1708 Shirland Avenue
I'd just moved into a vacant house my dad owned. It had never been rented before and had been vacant for seven years, neglected except for some storage. I was single, just out of the army and Vietnam. I had come back to finish my college degree, so moving there just seemed like another adventure, and I was up to the challenge since the only other option was to move home.
Pieces of the 1930's wallpaper hung stubbornly to the walls and ceiling, but the majority was on the floor. I stripped all the paper off the walls in the front room and placed a 200 year old loom I had bought, while stationed at Ft. Knox, Kentucky in the center. Strings from the old cheesecloth backing gave visions of a haunted house.This room would be my studio.
The Loom. After moving to our current house.
In the corner of the bedroom, I placed a single mattress on top of a set of springs, found in the dump, balanced on bricks I found in the back yard. On restless nights I would toss enough to knock the mattress off the bricks tumbling me to the floor. The wallpaper on this ceiling seemed to breathe as if alive when the wind pumped life into it. I would lie in bed, mesmerized watching the ceiling catch its breath. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Breathe in, breathe out. “I am alive. Help me please,” it seemed to sigh. It was better than counting sheep.
I had one borrowed couch and no TV in my living room. The floors were so uneven that I could drop a marble at the front door and it would roll to the opposite wall faster than I could take two steps.
The kitchen floor was so rough that I bought a huge roll of red, white and blue plastic cloth and tacked it to the floor so I could at least mop. I painted an image of Mickey Mouse in the center. For meals, I had a hot plate to heat food, a refrigerator, a pot to cook in and utensils pilfered from my mother. I would “cook” hamburger helper once a week and heat it up daily for my meals, then eat on a table I bought for $10.00 at a flea market. I still own that table. Across the street was the Lighthouse Root Beer Stand. On days I didn't want to cook I would order there, walk home and then be informed by speakers when my meal was ready. I became so regular, that as I drove into the driveway, they would ask over the speaker if I wanted the usual. Receiving my nod they would fix my order. This was my life in the early 70's.
After the first month living there, I found my neighbor, an old woman, in my yard, her hair in rollers with a scarf over them. She was peering into whatever window she could – sometimes on a chair or stepladder to see better.
My friends began to visit, and so did she, sorta. No matter how many friends arrived I could count on Ms. Jeansonne to show up five minutes later with a tray of coffee and the right amount of cups with saucers for my guests. It was eerie. She never was wrong. She'd knock on the door, thrust the coffee into my surprised hands, then disappear, shaking her head and muttering in French. As soon as the last guest left, she would return, no matter how late, to retrieve her belongings, never speaking, just shaking her head at me.
One day I came home with groceries, a bag of Community coffee visible at the top. She was on my porch looking through the window. Upon seeing me, and my groceries, she marched, in a huff, toward me, grabbed the coffee and began to lecture me in French, all the while shaking her finger at me. Then she opened the coffee and emptied the contents into the street and spat upon it.
“Hey, you crazy old lady, what did you do that for?” I yelled as I attempted to retrieve my coffee. She continued angrily fussing in French as she rifled my groceries, shaking her head and finger at me, spitting on the ground whenever she found something she did not like. Her daughter stepped outside. “Mama,” she shouted, first in English and then in French, “It's OK if he wants to buy his own coffee and groceries. He doesn't understand you, he can't speak French.” Without missing a beat, Ms. Jeansonne jerked what was left of the bag of coffee from my hands and carried it to her house, continuously lecturing me in French. At the door she swiftly turned, grabbed a broom and, shaking it in the air, yelled in English, “Learn!”. The daughter returned my groceries and explained that I had offended her mother by buying my own coffee. She said the old lady felt I couldn't take care of myself and felt obligated to mother me. Gradually I began to tolerate her snooping around my windows and bringing me coffee when guests arrived.
Eventually I married and brought Frances home to this hovel. I had warned her about the neighbor and her coffee runs. The first time friends came over to visit, I warned Frances to not make coffee since Ms. Jeansonne would supply our drinks. She didn't. In fact, she never brought coffee over again and we never saw her snooping around the house. I had been abandoned by this crusty old French woman. I asked her daughter if her mother was ill. "No," she explained, "mama feels you don't need to be taken care of anymore. You have a wife now."
Eventually Ms. Jeansonne had to be placed in a nursing home because she began wandering the streets, confused. Bless her heart.
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