© 2023 Robert Sickles
Elsie, or L.C. as she signed her name, lived on her own in a small house right next door to me. People thought of her as the neighborhood grandma; I guessed Elsie was at least in her mid-seventies; a petit, handsome, self-reliant woman with a welcoming voice and manner. She wore her long gray hair in braids tied with rubber bands. She dressed for gardening and housework in sturdy boots, a cowgirl hat, plaid shirt, faded patched overalls, green work gloves and a well-loved mackinaw for cool days. Elsie’s suntanned face was enhanced with wise lines around her smiling eyes.
In an area of well-kept yards, Elsie’s stood out, probably to the consternation of those who prefer uniformity and conformity on their street. Her little fence was made of salvaged pallet wood; her fruit trees were pruned and propped for fruit production, not ornament; the entire front yard was tilled and planted for vegetables; bee hives, a chicken pen, and storage sheds for tools and firewood were strewn around the property. Her collection of windchimes and whirligigs added sound and movement to the panoply. Inside, she had collections of art photography, beachcombing treasures and curiosities like pelts, antlers, skulls & feathers.
She worked in her yard while children played nearby on the city sidewalk. She waved to commuters coming and going at the bus stop out front, and greeted dog walkers and joggers. She relaxed on the porch, rocking in her chair while the aroma of something baking or simmering wafted from her kitchen. Her cat, named “New Jeans” because of the stiff-legged way he walked, was her constant companion.
We had become good neighbors and friends. She gave me fresh baked bread and produce from her garden in trade for piano lessons and other favors I could do. When I went outside, Elsie would catch my eye and call out “Oh, hi Bob, do you have a minute?” She’d stand by the fence with a coffee mug, a rake or a harvest basket. I was always happy to make time for her, whether it was just for a chat, to give her a hand, or to keep an eye on her place when she was away.
But there was something else about Elsie. She often made whimsical or baffling statements with total seriousness, and posed bizarre riddles while switching in and out of different personalities and voices. Her behavior takes a bit of careful describing. Elsie’s daughter thought her mom was getting weird with dementia and could become incompetent. I considered Elsie simply to be an individualist with quirks, yet quite capable of managing her life. Of course, my only awareness of Elsie was in those later years, and I had no way to know what “becoming weird” meant to the daughter.
I looked out and saw Elsie hanging strands of bright-colored yarn from her cherry tree; and she waved me over. She checked if anyone could be watching and put her hand up to conceal her mouth, as though about to disclose a secret, and in a James Bond accent, said “I am not a cup of coffee!”
Now that was different. I cocked my head, “Uh… OK.” I scratched my forehead and took a moment to think of something to say. “What do you mean?”
Again, with the Sean Connery voice, “Goodness, Bob, look at me… isn’t it bloody obvious!” My head spun a little. She waved it off and spoke in her normal voice. “Would you hand me that yellow yarn?”
“Sure.” What’s with the yarn?”
“For the parrots, silly. Don’t you think they must love to build colorful nests?” I couldn’t think why she was on about parrots, but I let it go.
We were discussing how best to go about pulling up a dead tree stump when she announced that she didn’t understand why February should be so special just because it has 28 days. “Heck, all the months have 28 days!” This is an example of what I called Elsie’s riddle-logic.
Another time, Elsie knocked on my door, looking around furtively from under a fedora hat, and whispered urgently, “I have to know... are you in the phone book?”
“Hmm? I guess.”
As though I told her I had joined a Satan cult, she gasped “Oh, Bob, how are you going to get out?!” I didn’t have a chance to address her serious concern, as she instantly changed the subject and her tone, “Oh, here, I brought you some fresh lettuce and tomatoes, in case you’d like to make us some of your yummy taco salads.”
Somewhat bewildered, I thanked her as she left, adding, “OK, thanks… and I’ll think about the phone book.”
We were sitting on her porch. Elsie confided she’d had a mental lapse. “It struck me while making cookies, I couldn’t remember if I’m supposed to cream the eggs and sugar then add butter, or cream the sugar and butter then add the eggs. So, I phoned the research desk at the public library.”
I thought for a second, then asked, “Why does it matter which way you mix the ingredients? And do they actually answer a question like that?”
“The librarian, a very nice man, asked me to hold the phone while he looked it up for me in The Joy of Cooking! Now I know… it’s the latter!” She clasped her hands and raised her eyes to heaven. “Can you believe that? I might have been doing it wrong all these years!”
She made herself a court jester’s hat out of bright fabric and showed up at my door with a huge smile. “I had this great idea! You can play your banjo over by the town center, and I’ll be your chimp with a tin cup, and gather money from the crowd!” She did a funny ape voice, "hoo-hoo-hoo-ha-ha-ha. So, do you have a tin cup?”
[Yeah, no… we didn't ever do that.]
Playful in an eccentric way? Sure, maybe. Please read on.
Other “identities” presented through Elsie. Like she was channeling, but without the air of New Age mysticism. I nicknamed one “John Wayne.”
The first time I met “John Wayne,” I was at the mailboxes. Elsie came swaggering toward me, and in a low, stern voice, she said, “If you had been at Iwo, or Okinawa, you would know the truth.” She pointed her finger ominously close to my face, “We were men back then, real men! You understand what I’m saying, kid?”
The hairs on my neck lay down as I overcame goosebumps. I said “Uh-huh…,” my jaw askew, biting my lip, one eyebrow raised, the other knitted. I wondered what movie was playing in her head. Then Elsie… or “John Wayne” gathered her mail, saluted, about-faced crisply and forward-marched up to her gate. She looked back to see me following behind he, smiling and waving like she hadn’t just met me at the mailbox. She cheerfully called out that I might like to come by for tea; if I had time, maybe I could help her move a dresser. Just like that, she was back to being regular Elsie again.
I had more encounters with “John Wayne” and others I called “Kung Fu,” “Delta Belle,” and “Deep Throat.” I’ve never really known whether Elsie was being playful in her unique way or genuinely off her rails. If she was channeling some spirit entities, they didn't seem to have much important to convey. Anyway, it didn't matter, she was my friend and I enjoyed her company.
The last time I saw Elsie, I was packing my car to move to another part of town. I saw her struggling with a cantankerous clump of wild blackberry vines on our property line. I was about to come to her rescue, but just then she faced the vines with eyes narrowed, bowed martial-arts style, swooshed her lopper around like a fighting staff, and mimicked some kung fu kicks. It looked like the vines were going to get clobbered, so I continued on my way.
Despite Elsie's idiosyncrasies that makes her the subject of my fun story, I do give her credit as an inspiring figure in my growth. I took to heart her practice of using one's property as much for food production and wildlife habitat as for aesthetic landscaping. I'm not afraid of asking impertinent or ridiculous questions. I'd rather be wearing overalls. I sport a farmer's tan in the summer—neck and arms only. I sometimes enjoy playing at languages, dialects and accents: "Ja, ich bin ein Frankfurter." And I let out some tennis grunts and karate yells when I dig out roots and rocks in my garden!