The Pleasure of Our Company
She was eight, skinny, and topped with a Buster Brown haircut. I was nine, with fluffy hair and shoes I hated. We were next-door neighbors with summers to fill. We played dolls and jacks, Pollyanna and Monopoly. We pedaled our bikes round and round the one "permitted" block. Once a week we rode the city bus to the library and back home and then read our stacks of books under the shade of huge elm trees in my backyard.
Sometimes we trekked to the local Piggly Wiggly to buy one orange Popsicle and split it. We searched endlessly through a neighbor's driveway rock to find the sparkling granite ones. Sometimes we quarreled and then retreated to "tell" our mothers on one another. But looking back, and being now of the gray-haired set, I think that our best summer pastime was visiting the neighborhood "old folks."
"Let's go see the Farleys today!" Claude and Alma (Mr. and Mrs., to us) Farley were a collectively plump couple retired from Farley's Jewelry Shoppe. They had no children or other family and lived quietly in a little frame house across the gravel alley. The best time to visit was about 10 a.m., when we were sure they were up. But more importantly, Mrs. Farley always gave us big puffy marshmallows--as many as we could eat--and at 10 a.m. we could digest a lot of marshmallows before noon, so our mothers could not reprimand us for spoiling our lunch.
We'd climb their back porch steps and knock. "May we come visit you?" We knew "may" from "can" because we were very accomplished visitors.
Mrs. Farley, always in a flowered housedress, would sing out, "Claude, we have company!" Claude rarely spoke and never moved from his chair, but he smiled a lot.
Inside was a little mysterious, kept dark, but always tidy. The overstuffed chairs we were invited to sink into were peppered with crocheted doilies on the backs and arms. We found it strange that their two longhaired cats were never allowed outside, and part of the intrigue was to spy one cat or the other peering out at us with wary green eyes. We had also cultivated a myth that there must be sparkling jewels and maybe gold necklaces from their jewelry store hidden somewhere in the house.
So good were we at the art of visiting that we washed our hands and combed our hair before we went, and we were very polite, answering all their questions, telling all the neighborhood news, and saying "thank you" at least twice for the marshmallows.
Afternoons, on the other hand, were the best times to visit Zetta. Zetta Bogard was a tall, spindly elderly lady, who lived alone in a small second floor apartment. We'd come to be acquainted when she would walk by our houses on her trips to the Piggly Wiggly. We thought Zetta lonely, and in need of our company.
We'd bravely climb the dark inside staircase to knock on her door. "Well, if it isn't my sweet girls," she'd say, "who've come to see old Zetta!" Her rooms, in contrast to the Farleys', were full of sunlight streaming through lacey curtains. She chatted incessantly in a thin, raspy voice and always offered us a store-bought vanilla cookie (just one) out of the box. For Zetta's enjoyment we took her our latest drawings or marigolds from the garden or a hollyhock doll made with bobby pins. And always at Christmas we each sent her carefully signed cards.
More accessible to an impromptu visit was our across-the-street neighbor, Jim Worth, who spent most of his summer hours sitting on a day bed on his open porch, reading magazines and watching the neighborhood. He was not an old man by any measure, but he walked with a limp, and we were coached to understand that he had to be very careful with his life because he was a hemophiliac. His brother (of the same affliction) and sister-in-law lived in the same house. He rarely left home, and we were told that he worked at home, mostly on the phone, for Dunn and Bradstreet, which sounded very important.
However, we never got farther than the porch. Some of the intrigue in this visiting business was, of course, to "get inside" houses. Jim liked us. We knew because he always pulled off his glasses and put his magazine or newspaper aside when we came. From him we picked up all the gossip, for he missed nothing from his vantage point on the porch. Having with the latest news, we were then "one up" on our parents and the other neighborhood kids. Once Jim helped us put together and "publish" "The Catherine Street News," a neighborhood newsletter, which we distributed to everyone we could possibly bother with it.
The house we were most curious to see on the inside was directly across the street, inhabited by a wispy and eccentric spinster, Winifred Cooper. I think she let no one in, with the exception of a niece who came to visit, or, more probably, to check up on Aunt Winny, who was a college educated lady (unusual for her time) with a sweet porcelain smile and hair pulled back in a little bun.
Miss Cooper, we knew from a witness, changed the ice in her trays every day at 5:30 a.m. She too kept several cats inside. On the rare occasions she went anywhere, it was in a dated black Chevy coup which she brought bumping out of her little driveway. She spent hours snapping hedge clippers over the thick stands of bushes surrounding her house. All the neighbors were accustomed to hearing the whir of her hand mower--sometimes, however, after dark, when the heat of the day was gone. How could she see? But the next morning, there were no missed spots. We little girls sometimes shared polite sidewalk conversation with Miss Cooper and always waved, but were never invited inside.
Then came the day the day a truck pulled up to her house and delivered a baby grand piano to her tiny living room. Never did we hear it being played, but the event made the sole issue of our newsletter. Years after we were grown up and our Miss Cooper was finishing her life in a nursing home, her house was, sadly, the topic of more neighborhood conversation, when her niece dealt with cleaning out layers and layers of squalor; even the piano had not escaped ruin.
What now remains? Faded faces, but also some tangible gifts--beyond marshmallows and cookies. Twice in all the years we were neighbors, Miss Cooper came to our door, once to give me a bright blue billfold for my high school graduation, and again to deliver a small volume of selected poems for my college graduation. In her note she wrote of her "good wishes as you enter your chosen profession . . . and as you go forward into the larger world of Life, in which one never graduates, but is always a learner."
Jim Worth gave me an old book (in some disrepair) that he had acquired: Tales from Shakespeare for Young People by Charles and Mary Lamb, an illustrated collection of Shakespeare's plays told in prose. Copyrighted 1862, it was inscribed to someone for "Christmas, l892." And Zetta Bogard once gave to me a keepsake from her youth, a costume-jeweled and metal filigreed coin purse on a small chain, something my mother called an "antique."
Assuredly, as children, we were--and the memory still is--wrapped up in first person pronouns. These were times of "our" summers, "our" activities, "our" gifts. Only half a century or so could turn the pronoun focus to third person. What did our visits mean to people whose years had drained them of associations or energies or both, whose days may have seemed twice as long as ours?
When I see the eyes of old folks brighten at the sight of a child or find myself drawn to smile and talk to a little person, I begin to understand. Now I know how sincere was the pleasantry that concluded our visits: "Now, come again, girls!"