Until the day I climbed the narrow stairs to Margaret Cosgrove’s canvas-crammed apartment, I had known her chiefly as “the cat lady.” She was, I knew, ready day or night to climb a scaffold or go out on a limb—literally—to rescue some “poor little kitty.”
Birds, too. Once I was chatting with her on the sidewalk when a passing car hit a rock dove. Before I could blink twice, Margaret had gathered the pigeon in her arms and was taking it home. There she kept an arsenal of healing remedies. And she knew how to set a broken wing.
Over the 37 years that Margaret and I had lived on the same block, we had become street-corner friends. I enjoyed her playfulness and wit, her fierce defense of the underdog. I shared her commitment to the natural world—and her outrage at its ongoing destruction.
Margaret was born in 1927 near Sylvania, Ohio, a tiny town that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Sylvania—its forests, its flowering meadows, its noble ideals—strongly influenced my spirited friend. Her father was a forester and engineer, her mother an educator. By the time she was ten years old, Margaret knew the constellations and the birds and every tree in the woods near Sylvania by its English and its Latin name.
It was as a child that she contracted what she calls “this disease to have to be always drawing.” She filled countless hours sketching flowers and trees.
When the time came “to learn more about the world,” Margaret joined the Cadet Nursing Corps. This was a small branch of the armed services, formed by President Roosevelt to resolve the critical shortage of trained nurses at the end of World War II. There she “learned to handle birth and death and just about everything in between.”
Later she worked as an art therapist in the psychiatric ward of Women’s Hospital in New York, taught art in a girls’ school, and wrote and illustrated a series of exquisite science books for middle-school children. She also taught herself Spanish so she could banter with the Mexican workers in our neighborhood.
Nowadays Margaret Cosgrove is a sprightly lass of 83, so when I returned to the city from my summer vacation several years ago I was shocked to see her coming toward me on a cane. She was, she confessed, fighting Stage III endometrial cancer. She had insisted on receiving huge doses of chemotherapy—“I have work to do,” she told her doctors—and these had left her feeling “wobbly.”
That “work” was, I assumed, connected with her rescue of cats and birds. But I had not yet discovered the greater commitments and the wider world of Margaret Cosgrove.
Did I mention that she was blind in one eye? And that the other eye was failing and she feared losing it, too?
And that she lived alone?
Late one night, as I walked my dog and glanced up at Margaret’s window, I realized her light was always on.
“You burn the midnight oil,” I told her the next time we met on the street.
“The midnight oil paint!” she explained.
“Oh! I paint, too! I’d love to see your work sometime.”
And so began our oft-renewed, never-fulfilled promise to exchange studio visits.
The years went by.
Then, one April morning, the phone rang. “I’m having a marshmallow roast!” Margaret exclaimed. “There’s no room up here for another thing. I’m tossing these old paintings in the street and setting them on fire. I’ll provide the marshmallows. Bring your own stick! Goodbye!”
A marshmallow roast?! Oh, horrors! What could she mean? This was an emergency!
And so, after all these years, I climb the long, steep stairs to her room. As I make conversation with a timid cat and three patient pigeons, Margaret hauls a painting down from a stack piled on the loft bed.
And… holy moly!
In a field of wildflowers and long green grass stands a little church. Inside the congregation is singing, unaware that the children’s choir is so uplifted it is flying away. As they spiral ever higher, the children are turning into birds—or are those angels? This is an enchanting painting, a picture of Margaret’s childhood and an ode to the human being’s harmonious existence in Nature.
It stands in terrible contrast to those that follow.
In “Start Here,” a woman staggers through a labyrinth from which there is no exit. The only sign of life—or hope—are the tiny wildflowers cracking the concrete that paves the landscape. “U Didn’t Listen” shows an abandoned turnpike; alongside it are the stumps of what was once a forest of great trees. In their stead is an endless line of steel communication towers. In yet another painting, the skyline of a majestic city like New York looms low on the horizon. Above it the stars (which look down upon us and witness our deeds) have spelled out a single word:
So this was “the work” that Margaret had to do before she died—and for which she had demanded those crippling rounds of chemotherapy.
“Who else has seen this work?” I ask.
“Not one person?”
She shakes her head.
“But it must be seen,” I urge her.
That “studio visit” turned out to be the first of many steps leading to an exhibition of Margaret Cosgrove’s work in New York’s Carlton Hobbs Gallery six months later. Standing for three hours (no cane) to field questions from reporters—and to accept the congratulations of amazed and delighted neighbors—Margaret shone as if sprinkled with stardust.
I raised my glass and whispered, “Nice marshmallow roast!”
Poet Celestine Frost is the author of four books of poetry, including A Yelp in the Ideal and I Gathered My Ear from the Green Field. Her Selected Poems will be released this fall by Codhill/SUNY Press. Frost also edited the upcoming Great Poems for Grand Children (AARP Books/Sterling, October 2010).