e.e. cummings wrote a poem called “maggie and milly and molly and may” back in 1917 or so. Maybe you’ve heard of it. A story about four little girls who take a trip to the beach and each find something to captivate her.
maggie was the girl fascinated with a lone seashell washed upon the shore. An empty shell that “sang so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles.” Imagine it. A small girl on a vast beach preoccupied with a solitary seashell; holding it to her ear, fascinated by recognizing the blurry sounds of the ocean from within its spiral depths. How innocent to be entertained by the abandoned home of a mysterious creature (for who knows what lived there before?)! How very simple to be distracted by the sea’s discarded debris. maggie was the girl who could be captivated by one solitary shell’s intrigue. maggie was the girl who could put down her troubles in order to pick up an offering from the ocean. What were those troubles she couldn’t remember?
And whatever happened to maggie? Maybe she moved away. We certainly know she grew up. Listen to Natalie Merchant’s “Maggie Said” and you’ll find our seaside maggie. There she is as an old woman. How jaded our shell-loving maggie has become. I don’t believe Natalie intended for these Maggies to be one and the same, but in my mind they are. To me, Maggie Said is the child all gray haired and grown. She is seaside maggie stooped and tired. Maybe her eyesight is going. Maybe her hands tremble from a life lived long. This Maggie definitely has regrets. Listen to her speak. After all, Maggie Said. There is a bitterness to the edges of her memories. She doesn’t remember the innocence; the possibilities of a world within an ocean-side seashell. She just knows she played the rest of her life safe. She held herself in reserve. For what, she does not know. To quote an earlier Natalie song, she never took dares with yes. It was always no.
But, let’s just say Maggie Said has kept that said same seashell – the one that sang so sweetly to little maggie. Maybe she has kept it high on a shelf, despite its significance all but lost to her. What if, in one bright moment of clarity, she spotted that shell and took it down? What if she held it to her ear and listened? Really listened. Maybe, just maybe if she heard the sweet call of the ocean again. Would she remember her girlhood friends, little milly, molly and may? Would the shell sing so sweetly she forgets her regrets?