So much has been written about the remarkable Margaret that one hesitates before adding further. Does anything more need to be said? Well yes, if only briefly. To me it is as if Margaret never really left. Not only do I have my own memories but I researched her enormous archive at the Library of Congress, held her intimate letters to fellow anthropologist Ruth Benedict in my hands, went to the same Ivy League women’s college, and handled the artefacts that she collected for the American Museum of Natural History. All I can add to the cacophony of words about her is that she was very generous and took great care of me as a student. I never experienced the egomaniacal, domineering character she sometimes appears to have been. She was direct, clear, thoughtful and calm, responding honestly, though not always positively, to my plans. She introduced me to Gregory Bateson, and others, who were of great practical assistance.
The last time I saw her she was clearly ill. I had returned from my research in Papua New Guinea and went to visit her at the museum. This tiny woman was behind her enormous desk, surrounded by piles of papers and books. As always, she focused intently, welcoming me more warmly than I remembered. I wondered if I had passed some test by completing fieldwork. The visit devastated me, seeing her so physically diminished by her illness, a form of pancreatic cancer that would soon kill her. Her intent gaze, extraordinary focus and intelligence were still the same. I never saw her again in the flesh but she seems still here with me, so entwined is my life with hers in memory as well as archive, embodied in the places we shared.
I never met Phyllis Kaberry, but also feel like her professional daughter. I worked in the Abelam area of Papua New Guinea almost forty years after she did. I always wanted to meet this woman in particular—wanted to sit across from her and have a conversation. I had so much to discuss: puzzles, problems of Abelam culture, things I didn’t understand. Fieldwork on one’s own can be a lonely experience, not because the people one is doing fieldwork with are unfriendly or unwelcoming, but because there is no one with whom to discuss the ongoing difficulties of learning another language, another culture. I often thought: if Kaberry were here…
All I had of Kaberry were her rather dry published essays on the Abelam that she herself labelled as preliminary reports, clearly planning to write more. But she never did. After the war her fieldwork took her to the Cameroons area of Africa and she did not return to her Abelam research. Unlike Margaret, I never got to meet the real Kaberry, was never able to put flesh on her bones, or hear her speak. I didn’t, at that point, even have a photograph. In 1976 when I did my fieldwork, there was no such thing as the internet. She died just as I was finishing my research.
But I did finally get to meet her one sunny afternoon in the library of the London School of Economics where the UCL archives are now kept. In a beautiful calm room with huge half-moon windows letting in the light, I opened a tattered manila envelope and out spilled small black and white photos of Phyllis: a luminous image of a delicate, young woman in the Sepik; sitting with magnificently garbed men from the Cameroons; at her desk at University College London looking tired and not so happy.