True Grit - Part 1
Written by
Vicki Madden
January 2011
Written by
Vicki Madden
January 2011

    That afternoon was beautiful, as August afternoons on islands in Maine usually are. We observed the water through a wall of windows, sitting in a house on a private peninsula on the west side of Mt. Desert Island, visiting a woman who has stuck in my mind for almost thirty years.

    I was in my early twenties that afternoon. She was over 60 then, and my boyfriend told me she’d married into a very famous family, son of a governor or a secretary of state...something like that. (I was fascinated by these people, the Rockefellers and Peabodys, coming as I did from unknown people out West.) The thing I never forgot was how she talked about her husband. “My husband drives so fast; it scares me to death.” My husband this, my husband that. But I knew that her husband had left her years before, was in fact remarried. Yet she spoke of him in the present tense, as if he had just stepped out for the afternoon.

    What kept her in my mind was my judgement of her, my superiority: I would never need a man like that, make a fool of myself by acting like my husband hadn’t left me. In those years, that boyfriend remarked that I was ready to be divorced before I’d even been married. I came from a culture of unreliable men, of women who relentlessly criticized their men. I was raised to not need a man. I also was not raised to understand my own motives. That skill had to be honed much later, out of great necessity.

    Now, at fifty myself, I see that it may not have been so much about the man. It’s more about time, how time slips away and leaves us sitting, disoriented, not sure where we are, because all the markers on the landscape that we thought were fixed and solid have disappeared or shape-shifted.

    Time gets away from us, said Mattie Ross, at the end of True Grit. You wouldn’t think Mattie Ross would have anything to do with Hattie Smith (not her real name). Mattie Ross is a fictional character from Arkansas. Hattie is a very real woman from Boston and Maine and New York, the kind of places a woman in the Social Register comes from. But it was Mattie Ross that brought back the memory of Hattie, pulled it into sharp focus. They both built an identity out of almost pure backbone with a few references to the names of fathers, lawyers, husbands: a living, a house, a place they could call theirs. A local habitation and a name. Even if it was the name of a husband who had moved on. It bought influence in times of trouble. Under pressure, Mattie pulled out the name of her lawyer: “My lawyer Jay Noble Daggett of Dardenelle, Arkansas may think otherwise, as might a jury....”  Later, as Mattie walked into the distance, she said “time slips away from us,” and I realized life was like the Wild West, whether we like it or not: essentially vast, free and wide open, though we try to civilize it and tell ourselves we own it.

    Back when I sat in Hattie’s living room in Maine, thinking I was going to join that privileged world through marriage, I marveled at what I thought of as her self-delusion. I didn’t know then - couldn’t possibly have understood at 23 - that perhaps it wasn’t the man himself she was clinging to. It was the need for some steady landmark on which to fix her eyes and identity, as time sped up. That day in 1983, I never imagined that one day I too would find myself losing my footing in the slipstream of time, unbalanced, the current picking up speed.


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