Landmarks. Pilots use them, mariners use them and commuters use them. We instinctively use them as distance markers to notate the halfway point to our destinations, and count them with trepidation as they are revisited when we are lost. We are relieved at the gradual appearance of a familiar monument or milestone in the faint distance, temporaneously comforting our souls with the feeling that everything is going to be alright. No matter how often we repeat this cycle, we subconsciously regale in varying degrees to the success in our ability to find our way to journey's end, and all by ourselves. Good thing, too, since no one has ever congratulated me for making it there, let alone being on time. If you're lucky, your daily route might include a delightful attraction that radiates a cheerfulness and hospitality you look forward to seeing, and even count on, with anticipation.
My daily commute from the countryside to city limits was pleasant enough, with the rolling, green hills and billowy morning clouds as my RideShare companions, but in the winter the bypass that took me through the center of town was like an icy skating rink. It was there on a frigid February morning when I saw her the first time. Naturally, a front tire decided to blow out half-way around the circle which necessitated some adrenaline enhanced piloting to a vacant parking space. Sure, the steel belt was showing, but there was plenty of rubber left on that tire to get me through to spring or so. Anyway, while sliding along an ice glacier on the way to the rear of my car I glanced up at a kindly old woman wearing a black bonnet quietly sitting in a rocking chair on the top floor of a shop overlooking the town circle. I could see she was working on some crochet she had in her lap, but I couldn't tell from her expression through the window if she had enjoyed my cunning maneuver of the car or not. I gave her a quick smile and a wave, then turned and walked over to the trunk where I promptly slipped and made a oafish plop onto my foolhardy hind end. I suppose I deserved that, too, but I appreciated the fact that this grand lady appeared to be more concerned about my welfare than getting a good laugh since my antics didn't elicit as much as a chuckle out of her. I'm sure she'd seen people do some silly things in her time, intentionally and by accident, but she was mindful enough to look beyond the circumstance and take folks for the good that might reside inside them, rather than at face value. I like that, and I was already beginning to like her.
For almost a year I'd see her. Not everyday, but frequently enough to miss her company during my drive if she had other things do. She seemed to enjoy varying her vantage point by moving her chair around to get a different angle of view on the happenings in town.
Sometimes her absence from the shady balcony would cause a little concern, until a day or two later when I'd catch her on the way home slumped in her chair, head to the side, peacefully napping in the late afternoon sun just like Grandma Hardy used to do. In fact, that's what I began calling her since she reflected a lot of the same characteristics of my favorite of all grand relatives. She was a little shy and reserved, staying at home most of the time, but she always had a look of content to her, and was there for me no matter what time of day I wandered on by or what kind of weather was in the air. She wasn't really secretive, anyone could see her, but over time I grew so fond of her presence that I hated the thought of sharing her with anyone else.
Rainy days make navigating through circle traffic challenging, and during one monumental downpour I got stuck behind a fire truck assisting a paramedic call. I knew I was in for a wait, so I put the car in park, then noticed Grandma Hardy watching the nearby activity from her window. I tried getting her attention by honking and knocking on the car window but I only got glares from the medical team. I tried again to get her notice when the line started to move but I could barely discern her silhouette through the fogged-up windows and rain. When I got closer to the store I rubbed a hole in the moisture on the windshield just in time to catch the briefest of waves from the dear lady. That single action made my entire day. After all this time, I finally got the old gal to say, "Hello!"
It wasn't long after that when her presence on the balcony began to wane. It might have been due to the cooler weather, but that hadn't stopped her last winter. More days passed without a single appearance of Grandma Hardy and I grew concerned. The circle didn't' seem as lively or interesting as it used to be, and I soon reverted back to my stoic, business-as-usual disposition once again when driving into town. I missed my dear grandma, but perhaps her family needed her more than I did, or she lost interest in observing the daily goings-on of the townsfolk, or maybe something even worse. I didn't want to think about it, so I continued on with my normal, uninspired routine and blended into the commercial landscape with everyone else.
A floating holiday taken by chance on a beautiful spring day had me running into town to take care of an expiring driver's license before delving into more important matters, such as fishing. When exiting the courthouse I couldn't help glancing across the street to see if Grandma Hardy had returned to her rightful position as town observer. She hadn't. All the pleasant memories of her peregrinate companionship came to mind, and by the time I 'd reached my car I was determined to find out just what happened to the old girl, or at least give thanks to her kin for sharing her kindliness with us all. Somehow we've lost touch with our good old-fashioned country neighborliness, and I grasp any opportunity to reverse that trend whenever possible. Now was as good a time as any, and I was sure the bluegill wouldn't mind waiting awhile longer before learning exactly where they stood in the food chain.
I hadn't noticed before how ram-shackled the place was from the street. Someone had nailed rows of wooden roofing shingles onto the facade maybe forty years ago, then painted them Cape Cod blue about twenty years later. Most of them were still there. A rust-stained sign way older than me was precariously mounted over the entrance and read in faded lettering, "Village Antiques." There was no "Open" sign in the window, but a twist of the five-dollar doorknob led to a surprisingly homey retail setting I've seen at least a hundred times.
A man, lounging on a dingy recliner behind an old wooden display case while watching an ancient black and white TV set barely gave notice to my entrance. I quickly scanned the countless wall shelves containing discarded nick-nacks and dented 1950's kitchen appliances while inconspicuously making my way toward him.
"Do'in alright?" a voice called out from behind the counter.
"Doing well," I said, "and you?" He nodded, eyes still focused on the TV screen.
"Anything I can help ya with?"
I spotted an oak staircase with a worn out red carpet runner winding upstairs in the back.
"I was wondering if the elderly lady in the rocking chair was around," I asked, expecting bad news.
“You mean 'ole Sally?" No, I meant Grandma Hardy, but I nodded, anyway.
"Well, she's whar she's always at," he said, bending his neck, "upstairs in her chair."
I never grinned so hard in my life. My old gal was still in this world, and kicking!
"Mind if I pay her a visit?" I asked, eagerly. The man smiled and turned back to his TV show.
"Naw, go ahead, Mister. I'm sure she'd appreciate some company up yonder."
I was a little taken aback since he hadn't asked if I were kin or anything, but that's how open and friendly folks around here can be, and I wasn't going to voice a complaint.
"Thanks," I said, and headed for the stairs.
I was trying to think of what I'd say to her to avoid seeming too forward until I reached the top floor and was a little disturbed by the untidy conditions I found there. Half-open cardboard boxes were surrounded by piles of web laced books and old magazines strewn everywhere. All dimly illuminated by a single 25 watt light bulb hanging by its cord. This was not a place I'd want anyone I knew to spend much time, unless they wanted a lot of peace and quiet, and that may just be the case. I searched the area, trying to remain quiet so I wouldn't startle the old girl, when I spotted her in a corner of the room all by herself. This time she was sitting comfortably in a high-back stool with the same orange-colored yarn in her lap I saw her with when we first met. She was bent over, fast asleep, with the crochet hooks still in her hands. I really didn't want to disturb her, but who knows when I'd have the opportunity again, and just how long was she going to be around.
"Sally," I softly whispered as I approached her. She didn't move. In a normal voice, and while gently pressing on her shoulder I said, "Sally, my name is Jack..," Her body slowly swung around in my direction, punctuated by the sound of a squeaky hinge, until we were face to face. Only she had no face, just the shape of one, and with no identifiable features whatsoever!
I almost jumped out of my shoes. Had there been another customer in the store who bore the slightest resemblance to Norman Bates, I'm sure I would have cleared the roof. My Mysterious Lady of the Avenue was a blank faced mannequin, cruelly dressed in an Amish Bonnet, gray wig and clothing that had me believing she was truly a living and breathing grandma!
I heard a series of hyena laughs echoing through the store about the same time my pulse rate returned to normal. I don't know what I did or said at the time of my revelation, but the store owner got one heck of a kick out of it. I was angry and extremely disappointed, not just from the loss of someone I thought I knew, but from the fact that, until now, I never really knew the extent in which I could be taken in. I felt like a bloody fool, but whom was I to blame?
I expected a gauntlet of ridicule on my way out the door, and I was not disappointed.
"Hey Mister, did she have much to say to ya?" I kept walking.
"She never gives me the time 'a day," he said, savoring his moment.
I quickened my pace to the door, ignoring him the best I could knowing that retaining even a molecule of dignity was completely out of the question.
"You can take her with ya for forty-eight fifty!" he continued. "No, thanks," I said.
"You can keep a real good eye on her, then!"
I shook my head, hoping that the old saying, "What goes around, comes around," is really true.
"I'll throw in the stool!" He hollered.
I waved my hand behind me as I exited the store, but just before I pulled the door shut I heard him say, "The last feller thought it was his mother up yonder!"
There was little comfort knowing I wasn't the only one who fell for the guy's subterfuge. But I have to give him credit for creativity. It was a heck of a marketing technique.
I returned to my car, forsaken and a little saddened. I had lost my dear grandma for a second time, and I was beginning to question the virtue of looking for that deeper meaning beyond the surface of the folks I encounter every day. I'm sure it'll pass, but for now I'll do what I always do when I feel this way. I'll run back to the house and grab my fishing rod and spend the rest of the afternoon throwing a size 18 black ant to the young bluegill in my favorite spot on Peter's Creek, and contemplate my one-time surrogate grandmother who had captured my heart on countless journeys by simply being there.
I'd swear she waved at me, though. Really.
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