Tuesday, November 3, 2015

On Mrs P.

Sometimes I still think about Mrs P.

She used to be my neighbor where I grew up. She lived in the faded green house at the top of the steep road where my family lived. She lived with her husband. They had no children, and to my knowledge, no other close family or friends.

She had lived there longer than forever, or at least longer than the five-year-old's concept of forever. But also actually quite a long time. Probably somewhere in the neck of forty years, if I were to guess. They most likely built their house around the same time as my grandparents, who lived next door to us. The entire area was divided into lots in the 50s, transforming what previously had been a large farm into a small community of "working class upgrading to middle class" families. Self-made people. My grandfather built his house (and saved the lot next to it for whenever his son would build his - 30 years later, as it turned out), and I imagine Mr P. built his.

Actually, I don't imagine Mr P. built the faded green house. He worked in a bank, I think, or maybe an insurance company. Some job where he needed a brief case. Probably not the kind of job a man who would know how to build his own house would have. Or perhaps. People used to know things. I remember him as well, and I know he outlived her, but for some reason he isn't as vivid in my memory as she is, even though I technically remember how he looks whereas her image has forever transformed into a generic "old lady" shape.

She had old lady hair. White, or grey, and curly, short. Tidy.

She had old lady clothes. A neat coat, not shapely or pretty, but clean, and orderly, and proper, and tidy. An old lady hat, poofy but somehow still strict; a balancing act on top of her old lady curly gray-white hair.

She had an old lady purse. No explanation needed.

She had an old lady face, maybe. I cannot remember her face. But she was an old lady, so she probably had an old lady face.

She was an old lady, having lived in her house, alone with her husband who may or may not have built said house, since they got married, possibly, or at least since the house was new and the green color was clear and not faded.

Their garden was incredibly tidy. The grass was always cut, though I cannot remember that they ever cut it. There were always lawn mowers growling somewhere or other in the neighborhood, but it seems unlikely that any such intrusive sound would ever come from their garden. It would have been too noisy, too messy, too untidy.

She would spend winter mornings after the snowplow had been at work clearing up the road shoulder outside their picket fence, with a broom. Or people said she did. I remember her doing it, in her old lady shape, with her neat coat and her poofy hat, and maybe even her old lady purse, which seems odd, but then I don't know if I actually remember it or if it simply was repeated so many times that I pictured it in my five-year-old mind.

She was strictly opposed to anything untidy or fun or young. Like the teenage son of the neighbors across the road from her faded green house. Obviously he and his friends knew how much they annoyed her and found it amusing to tease her, by playing loud music or driving their mopeds at top speed up the steep road, spraying the fence and tidy shoulder on her side of the road with a fresh batch of brown snow to cover the neat white edges meticulously created by a broom.

She was the kind of neighbor that would complain. About loud music or mopeds, about lawn mowers late (or not so late) at night, about anything untidy or fun or young. And by complaining I mean yelling. Shouting.

Synonyms: scoldupbraidberaterevilevituperaterail 
These verbs mean to reprimand or criticize angrily or vehemently.

Or so I imagined it. I don't think I ever witnessed any of her complaints. But I knew of them.

I was deadly afraid of Mrs P.

I was not a child that strayed, but had I been - the short distance between her house and mine, maybe 50 meters garden to garden or perhaps as much as the double from house to house - that distance would have been too long. I don't know if I was impressed by the teenage boys provoking her or just worried they were poking a dragon. Either way I never would have dared doing so myself. Seeing her, even from across our hedge, her fence, with the protective 50 meters between our gardens, filled me with immense terror.

She spoke to me once.

My parents probably tried to install in me all the usual precautions; "don't talk to strangers" must have been one of them. However, either it did not work very well (later evidence suggests this, as I was once briefly kidnapped. But that's a different story), or I did not think of her as a stranger (she was a very familiar terror in my life, after all).

She had observed me in the playhouse in our garden. Alone. I often played alone. I don't think I minded, but also, I didn't necessarily have that much of a choice. As mentioned, the entire area had been populated at the same time, mainly with families. It had once been a community where children could run around and play with each other (my father having been one of those children). Thirty years later those children were all grown and only some of them had come back with children of their own (and these were all older than me - the teenage provocateur being the youngest besides me). So there were no other children around, and consequently I was mostly playing on my own.

She had seen me play on my own, she said. In the playhouse. She had a present for me. For the playhouse.

It was a picture of a cat. A cat, ready to hang on the wall inside the playhouse. A small gift, but a generous gesture.

I thanked her, I think. I was a reasonably well-behaved child, after all, and despite being afraid of her I had summoned the courage to let her speak to me in the first place. I probably thanked her. I hope I thanked her.

The cat still hangs in the playhouse, now proudly claimed by my niece as her own. (It isn't. It's still mine. But she doesn't have to know that.)

I never spoke to Mrs P. again. At least I cannot remember that I ever did. But I don't think I was as afraid of her after that. She may have been the neighborhood hag, but she had shown me a kindness and I did not forget that. It has taken me many years to realize that her gesture might have meant quite a lot. She was not usually one to show kindness, but she made an exception for me. From one loner to another, perhaps.

Today would have been her birthday. She told me. That one time I talked to her. When I was five. I don't remember what she looked like, I don't remember which of the things I know about her are true or imagined, or exaggerations of a small truth buried in a collective neighborly memory; but I do remember this. Today would have been her birthday.

Happy birthday. Mrs P.


Jan Morrison said...

What a fabulous story! Many of us have Mrs. P's in our past - I wonder if I'm anyone's Mrs. P.? I hang around with lots of kids so probably not though they are fascinated with my white hair and advanced years. They call me Jannie Banannie though. I'm dying to hear about your kidnap story. Giddyup!

Kelly said...

Wow... this story conjures up many memories for me. While I don't really recall a "Mrs. P." in my neighborhood, there are many other similarities to my childhood. I may have to sit and reflect on all this awhile.

(p.s. I want to hear the kidnap story, too!)

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