Mrs. Yates was a formidable woman.
Agnes May Allen Yates, our landlord, cane in one hand, and a continuously lit cigarette in the other, ruled over the middle section of her father’s domain. She lived in the apartment above the unpretentious cream and green-trim garage behind our little Kelly Green house in the center of Allen Point. Her sister, the kindly Mrs. Lillian Basden (who looked somewhat like Autie Em from The Wizard of Oz), lived in a small cabin on the northern third of the Point; her reclusive brother (reclusive because his emphysema kept him indoors), Mr. Allen Jr., lived on the southern third in a snug 1960s ranch home that probably replaced their father’s original house.
Their father, W. M. Allen, must have come to the Point shortly after the Civil War. The story, which I heard from my parents, who heard it from Mrs. Yates, was that Mr. Allen had walked the entire beach from Pt. Fosdick to Purdy (twenty or so miles of meandering coastline) and had chosen the point — from then on “Allen Point” — for his home.
I don’t know where he was from, I don’t know why he came. I presume, from the preponderance of British literature in his library and the copy of E. Warne and Co.’s 1905 Pictorial Record of the English in Egypt with Life of General Gordon and other Pioneers of Freedom, that he was English. This library, some of which I inherited, shows that he was interested in classical as well as contemporary (for his day) international politics, philosophy and literature of all kinds. He gave his children books for presents: poetry especially. The Allens traveled: I’ve got a copy of Paul Bunyan, with a old postcard of a statue of Babe the Blue Ox, that they bought on a trip to Wisconsin and Minnesota. There’s Dobie’s The Longhornss and Ryan’s Flute of the Gods that come from a trip to the southwest. I have a copy of Withdrop’s Canoe and Saddle (a local history of Washington) that Mr. Allen purchased for young Agnes in Tacoma in 1894. And then there were the antiques that Mrs. Yates had in her little apartment: stained glass lamps from Europe, and a pair of jade lions from China, and other ornaments from the Far East.
The Allens were gardeners and horticulturists. There was an orchard with cherries, plumbs, and apples and pears that came into fruit from early summer to early winter. There were grapes and a hedge of currants. There was also a fine rose garden, with rare breeds (like a single-petal White Wings) and an old fashioned yellow rose, fragrant as a Nordstrom’s perfume counter, that Mrs. Basden had used at her wedding. When we left the Point my Dad took a shoot of that rose, and now I have it at my home.
It was over this rose garden that Mrs. Yates would especially hold court. There, with some local kid pulling weeks, picking dead leaves to keep the mold at bay, and tilling the soil, Mrs. Yates would sit in her folding chair, gesturing with her cane and talking through her cigarette, or pausing to light the next one with a still glowing butt. Along the north side of the rose garden there was a sidewalk to our place, bordered by a riot of Calla Lilies; on the south there was a grass walkway that led west from the drive, out past our garden and to the edge of the clay bank overlooking Henderson Bay, Minter Creek on the other side, and the Olympic Mountain beyond. At times, the local Indians came to shuck a few oysters from the oyster beds while they waited for nets to fill across the bay.
The choice of the Point says a lot about the Mr. Allen. He could have chosen to settle in one of the sheltered bays, like Rosedale, Wollochut, or Horsehead, or beside the creeks like Minter that brought in runs of salmon. He could have chosen one of the many landings where the later “Mosquito Fleet” stopped at now forgotten communities like Cromwell. Instead, he chose instead to live on an island connected to the shore by thin spits and separated from the land by a shallow lagoon. Backed by a hundred acres of woods and mile-long winding drive up to the nearest road, the point jutted out into the brunt of the north-south weather of Henderson Bay. In fact, from the Purdy Spit up at the end of the bay, Allen Point looks somewhat like a pirate ship permanently trying to escape the clutches of the shore. There, in their declining days, each of Allen children hunkered down on their individual third of the Point like it was the last outpost of a hidden and forgotten age. And it was.
I know that the Allens were involved in their community over time. I remember Mrs. Yates tellimg me about parties, dances, plays and readings, and the inevitable community associations. It was apparently at one such community meeting, during some sort of crisis (probably the Depression), that someone remarked that he trusted in only two things: God, and Mr. Allen. “Sir,” Mr. Allen replied, “You would do better to trust Mr. Allen first.” Mrs. Yates was a chip off that block.
We had endeared ourselves to Mrs. Yates by doing at two things: by taking excellent care of her gardens, and by bringing her baskets of flowers culled from them on May Day. That first May Day was the first time I was ever invited up, with my brother and mother, into the inner sanctum of her apartment, where the pictures, antiques, and jade lions watched us carefully lest we take our hands from our pockets. But after that time, she occasionally took me in hand, literally, and led me around the Point. She pointed out the giant logs on the southern spit where she had played as a little girl, where she had sheltered with friends, and she described when the trees, like the two Weeping Willows, had been planted and why.
One day in the late summer, we were out looking at the roses. In her overcoat and crumpled hat (Mrs. Yates always wore a hat outdoors) she looked, to a six year-old boy, somewhat like Mr. Toad escaping from prison in a scene from The Wind in the Willows. It was close to the end of the day, when she suddenly looked up. “Come on,” she said, “Let’s count the sun down.” She led me out past the garden to the bank, and we stood looking out over the bay towards the setting sun. It was about to touch the silhouette of the mountain. Mrs. Yates took my hand. “Wait,” she said.
There are times when an adult takes you hand and you know, as a child, that you are free to let go. There are time, on the other hand, when the urgency of the grip tells you that you cannot. This was one of those times. As the edge of the sun suddenly bled into an Olympic peak, it tightened. “Now,” she said, and we began to count, “One, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, three…”
What impressed me then, as it still does when I watch the sun rise or set, is how fast it went. It wasn’t but a minute until the sun, which seems to hover motionless in the sky for so long, drifted under the darkening mountains. The sky began to glow. “There,” she said.
I don’t remember what she said next, or what we did. But I have always remembered how fast we are really turning, how the day, the seasons, and our lives race right by in front of our eyes. And I think that someone, maybe her father or mother, must have done the same with a very young Agnes. Grasping her little hand, the adult trying to pass on, in the blink of a setting sun, the realization of the fragility, transience, and preciousness of time.