Coming of Age Creative Nonfiction

A Walk Down Widow’s Lane

Patricia Hesse

Looking back I realize my little sister and I were an oddity in our neighborhood; the truth is even my parents didn’t fit in.  Our house was right in the middle of what I knew was the biggest concentration of old people this side of a nursing home. Most children probably conjure up the same image and assumptions when they hear the word “old” used to describe someone; however, growing up among these individuals I learned how different everyone is even though their ages may be almost the same.  

Walking out the screen door on our wrap-around front porch and turning left on the sidewalk that was too narrow for a beginning bike rider to master, you came to Miss Vanhorn’s house.  Her house was very close to our home, and looking out my bedroom window I could often see her in her kitchen.  Miss Vanhorn’s house was scary looking probably because I thought she was scary.  She wore her hair in a loose bun with more hair escaping the bun’s clasp than was secured, her nose and chin were long and pointed, her fingers were thin and spindly, and to me, she looked much taller than my six-foot Daddy.  She reminded me of the witches I’d seen in books and imagined at night when October rolled around.  For a time I wondered if she really might be a witch, but I never told anyone.   Her house was narrow and deep like our house, but while ours’ was painted a cheery white, her house was dark.  Even the screen on her front porch was dark.  I imagined shadows living in each room of her house even in the middle of the day.  She did have twin granddaughters that I loved to play with, but we didn’t play in Miss Vanhorn’s house --I chose to forget the cookies she often made for us to eat since that didn’t match my idea of Miss Vanhorn.

The next house was the newest house, however the oldest lady, Miss Gilmore,  lived there –she seemed the oldest to me anyway because she was drawn up and very tiny reminding me of a living, breathing raisin certain to blow away in a high wind.  Of course, living next to Miss Vanhorn and being under five feet tall would definitely shrink a person in a child’s eyes.  Miss Gilmore’s house did not share the same shape as our house and Miss Vanhorn’s.  Her house was wide and shallow –the new style.  My sister and I stayed out of Miss Gilmore’s yard except on one occasion when my little sister and her friend dared themselves and actually rang her doorbell running to hide in a ditch.  We believed Miss Gilmore made up in meanness what she lacked in stature.  She wasn’t outside very often, and I don’t think she and Miss Vanhorn ever visited even though their homes were very close. Those two ladies were almost complete opposites in appearance and although my feelings for both ladies were guarded, if forced to choose one as a babysitter for my sister and I, I’d quickly choose Miss VanHorn.

Mr. Hardy’s home was next and was a little further off the road where it makes a curve to the north.  He was a widower who honestly wasn’t much bigger than Miss Gilmore.  I remember thinking it seemed like Mr. Hardy lived in the country –he had a vegetable garden, but his front yard said he didn’t care about shrubs or flowers.  In fact, his house and yard didn’t seem like it belonged in town at all.  I wouldn’t have gone into his yard for anything.  He was somewhat of a mystery to me.  He kept pretty much to himself, and I suspect he liked it that way living in a sea of widow women where a friendly word might be misconstrued as a marriage proposal.

The ladies living in the next two homes were widowed sisters-in-law who had green thumbs, fingers, and toes.  They married brothers sharing the last name “Senteney.”  Miss Mary Senteney’s house was first, and between the two sister’s friendly flower competition, I always thought her flowers were the most beautiful.  Every spring there was a garden full of yellow and red tulips.  Those were followed by other varieties so there was something blooming year-round.  I remember one spring a terrible storm went through knocking out the electricity.  The next morning Miss Senteney’s tulips were flat on the ground.  Her granddaughter and I were cousins and the same age, so I was in her house from time to time.  I liked Mary Senteney’s house, especially her side porch which was not connected to the front porch and was entered from the living room.  It seemed like a perfect place for a playhouse.  Grace, her sister-in-law, lived in the next house that was also white and attractive.  Grace had silver hair and seemed much older to me than Mary Senteney.  Both “Miss Senteneys” were friendly; we liked them.

The house on the corner next to Grace Senteney belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Claude VanSickle.  Other than my parents, they were the only other married couple around, however, both of them were, as they say, “up in years.”  Their house had an upstairs which always fascinated me, but the house seemed rickety --perhaps because it was rather old.  Mr. VanSickle had been the janitor at school.  He was a kind, quiet man who school kids saw as part of the school.  The VanSickles had a granddaughter my age named Audrey who didn’t visit very often because she lived far away; however, when Audrey was home I would sometimes go upstairs in the VanSickle home.  My only memory of Miss VanSickle is her fly-away white hair that went everywhere and her talking, talking, talking –no wonder Mr. VanSickle seldom spoke.

The street that ran east and west and parallel to the street we lived on formed the top side of our block.  The first house across the street from the VanSickle’s belonged to a little, old lady named Miss Allen.  Miss Allen had a dress shop which was only a block and a half from our house.  The dress shop was narrow and crammed with dresses that had lived there for years and years.  Evidently, as Miss Allen would add to her clothing line, the old clothes simply moved over to make room.  This process continued and continued and continued.  I remember wondering if she ever sold anything.  Despite that, every day she walked an old woman’s steps to her shop and then tottered back home in the late afternoon until her death.   Miss Allen’s house was white with the standard porch across the front.  In many ways, she reminded me of Miss Gilmore –tiny, short, and… old.  

Miss Core lived next to Miss Allen.  She was known in our community as an artist.  She painted the scene of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist as the dove descended in several churches and painted other things as well.  When I’d ride my bicycle past her house with its required front porch, I was somewhat in awe.  After all, I knew of no one else at school that had a real artist in their neighborhood, and I knew that as old as she was, she must have painted many, many pictures of Jesus. Miss Core was a Methodist, and I suspected it was the Methodists that had all her paintings since I saw one in that church when I visited with my cousin.  I wasn’t a Methodist so I really didn’t know Miss Core or anyone who had one of her paintings.

The biggest house in our neighborhood belonged to Miss Huber who was also a recent widow; her husband, Franklin, had owned an appliance store in town and was a respected elder in our church.  The Huber house looked like a mansion to me and had a small brick beauty shop added on to the side.  Miss Huber’s granddaughter, Ann, who was from Memphis and spent most of her summers there, was my age and a good friend.  We played together most of the summer, so I was in Miss Huber’s fine home many times.  It actually had three levels with Ann’s summer bedroom located on the third floor!  The house was much bigger than my home which was a good thing because Miss Huber frequently had a short temper with Ann and me causing us to avoid her.  I decided she was rather mean, but my view of her changed after she had a serious stroke that robbed her of her speech.  Most people might have given up, but my most vivid memories of Miss Huber are of her sitting in front of a tape recorder in her home speaking, rewinding, and then trying again.  When she had something to say to us, Ann would anticipate what she was going to say and try to complete the sentence for her so she wouldn’t have to struggle to talk, however she would raise her hand to silence Ann and continue until she completed her sentence.  She was a lesson for me in determination and not giving up and although her disposition never mellowed, I grew to admire her.

Miss Reddmann, another widow, and her grown daughter, Effie, lived just across the street from Miss Huber.  Miss Reddmann was a do-er –she could always be seen working and was known for her jellies and canned green beans.  Miss Reddmann had a cherry tree right next to the road.  In the spring the tree was filled with blossoms which became deep, red cherries.  Her granddaughter was a good friend of mine at school, and sometimes when she visited her grandmother we would ride bicycles together.  In the early summer, every bicycle trip around the block would involve a stop at the cherry tree to grab a handful of cherries. They were always juicy and sweet, and I remember wishing  Mama had one in our yard so I could have all the cherries I wanted.  One day I was riding my bicycle by myself thinking about how yummy it would be to have a handful of Miss Reddmann’s cherries.  So –I helped myself.  I felt guilty because I knew I was stealing from her tree.  The next lap I helped myself again and then again –each time looking to make sure she wasn’t outside watching.  On the fourth trip around she caught me, asking what I thought I was doing.  I was certain she would and could put me in jail, and worse I was afraid she would tell Mama.  Then she smiled and said, “Next time ask.”  I never asked –the last thing I ever wanted was to touch a cherry from her tree.

The house just south of Miss Reddmann’s belonged to Miss Parr who was also a widow.  Miss Parr had white hair and was always dressed as a lady.  She was small and wasn’t outside her house very often probably due to her age.  Miss Mae, her daughter, taught sixth grade at school for years and was a very popular teacher.  Almost all the kids knew that Miss Parr was Miss Mae’s mother.  In my mind that meant Miss Parr was a very nice lady, and I know she really was --I later learned Mama lived with Miss Parr when she came to town to go to high school.  Since there was no transportation for those living in the country, they had to find someone in town to live with so they could continue school.  

There were two houses just east of our house and across the street from Miss Parr’s.  The first house belonged to Sophie Schishler.  Sophie was an Old Maid who had the biggest feet I could imagine on a woman and a sneeze that we could hear in our house even with the doors and windows closed.  Sophie’s vegetable garden never had a weed.  She worked in her garden early in the morning and late in the afternoon all summer long, and sometimes we would walk over with Mama when Sophie was outside to look at all the things she was growing.  Mama didn’t have a vegetable garden so I knew it had to be a difficult achievement.  I secretly wished Sophie’s garden was ours’ and vowed someday to have one of my own.  Sophie owned a Dime Store close to Miss Allen’s dress shop.  My little sister and I liked to go in there and look around –she always had lots of items that appealed to little girls –things like Chapstick, little purses, jacks, and coloring books. Sophie kept a close eye on us when our fingers touched her Dime Store treasures making me suspect she might have heard about Miss Reddmann’s cherry tree.  

My favorite house and my favorite person in our neighborhood was Miss Kasserman.  Miss Kasserman was a beautiful older lady.  Her hair was white and never out of place, and she always wore a pretty dark-colored dress with a broach of sparkling jewels. Miss Kasserman was the elementary principal at school and was also a widow.  At school, she was perceived as stern, no-nonsense, and very proper --an opinion shared by students and quite a few teachers who feared her.  Miss Kasserman could walk into a classroom and no one would breathe.  However, my little sister and I knew that Miss Kasserman was a local version of what I came to know as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde –we were never afraid of her.  At home, Miss Kasserman treated us as if we were her own granddaughters.  She had a large dense bush on the side of her house with long trailing branches that arched downward where the top of the house joined the roof.  My sister and I spent hours playing inside that bush breaking limbs to create a clubhouse. We would look around making certain no one was watching and then crawl inside disappearing into a secret place that was hidden from the outside. We even had toy tomahawks with hard rubber blades that helped in the renovations.  Miss Kasserman enjoyed that clubhouse more than we did although she never came inside.  She often would invite us into her house and into her kitchen with its low sloped roof to eat homemade cookies.  As we walked through her house I always looked at her collection of sparkling lead crystal –something our Mama didn’t have nor did anyone else I knew.  Miss Kassermann had a lilac bush on the opposite side of our clubhouse.  When those lilacs bloomed the smell was wonderful, and I knew that, unlike Miss Reddmann’s cherries, those lilacs were mine because Miss Kasserman would want them for me, and she did –she was always happy to see my bouquet of lilacs I picked for her.  Miss Kasserman was through and through a lady of the highest order, and I loved her.  She lived long enough to see me married and gave me a gift of a sparkling lead crystal vase.  Every time I fill it with flowers I remember.

My little sister and I were fortunate to live in a neighborhood where we were oddities. For two young girls who were making sense of the world and their place in it, those old people on Widow’s Lane caused us to imagine, to question, and to grow in ways we would have never realized in a neighborhood of children. Occasionally at the end of the day, my thoughts take me back for a walk around Widow’s Lane where I see Mr. Hardy by his shed picking up a hoe, or I hear Sophie’s back screen door slam as she goes out to pick cucumbers for pickles, and I marvel at how time, indeed, changes everything.  I am now older than many of those old faces I remember, and I wonder when I’ll no longer feel like I am still the girl I was then…

November 13, 2021 13:32

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