perspective, at age seventy, I can better appreciate her aversion to me. Sometimes, though, I would catch her looking in my direction during dinner, but she avoided meeting my gaze, and we never again had a conversation. Not so much as a 'hello' in passing.
About the Author
Raymond Abbott lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He publishes short stories and essays, even novels, whenever and wherever he can.