I’ve just spent an hour upstairs in, so far, a fruitless search. The search was for an object about as round as a half dollar, and it weighs not much more. Olive drab, its metal case has a cracked glass face. Inside it, a needle trembles on a center post. The needle, as it has for over a century, points true north.
You can’t fool that needle by turning the case so that the printed face below it doesn’t match correct directions. That compass needle knows what it is supposed to do.
Of course it does, and the needle has been turning to true north, no matter how many times the case is turned. It’s behaved that way for over 100 years. The compass belonged to my mother, herself dead now a half-century. She first used it on Girl Scout hikes when she was 10.
That skinny little girl must have been enchanted by the compass – seen something in it that echoed a core value in herself. It was fidelity. Throughout her 67 years of life, that little girl would always first determine the right direction, and then unswervingly point herself towards it.
And then she would hold herself faithful to it.
As I write this, I glance across the room and above my desk. There hangs a grand picture of that skinny little girl, though at age 18. She looks calmly back at me from under the lacy brim of a hat as wide as a barrel lid. Oh, stylish! But nothing shallow about the steady eyes and quiet smile. This young lady still knew whom she is, where she is heading. It was, and always would be, true north.
And still somewhere in her possession was her Girl Scout compass! I’m sure it had become a talisman, a symbol that never ceased to speak to her. It may have been tucked away in her handkerchief drawer, but I’m betting she called it up in imagination at any time of deep decision.
As she surely did when saying yes to Pop’s proposal. The two had been working side by side as tellers in Annapolis’ State Capital Bank. Mr. Thompson, the gruff manager, knew he had two pleasant employees in them and noticed that customers gravitated toward their windows. “These two are comers,” he thought to himself. “They’ll be moving up here.”
But the two had developed plans of their own. They’d sensed a deep set of shared values that soon begot deep love as well. And, just as the Great Depression came crashing down, they threw caution to the wind, got married, and soon had a first child, my brother. No second child for six years, till the one Pop always called “Our surprise baby.” Me.
That phrase long ago convinced me that I was the product of mischance, of passion that overwhelmed prudence. “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” said the two of them. And, bless their passion , they brought me to be.
Of course, Mother had to quit work then, cutting their joint income and her activities. But the change in no way turned her away from “seeking true north,” identifying, in any given situation, the apt and just, and aiming for it.
This approach became obvious to all Mother interacted, whether neighbors, friends, members of church or social groups. Women especially sensed her as a gifted confidant.
“Jimmy, you head upstairs and play while this nice lady and I visit.” I would sit on the landing near the top, just out of sight, and wonder at the sound of the visitor downstairs sobbing on my mother’s shoulder. Mother’s calm voice would be comforting her, but not quelling the sobs. She knew they needed
There were other, more direct ways she sought out true north. She took food to the ill, visited the elderly and housebound. And even as she herself aged, she kept on doing physical tasks that were now beyond doing by enfeebled relatives.
Now as grown man, I tried to discourage this work, but she smiled and said, “Now, you go on, boy!”
and would not be turned away from true north.
On the hot July day she died, she had spent the morning mowing grass for a hospitalized spinster great aunt. Then she’d been up and down a stepladder, taking down living room curtains long overdue for washing. They were down in our cellar, soaking in the stationary tub.
And so that dear woman lived out her life. My father put the Girl Scout compass into the safe deposit box where, for 10 years, it undoubtedly kept true to its mission, even in the silent, total darkness.
And when I surely find it again, I know exactly where its needle will point, as Mother’s life did. True north.
Jim Atwell, Quaker minister and retired college administrator,
observes Cooperstown from his
Delaware Street front porch.