That summer, Maine's Eldress Gertrude Soule became Bertha's sidekick. Short, ramrod straight, and tart as a green Maine apple, she was to spend the rest of her life at Canterbury, delighting friends and visitors with her generous heart and delicious malapropisms. (When she wanted the car to speed up, she urged the driver to step on the "exhilarator." Reading about the Great Pyramids of Giza, she asked if there were just one "fink" in ancient Egypt.) When she was 82, Gertrude rushed across the road to my room and fearlessly climbed on a chair to rescue the bat that had sent me gibbering. She released it tenderly, of course.
The other three Sisters remain warm and strong in my mind and heart, too—Miriam Wall, the world's most diehard Red Sox fan; Alice Howland, by this time, a sweet, faded rose; and Ethel Hudson, Canterbury's leading (and in fact sole) devotee of The Tonight Show and Shakerdom's own "material girl" and slightly rebellious spirit.
They were human beings, not impossibly perfect saints, and that made all the difference. Doing unto others as I would have them do unto me didn't mean I had to be perfect, or a Goody Two-Shoes, thank God. I could be my own real self. In fact, God wanted me to be my own real self. All I needed was to keep in mind that kindness is never a mistake, that we all make mistakes, and that forgiveness is the key. The heart of the Shaker way was so powerful that I knew I was onto something big within my first week at Canterbury. I could sense a door opening to hope. Maybe I could find a wise and safe way to maturity. By the end of the first summer, it was clear what I'd found: a North Star at last. If I didn't always know exactly where I was going, or got lost and wandered off the path, at least I'd know which way I wanted to turn.
I hadn't gone looking for that. It was a gift.