Crazy Old Ladies

When we were kids, everyone’s neighborhood had a crazy old lady. More often than not, this was a person much like you or me, fifty years later, who was having a bad day.

Next door to our house was mean old Mrs. Mann. She would catch us throwing stuff into her yard and actually complained to our parents. Her husband loved gardening in their overgrown yard, but he was not well. She would go out in their back yard and hack down his loving old-growth gardenwork of several decades of planting. We could hear his powerless screeching. He died shortly thereafter.

My best friend had a neighbor down the way named Mrs. Brown. I knew little of her myself, but was witness to an extraordinary event, when she was calling her cat from their back porch.

(tentative): “Fluffy?”
(inviting): “Fluffy, Fluffy”
(enticing): “Here, Fluffy”
(louder): “Here, Fluffy, Here Fluffy!”

This went on for several iterations, punctuated by brief pauses. Then, she flipped:

(resigned): “Fluffy?”
(resigned): “Fluffy?”
(resigned): “Fluffy?”
(to the whole hill district): “FLUFFY, YOU GET IN HERE THIS INSTANT!”

By the way, here’s a post-script on crazy old Mrs. Mann. Many of the homes in our area were overgrown with stately deodar cedars, tottery towering ancient pines, and all of those accumulated underbrush and resinous accelerants of decades of benign neglect. Our rented home was one of these. Thirty years later, after the dreadful Oakland/Berkeley Hills fire of October 20, 1991, I drove by to witness the damage to the old childhood neighborhood. All of the homes north and east of Rockridge Boulevard were burned to the ground. On what had been our lot, part of the chimney was visible from the street, but you couldn’t tell there had ever been any trees on the lot at all. It was all charred, blacked, fallen … gone.

Next door, however, Mrs. Mann’s old house stood proudly, with only a little soot on the new white paint on the south wall. It seems her scorched-earth policy and spanish tile roof saved that home from the same fate as those on all sides of her. Maybe she wasn’t so crazy after all.

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