In her brilliant, haunting book, Random Passage, Bernice Morgan describes the physical and psychological trials of the first families that journeyed from England to Newfoundland to settle at Cape Random.
Life was hard. Food was scarce and of only one kind, fish; drinking water was bad, the climate was harsh, and sometimes people died because there were no doctors or medicines. Everyone had to work constantly. There were no luxuries. The struggle was for life itself and starvation was ever a threat. Then there were the cold winters with inadequate housing.
Beyond all of this, there were other pains, not of the physical sort, but of the kind that come to a community that consists of less than 20 persons living in complete isolation. There were, of course, joys as well, but the reality of life in those early years was far different from the way it is often romantically depicted in books and films.
Near the end of the book, Morgan describes this scene: The women of the community, six of them, are making soap out of lye, ashes and lard. They are boiling this mixture over a fire and all of them are hot, dirty, tired and dressed in clothes (the only clothes they have) that should have been thrown away years ago.
A ship from St. John’s, that only came about twice a year, had docked briefly the day before. One of the women, Meg, whose daughter had left the Cape and is now living in St. John’s, has received a package from that daughter. As the women take a break from the work, she opens the package.
It is a big package and she had hoped it might be a lamp, something practical, but its contents catch her and the others by surprise. It contains an oblong wooden box holding a fan made of ivory and cream lace. It is the most beautiful thing any of them has ever seen. On it is painted a picture of a woman on a swing, wearing a pink dress, surrounded by roses, with blue ribbons and flowers in her hair.
All of the women, without knowing exactly why, are stunned into silence and a certain embarrassing vapid conversation. Suddenly one of them makes a gulping sound and begins to cry. Tears literally splash on the delicately carved fan depicting the imaginary, extraordinarily graced, woman on the swing. One of the women, whose soul is what Morgan is really describing in this book, is named Lavinia Andrews. She is somewhat younger than the others and she is particularly stunned by the beauty of the fan and especially by what is depicted on it, a woman seemingly living without poverty, need and limitation.
Lavinia looks at the woman on the fan and wonders: “Does she cry, go to the outhouse, does she bleed, eat, does she love someone?” (Random Passage, p. 189).
That night in bed, unable to sleep, thinking about the woman on the fan, Lavinia is haunted by a sense of loss and longing stronger than she had ever felt. She clearly is not the woman on that swing, or any swing: “She is 32. She does not own a single pretty thing; had never heard another human being say he, or she, loved her; cannot remember a day when she did not have to work. She thinks about her life and the lives of the other women on the Cape and resolves she will leave in the fall. “Like Emma (the woman who had sent the fan), she will go away to St. John’s, or perhaps back to England. The idea fills her with such bleak despair that she cries herself to sleep” (pp. 189-190).
Like an extraordinary painting, this incident touches that intimate part of us where the brain, heart and gut commune without words. What is pictured is how poverty makes a soul both more nameless and more precious all at the same time. What is Morgan showing us through the soul of Lavinia Andrews? There is always a danger in over-explaining a painting and perhaps even a greater one in moralizing about it. Jesus says, speak the truth in parables.
Perhaps he, Jesus, looking at the soul of Lavinia Andrews, might say this to those of us who do own beautiful things and generally live without gratitude: “Which of you, with a servant plowing or minding the sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, ‘Come and have your meal at once? Would he not more likely say, ‘Get my supper ready; faster your belt and wait on me while I eat and drink. You yourself can eat and drink afterwards’?
“Must the master be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told? So with you: when you have done all you have been asked to do, say, ‘We are useless servants; we have done no more than our duty'” (Luke 17:7-10).