When I first saw Mrs. Moore she had a colander on her head and was wearing a green plastic trash bag poncho. She was on a rickety old ladder cleaning out the gutters of her dilapidated house. I congratulated myself on my good fortune — she appeared to be engrossed in her project and her back was towards me as I was attempting to stealth-walk past her front fence without being noticed. I was premature in my celebration as it turns out.
From her perch on the ladder she must have glimpsed me in her peripheral vision because she swiveled her head and spied me just as I was reaching the halfway mark. (Vocabulary word of the day -“peripheral”. Used in a sentence -“The old woman had amazing peripheral vision.”)
“Hey, you!” she shouted. “Come here and make yourself useful.”
Her command cut through the hazy afternoon sunlight like a foghorn. I swear all the neighborhood bird and animal life ceased their own activity for an instant to determine that the loud braying sound had nothing to do with them before re-commencing their own twittering and barking.
It was my first day of walking home from school in our new house. I had been part of a small band of children who walked together but whose numbers had dwindled as one by one they cut off to their own driveways and cul-de-sacs until I was the only one left. My new comrades made a concerted effort to warn me about this house and the lady who owned it which I had to pass before successfully regaining my own front door, three houses down. It was not possible to walk on the other side of the street as the house directly across from this one was patrolled by three hyper-aggressive mongrel dogs who snarled and lunged at anyone lunatic enough to attempt to use that sidewalk.
I made the mistake of stopping, which of course signaled I had heard her. I tried to pretend that I dropped something on the pavement and the halt in my forward trajectory had nothing to do with her ear-piercing command. I pantomimed finding my imaginary lost object, clasping it to my chest in relief (yes, really — even then I was a real scenery chewer) and putting it in my pocket before continuing on my predetermined path.
This only served to make her think that her previous summons lacked volume, so although one would not have thought it possible, she yelled again, but this time amplified by a factor of two.
“You, missy! Stop right there and come help me.”
In a great irony, my actual name at that time was Missy, short for Melissa. Anyway, since she called me by my name, and since she was an adult and I was a seven year old moppet, I obeyed and stayed rooted in place. Even as a child, I was extremely analytical and noted she had issued two contradictory orders — to stay and to come simultaneously. I thought that one should respond to the first one before acting on the second.
She clambered down from the ladder and trotted towards me. I was able to note that the helmet-like colander was secured to her head with two shoelaces knotted beneath her chin. While holding it on, they weren’t quite tight enough to maintain total control so the colander had tilted to one side, almost jauntily, as one might wear a beret.
“You look very silly,” I told her when we were face to face. “Why would you ever have a strainer on your head and be wearing a garbage bag? Halloween isn’t for another month.”
“Cleaning gutters is dirty business,” she responded. “ I don’t like ladders and don’t fancy falling on my head and becoming a paraplegic. I don’t have a helmet, so the colander works in a pinch. Colander, not strainer. Bigger holes, legs. Educate yourself.”
Well, I’m all about the words and nuances, always have been. (Vocabulary word of the day- “colander”. Used in a sentence -“The old lady thought the colander offered protection from head injury, and didn’t care that she looked ridiculous.”)
“The trash bag?” I persisted.
“You might be cavalier about getting rotting leaf compost on your clothes, but I’m not,” she responded. “Trash bag works fine and it’s reusable. I only have a little more to do but the wind is picking up and it’s blowing the ladder. Come and just sit on the bottom rung and give me some ballast.”
“What will you give me?” I asked. I knew that such brusqueness was often mistaken for charming naivete by many adults.
“Don’t beat around the bush, do you?” Mrs. Moore peered at me. “Second grade going on thirty seven. You remind me of my husband’s first wife. She was cute once too.”
“ You’re a witch,” I said. “All the kids say so.”
“If I was a witch, don’t you think I would use my magic powers to clean my gutters?” she asked. “How about two dollars? I’m thinking we’re talking ten minutes tops, so that translates into twelve dollars an hour which is more than most people make in this neighborhood.”
Which is how I ended up sitting on the bottom rung of Mrs. Moore’s ladder while she finished cleaning her gutters. It was taking much longer than her estimate of ten minutes. I looked at my Cinderella wrist watch and calculated that I was up to six dollars already.
Meanwhile, my mother was waiting at home for me to return from my first day of school and was getting anxious. There had been a long and fraught discussion the night before between her and my father about whether I could be trusted to walk home alone three blocks from the school bus stop at the end of the street. There were no diversions, and nothing for me to remember except to get off the bus, and walk straight until I came to my own house. I would be in the company of other kids until about the last hundred yards.
“What could go wrong?” my father asked. Words that would live in infamy for the remainder of my parents’ multi-decade marriage.
What went wrong was this:
My mother could not live with the agony of my delayed return any longer and went out to find me. For some reason never determined, she crossed the street to retrace my journey from the bus stop. The hyper dogs finally fulfilled all the neighbors worst fears and actually managed to jump their fence and started off after my mother, who ran screaming back across the street into Mrs. Moore’s yard with them in hot pursuit. I saw my mother running towards me and Mrs. Moore and quickly shimmied up the ladder to give my mother room to climb up behind me to avoid the hounds from hell.
My father was driving home from his work and upon glancing to his right, happened to spy a house three doors down from his that had a ladder propped against it that featured a plump elderly woman clad in a trash bag and a colander at the top, then a few rungs lower, his own seven year old daughter and finally his wife, just out of the reach of several baying and hopping dogs.
“I thought I was dreaming,” is all he could ever say about this tableau afterwards. He turned his car into the drive and grabbed his umbrella to fend off the dogs.
The good news is that the dogs turned out to be elderly and arthritic, missing most of their teeth and capable of only jumping a few inches at most with the energy they had left.They had already tuckered themselves out in their escape and pursuit of my mother and when my father and umbrella showed up, they looked at one another, gave the equivalent of a dog shrug, and ambled back towards their own yard.
The bad news is that Mrs. Moore had already launched a bucket full of rotting wet leaf compost targeted at the dogs which landed instead as a direct hit on my father’s head and on the jacket of his very best three piece wool suit which he only wore when the big execs showed up to tour the office.
The other bad news was that right after my dirty, leafy, muddy, composty father helped my mother and me down, a big gust of wind came through and without my anchoring ballast, and being top heavy with Mrs. Moore up high, blew the rickety ladder right over.
The best news is that because her fall was buffered by the ladder landing on a hedge, Mrs. Moore had the gentlest landing possible, given the circumstances. She avoided severe injury, just some minor scrapes and bruises. Even the paramedics marveled that she was not concussed. (Vocabulary word -“fortuitous”. Used in a sentence -“The EMT s said it was fortuitous that the senior citizen was wearing a colander on her head.”)
Mrs. Moore became more of a fairy godmother than a witch to me as I grew up on that street. She baked homemade bread on Tuesdays and Fridays and always made a baby loaf to give to me when I passed on my way home. My father finally talked her into getting a capping product for her gutters so that she could retire her poncho and colander.
I’m no longer Missy, but go by Lissa. Much more sophisticated, don’t you think?