“Why did she have to die, Mom?”
The direct question and sudden tears from my son startled me. We had all just returned from a Saturday morning family outing to find our usually quiet neighborhood in a turmoil. Mrs. Vee (this and all other names have been changed), an elderly woman five doors from ours, had just passed away unexpectedly.
Our two older children and their father had accepted the sad news and had gone off to other activities. Only Chuck, our six-and-a-half-year-old son, stayed on in the living room with me, keeping a kind of vigil. The entire neighborhood was visible from our front window, since our home is at the very top of a cul-de-sac we all refer to as a “crescent.”
As I held my son’s trembling little body, I attempted to answer his question. “Mrs. Vee was very old, and, although you didn’t know it, she was also very sick.”
He continued to cry, and I paused for a moment to consider the surprising depth of his feelings for her. “You feel really sad, don’t you?”
There was a muffled “Yes.”
“She was important to us all. We liked her, especially you. It will be lonely without her.”
We continued to sit there looking out at the dull, reluctant April day. From time to time the glowering sky threw shreds of sleet down upon our street. A mixture of feelings, questions, and images filled my thoughts.
Only a short twenty-one months had passed since we had moved here. We had taken the big plunge and purchased our own home, it was summer, and all seemed right with the world. We were happy.
Very soon neighboring children came by to get acquainted. And within a short time our three ventured forth with the group as they went from home to home. During one of these jaunts some of the new friends warned our youngsters to stay away from the “mean lady” who lived next door to them. Stay away from her, don’t go into her yard, and don’t even touch her grass was their advice.
Later, over lunch, my husband and I got a full report about the “witch-lady.” We listened, but didn’t get overly alarmed. After all, we concluded, children do tend to exaggerate. So we just recommended that they respect her right to privacy. Perhaps she’d been hurt by some recent mischief, we reasoned.
Two days later we had our first experience with her. Chuck, then almost five, had just learned to ride a two-wheeler. He was still somewhat shaky, and as he rode by Mrs. Vee’s place, he lost his balance and fell onto the prohibited lawn! Before he could even get up, the woman popped out onto her front step and screamed, “You! Little boy! Get off my grass!”
Frightened, he scrambled up and pushed his bicycle home as fast as he could, visibly shaken by the encounter. “She really scared you, didn’t she?” I said, trying to soothe him. “Well, perhaps from now on you should ride down the other side of the crescent. Don’t go near her place until either your dad or I can find out what the problem is.”
Several days later, I noticed her working in her yard. Her grass was beautifully thick and manicured to near perfection. She had just cut it and raked it. Now she was sweeping it.
Cautiously I approached her and introduced myself, expressing sincere appreciation for her lovely yard and home. For a long, discomfiting moment she said nothing, glaring at me with shrewd, narrow eyes, her lips tightly drawn into a toothless mouth. In spite of myself, I thought, “No wonder the children talk about her the way they do.”
Finally she spoke, very abruptly and in a shrill, hissing voice, “I do not allow kids in my yard.”
Finding it impossible to continue the conversation, I withdrew with a promise to keep our children away from her place. She was so openly hostile that I wondered how we were going to enjoy the neighborhood, living in such close proximity to her.
As the days passed, we kept hearing more and more horror stories about our eccentric neighbor. It wasn’t that the other neighbors were all gossips; it was just that Mrs. Vee was some kind of amazing phenomenon that no one really understood but from which nearly all had suffered.
One, the mother of the children who had sounded the first alarm, told us that Mrs. Vee would catch their cat or dog if either wandered into her unfenced front yard. Then she would call the city pound to come and take them away. The owners would then not only have to pay a fine, but also have to drive across the city to retrieve them from the pound.
Another woman had her car towed away from in front of her own house while she was sick in bed. A city by-law prohibits onstreet parking for more than forty-eight hours, but it is rarely enforced. Police usually only tag cars if they are obstructing traffic or are reported by a complainant. Mrs. Vee had complained and demanded that the car be taken away.
Still another person had been fined because Mrs. Vee had called the city to report that he had not cut the noxious weeds along his back fence for many weeks.
In fact, it seemed that the only people who had had any positive association at all with Mrs. Vee were Mr. and Mrs. Roberts, the retired couple who lived directly across the street from her. They listened to her rantings and tried to help her whenever they could. But even they wondered about her. They couldn’t understand how anyone could forbid her own daughter and grandchildren from visiting just because they made a mess.
Undeniably, she was obsessed with cleanliness. Hers was the tidiest and most orderly place in the entire neighborhood. There were even curtains in her garage windows. The lane behind her yard was hosed down regularly. When I would drive by her house on hectic days, I’d ruefully note that her driveway was undoubtedly cleaner than my kitchen floor.
I became increasingly intrigued by Mrs. Vee. Why was she so full of ill will and suspicion? Was it possible that she was actually mentally ill? Was she dangerous?
When winter arrived with its usual abundance of snow, we noted that the seventy-four-year-old Mrs. Vee was among the first to clear her snow away. We were not surprised to see that after she had shoveled, she always swept.
During those dark, dreary months we were excited to learn that after six years we were going to have another baby! But it proved to be a difficult pregnancy. By mid-April I spent most of my time taking cool baking-soda baths and lying quietly in our darkened bedroom. Any movement or exertion would inflame the rash covering most of my body, and then I would scratch until I drew blood. The diagnosis was that I was allergic to my child and would just have to endure until he was born. Internal medication was out of the question.
Consequently, I wasn’t able to look after my family in the usual way. But my husband and children were great workers and we managed quite admirably. In June, however, the wives of my husband’s high priests quorum brethren decided they would like to provide one meal each day. It was beautiful of them, and we all appreciated it.
One day a sister brought us an enormous cake, wonderfully decorated. It looked delicious but we knew it was more than we could prudently eat, so we decided to share it with someone. The question was, whom?
Why not take some to Mrs. Vee, one of us suggested. A few short minutes later my husband and our son, he who had been chastised for falling on her grass, were taking a generous corner of cake to this much-talked-about lady. Understandably, Chuck was reluctant to go into her yard, let alone approach her front door. But with his father right beside him, he walked up and rang her doorbell.
When she came to the door and scowled at him, he wordlessly thrust the cake toward her, fearful of what she might say or do. She looked at him, the cake, and his dad. My husband simply said, “We’d like to share this with you. We hope you will enjoy it.”
She accepted the cake without a word, and Chuck and his dad turned to leave. Then she spoke, “Twenty-three years I’ve lived in this house and this is the first time anyone has brought me anything.” Tears coursed down her troubled face. “Twenty-three years.”
After that we determined that she was perhaps more lonely and misunderstood than mean and malicious. But we counseled our children to stay out of her place.
Our baby was born July 10th, and finally we were all together as a family again. My rash had disappeared and a normal life pattern was once more possible. As soon as I could, I took our tiny son out to meet our good friends in the crescent, making sure to walk over to Mrs. Vee’s as she worked in her yard. She beamed openly at him.
The very next morning she arrived on our doorstep with an angel food cake she had whipped up by hand. It was iced and on a lovely china plate. I was overwhelmed.
After that, she softened considerably in her behavior toward us. Periodically she would telephone and ask if I’d send Chuck to her door. He was no longer afraid of her, and when he’d get there, she often had chocolate bars or cookies for him to share with his older sisters. Always she would caution him not to give any to his baby brother as he had no teeth—“just like me,” she would add.
That fall, Dot, who lived next door to the Roberts, lost her aged mother. And Mrs. Vee, who apparently had not even so much as spoken to Dot in years, softened toward her also. The day before the funeral, when Mr. and Mrs. Roberts went over to spruce up Dot’s yard, Mrs. Vee went along to help. When I saw Mrs. Vee down on her hands and knees working in someone else’s flower bed, I wept.
During the following months our lives became more and more intertwined with hers. Many days she would phone or come over just to chat. Other days, once more full of venom, she would angrily accuse various people of terrible wrongs they supposedly had done to her.
All that winter Chuck and his dad would try to beat Mrs. Vee to her snow, but they rarely got to it before she did. It had become a joy to associate with her, to make fresh buns or cookies or pies to share with her. There were even days when she invited me to bring the children over after school to have warm treats in her home. I was hesitant to let my youngsters walk on her gleaming floors, but she was totally relaxed about it. She would fuss over the baby and urge the older ones to eat, eat, eat. It was a precious time for us all, for we knew that at any time her other self might force its way to the top again.
Now here we sat knowing that the good times and the bad were finished. Mrs. Vee would never see another season on this earth. We had arrived home to find the fire truck, a police car, and many people at her place.
We learned that Mr. and Mrs. Roberts had become concerned when Mrs. Vee’s draperies remained closed at nine o’clock that morning. She was a poor sleeper and so was always up very early. They had tried to phone her, but there was no answer. Then they rang her doorbell, and still there was no answer. Finally, they had called the police.
When the police arrived, they tried to rouse her as well. Unsuccessful, they entered the house and found her by her bed. They then called the firemen who tried in vain to revive her.
We were of course stunned and saddened by her sudden passing. At the same time, however, one part of me rejoiced—I was so grateful that Mrs. Vee had lived long enough for others of us, besides the Roberts, to discover that she had a warm, kind, and caring side. She had become appreciated as a neighbor and friend. At her passing, many of us sorrowed, and some of us wept.