When I moved to a small town from Toronto 18 years ago, I never realized I would meet a completely different breed of people. The kind of people that look you in the eye when they walk by you on the street and say a cheery “hello”. The kind of people that talk about the weather, not for small talk, but actually are interested in what you have to say! The kind of people that take the time to laugh, the deep belly laughs that only children usually take time for. It took me a while to start walking through town looking up at people; I didn’t realize that I always looked ahead or through people as I walked by. It was something that was bred into me living in the big city, afraid of eye contact, afraid to stare, afraid of idle chit chat. There are probably many psychological reasons why we are afraid to look at others while we walk down a street, whatever it is; it took some work on my part.
My group of new friends extended from parents of children my son went to school with, to the regular locals that were retired and would drop by the local ‘Gas/mo e rent /groc ies/din /store’, This was actually a ‘Gas Station slash movie rental slash groceries slash diner slash store’ Anything you needed was sold in the store. You could find dish soap, shoes laces, candles, candies, fishing lures, pop, hardware, frozen pizza and pop. Anything you needed could be found in the store, this included friends.
This is where I first met Annie. When I first met her, I was fresh out of Toronto. She looked to be to be around 90 years old. She had whiskers on her chin, a full moustache and hairy moles. Her glasses probably dated back to the 1960’s, they were blue, and cat’s eyes shaped, the kind my mother wore when I was a child.
Annie always wore house dresses. The kind of house dresses you would find in Kmart or Towers. They were cotton, with flowers, about knee length, with 2 huge deep pockets situated on the hip, a place to keep her cigarettes and lighter. They were definitely not a fashion statement; they were usually stained but clean and ironed.
Annie lived in a small Victorian house across the street from the ‘Gas/mo e rent /groc ies/din /store’, the house was surrounded by an old iron ornamental fence that was about 4 feet high, with a large gate that was always left open due to a broken hinge. It was an amazing fence, something you never see anymore except in magazines. The house, however was run down, the shingles needed replacing and the pain on the woodwork around the windows, what was left of it, was cracked and peeling. Plastic that was once installed on the inside of the windows to stop the brutal winter drafts, and was never removed. I often wondered if living in the house with plastic on the windows made her feel like she was in a dirty fish bowl, Unable to see outside during the spring and summer months.
Next to her house was the United Church. On the other side of the church was the local cemetery surrounded by a chain link fence. It was a small cemetery, but well maintained, there were always fresh flowers in the summer and wreaths in the winter. Every time my son and I would drive by the cemetery I asked him “how many people are dead in that cemetery?” He would laugh and say “all of them!”
Annie always wore her slippers with her house dresses. No need to change, when she was just going to shuffle across the street for a bite and a cup of coffee and some company. She wore knee high stockings, for the illusion that she was actually wearing panty hose; however they usually were rolling down to her ankles.
Rumour had it that there was no running water in the old house, or bathroom facilities, that explained why she took so long in the washrooms every time she visited the ‘Gas/mo e rent /groc ies/din /store’. It was hard to believe that in the 90’s anyone didn’t have running water or indoor plumbing. If it was true, it wouldn’t have known it because Annie was always clean, except for the nicotine on her fingers.
I remember one day, while enjoying a cup of coffee with my new friends, Annie came over to chat. She leaned down with her elbows on the table, putting her face an uncomfortable 6 inches from mine. Unable to back out of the corner I was sitting in, I leaned back a bit to listen to what Annie had to say, secretly hoping she wouldn’t stay long. It was then that I noticed the bristles on her chin, and the fine black moustache she had. When I looked past the cat’s eye glasses I saw Annie’s eyes, and they were blue and clear. From a distance Annie looked to be in her 90’s, when I looked in her eyes, she had the eyes of a 20 year old. The eyes behind the glasses took me by surprise. They were not eyes of an old lady who lives in a rundown house with plastic on the windows; those were the eyes of a woman.
When Annie left the diner, I pleaded with my friends that when I get older and I am in a home, and even if I don’t know who they are or where I am, I want you to visit me once a month and wax my lip. I want you to come in and wax or pluck anything on my face that is sprouting hair! And while you are at it, if I have false teeth, Crazy Glue them to my gums. We had a giggle about it and in a way we were laughing about Annie.
That night, while lying in bed, I thought about Annie, and the shock I felt when I looked past the cat’s eyes glasses. Why was I so shocked to see her eyes? Why did it set me back so much? Why was I thinking about this so much? I realised that she was a child once, a young woman, a mother, a wife, a widow. She had a story, she had a life when she was young and probably never occurred to her that she would get old, and wear house dresses and grow facial hair. She had a life, she probably had her heart broken, she could be me in 40 years! I thought about how insensitive I was, and how much Annie had lived, and how much she knew and how much she could share. I made a promise to myself that I would try and talk to her, look past the whiskers and the cat’s eyes glasses and stop making fun of her. For some reason after looking into those eyes, I needed to know more about her.
About a week later, I visited the ‘Gas/mo e rent /groc ies/din /store’ for lunch secretly hoping to catch up with Annie. She was there, sitting at her regular table, talking to everyone that entered the room. I asked Annie if I could sit with her, and she seemed surprised that I asked. As I sat down and ordered a coffee, Annie lit up a smoke “mind if I smoke Dear?” she asked. It was already lit, but I didn’t mind, I was sitting at her table and I wanted to get to know her.
“How long have you lived in that house Annie?” I asked
“Oh God,, I’ve lived there most of my life, I got married when I was 15, and I moved straight into the house after the weddin’ – spend our honeymoon in that house”
“Wow...15” I was shocked that anyone could be married when they are a mere child
“Yep, Stan was 20. We were married pritnear 60 years. Stan died last year, he’s buried across the street there” Annie pointed out the window towards the cemetery. Pritnear? I knew that was country talk for ‘almost or close to...pretty near...
“So that would make you...75? I asked
“I’ll be 76 next month, my son is supposed to come out and bring the grandkids. I haven’t seen them since the funeral.”
“Oh, you have a son? So do I, my son is 7”
“Yep, Eddy was 50 last month. You only have the one?” Annie was always smiling, always happy. I on the other hand always found something to complain about.
“Yes, only one. You only have the one too Annie?”
“Yep, Stan and I wanted to have 10 kids, but having Eddy almost killed me. There were no hospitals, so I had a friend come over and help me. Turns out he was coming out feet first. They had to rush me to Toronto to see a doctor. They tied my knees together to stop him from comin’ out...I thank the Lord every day for not letting anything happen to Eddy, you know...mental wise”
“They tied your knees together!” I was shocked “You are lucky!”
``after that, we couldn`t have any more kids. Stan pretended he didn`t mind, but I know he wanted more``
I wanted to know what happened to Stan, but I was afraid. I was afraid to upset Annie, and I was afraid to appear too nosey.
``Did you stay home or did you work?” I asked
“I worked in the local Hotel” Annie answered
“Hotel! There was a hotel in this town? Where?”
“It was at the corner, beside the bank building, this used to be a booming town, because the train went straight through the town...yeah, there was a hotel, a grocery store, a 5 and Dime, a sewing shop...”
Annie filled me in on all the history of the town. It was amazing that this town could go from a booming metropolis to a small sleepy town.
Annie had to leave, needed to go feed her cat she said. I watched her shuffle across the street to the cemetery. She stopped in front of the cemetery and leaned against the fence with her elbow, keeping the other hand in her pocket. She was talking to her husband I was sure, but it was the relaxed way she was talking to the cemetery that stuck me. She was pointing and shaking her head and not concerned about any of the cars driving by. She was having a true conversation with her dead husband, as if having a rationale conversation. Then she blew him a kiss, waved, turned, then shuffled home.
I looked forward to my visits with Annie. She was so interesting, she was naive but at the same time she was worldly. Mentally she was a young 20 year old woman. Physically she was an old 76 year old woman. She had the sense of humour and spirit of a school girl, you could see she was up to mischief when her eyes would twinkle, and wink and then tease the kid that pumped gas about all the girls that were watching him. She would play practical jokes – once putting a plastic spider in another regular patron’s soup when he went to the men’s room. She always had a joke, usually the same joke, sometimes making it a bit spicier by adding a few curse words. She would put her hands up to her mouth and whisper the curse words, then would ask us to excuse her French!
Annie told me early in the mornings; before she went to work at the Hotel, she would help Stan milk the cows, then load the truck with milk to sell. She would change her clothes and head to work at the front desk of the Hotel. She met all kinds of people who were passing through. She named movie stars and politicians she met, and even lucky enough to get an autograph from Mary Pickford. “Lucky she was in silent pictures I tell ya, she had a voice like a donkey...did you ever hear a donkey in heat? That’s exactly what her voice was like” Annie laughed
Annie had a lot of gossip, and always remembered everyone’s name. She told me about the son of the owner of the hotel ‘used to keep a room aside for just himself, and he used to sleep with women that were passing through town..Oh yeah, he was a ladies’ man alright...smooth talker that one. His father didn’t know about the room, but he used to keep the key and order the maids to clean the room every time he was finished with a young lady.”
“What happened to him” I wanted to hear more
“He died of VD!”
“Really” I asked “he died from VD”
“Yep” she laughed “it was a real scandal I tell ya, all the young ladies that were associated with him all booked train tickets for Toronna to see a doctor” She leaned back and lit a smoke smiling “you should have seen them, one by one they were buying tickets, terrified they had the VD too. Oh my Goodness, it was a real scandal. All we needed was the penicillin and we were fine”.
“We Annie?...did you have relations with him too?” I was intrigued with her story
Annie stopped smiling, realizing she let the cat out of the bag. She leaned close to me, I could see the eyes again “that is between you and me ok Dear” He was a handsome son of a dog, and Stan and I were having some problems. He went out of town to find work, and like I said” she sat up straight again and lit another smoke. “He was a real smooth talker”.
I knew there was more to the story, but I didn’t persue it. Annie would let me know in her own good time, if she wanted to.
One spring afternoon, while my friends and I were having our afternoon tea, we watched Annie shuffle home from our visit. There were 3 telephone repairmen working on a telephone box across the street. Annie waived to them as she does to everyone that she sees, then turned her back to the repairmen, bent over and started to pull weeks from her walkway! Her house dress was hiked up to her waist, flashing the repairmen. They all stopped what they were doing, their mouths dropped, they looked at each other in disbelief then started to laugh uncontrollably. My friends and I also wanted astonished.
“Do you think she did that on purpose?” on friend asked
“No...Annie isn’t some kind of flasher”
“Oh yeah, well since when has Annie ever weeded her walkway?”
We all looked at each other and giggled.
The winter months were cold and damp. It snowed everyday it seemed. I didn’t visit the ‘Gas/mo e rent /groc ies/din /store’, during those days when the roads were bad with drifting snow. I thought of calling Annie, to see how she was making out, but of course she didn’t have a telephone.
Finally, like the wild animals in the nearby forest, we all came out of hibernation and ventured out to visit friends at the Diner. I needed to socialize again. I was looking forward to seeing my friends again, especially Annie.
When I drove into the parking lot, there was an ambulance in Annie’s driveway. I walked across the street to the crowd of people standing in front of Annie’s house.
“What’s going on?” I asked
“Annie” my friend was crying “we hadn’t seen her for a few days, and she didn’t answer the door so we called the police. Turns out the old girl had a stroke and has been dead in there for over a week”
“A week!” I was so shocked, I felt so guilty. I knew she was alone, and I didn’t even check up on her all winter “the poor thing....”
“Good ole Annie...she always had a nice thing to say about everyone...to die like that...all alone” I heard someone say
“She was waiting for her son all last month, and he never showed up” another said
When they brought the body out on the gurney, covered, I felt sick. I felt sick with guilt. I felt sorry for her, and I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t have a coffee that day, I just went home.
I thought about Annie, what her life was like, that one day she had the world by the tail, then she got old and suddenly she was in the back of the line-up of life. She wasn’t important anymore, not even to her son. I thought of how much alike we were, and I could die one day, all alone. I realized then I had to do something with my life, to make sure I am surrounded by friends and family that love me, to work hard, but to make sure I made time to play. I wanted to get everything out of life that is out there to enjoy. I wanted to grab the world by the tail, and bungi jump.
That summer I was busy. I was busy at work, busy with my son, busy with friends, and busy with a new boyfriend. I visited the “Gas/mo e rent /groc ies/din /store’ every once and a while, but it wasn’t the same without Annie. Annie’s house was tone down, the old house with the plastic on the windows and the beautiful iron fence was gone, and new sod was laid over the hole where her house once stood. When I drive by it is hard to see where the house once was. Gone; disappeared like Annie.
Whenever I feel down, or feel sorry for myself, I drove by and realize again how important it is to live to the fullest. I slow down long enough to blow Annie a kiss at the nearby cemetery.