It’s been almost 50 years since I worked for the schoolmarm who lived up the street on Laurel Avenue. I was a skinny kid in a dirty white T-shirt, and I was afraid to stare, but more afraid not to give the 80-year-old woman my full attention. She had instructed unruly farm boys for half her life, and in her watery blue eyes I read (in perfect cursive): “I’m not too old to wield hickory, young man!”
Someone had chiseled Miss Blunt’s face from a hunk of firewood—not smooth laurel, but grainy, seasoned oak. Distracting whiskers erupted from moles in her chin, and she lisped through a single bottom-row of jutting, yellow teeth. Joints in her jaw worked like worn hinges, and perspiration glistened in two unruly hedges above her eyes.
Miss Blunt’s raspy voice piped from cords shrunken by years of lonely, internal reflection, and I froze as she stepped within inches of my nose.
“This way, boy,” she said, and pointed her hickory cane. She limped ahead of me and it never touched the ground.
I had a chance to appraise Miss Blunt from behind now. Even in the stifling Southern Oregon heat she wore layers of flannel shirts. Her boxy hips carried her frame like a cart without springs, bone on bone, and she winced, grunting with each jarring step. I felt a shudder climb my back as I glimpsed baggy brown stockings gathering like snake-skin above her square-heeled shoes. Front or rear, Miss Blunt was a composite of every fairy-tale crone I had ever read about.
“Can you clear out these wicked blackberry vines, boy?”
Now it was her turn to canvas me from top to bottom. I was a vertically-challenged, 11-year-old, and Miss Blunt said that I looked young for my age. She lifted her Roman nose high, squinting through non-existent glasses.
“So! How much do you charge?”
My pitch tumbled out like a gum-ball: “Forty cents—an hour…?”
Miss Blunt snapped her mouth shut like a coin purse for a few seconds, then half-shouted at me, “Too little! Much, too little, young man. You hear me? Your wage will be $1.25 per hour.”
If she had said 10 cents a day, I wouldn’t have argued. Miss Blunt flourished her cane at a hoe, rake, and ax.
“Are you skilled with farm tools?”
“Good. But where are your gloves?”
“Don’t have none.”
“You don’t have any,” she corrected.
There is something very “private” about an old woman’s sweaty gloves, and I held my breath as she took them off her hands and flapped them into my chest. She stood witness as I cloistered my digits, then she ambled stiffly to her unpainted house to stand in the doorway. The sun-baked me for an hour, and I lost track of Miss Blunt while I hacked and piled berry vines. I pretended not to see her as she walked past me with a roll of TP, and after her trip to the outhouse the curtains inside her house twitched sometimes.
Suddenly a loud whistle distracted me. From near her front door Miss Blunt motioned me to come, and then she disappeared. She left the door ajar, just a crack.
Crowned with rusty tin, the outside of Miss Blunt’s house was as worn and faded as her flannels and stockings. I doffed her pungent gloves onto an old metal rocking chair, and hesitating, I pushed the door open. Inside, my eyes refused to adjust in the dusky living room that smelled of Ivory Soap and wood smoke.
Piers supporting the house had rotted long ago, and I shuffled down a gentle slope toward clatters in another room. The air in the living room felt too thick to breathe, and I wondered if Miss Blunt’s Warm Morning wood stove was actually ablaze on this scorching day! Through the twilight, somber faces in oval-shaped photographs stared at me until I reached Miss Blunt’s lemon-colored kitchen, where I revived in a breeze from an open window.
Prickly Miss Blunt sat at her chrome and yellow Formica table, and motioned to a glass of unidentifiable juice that I thanked her for, in advance. The elixir went down cool and pulpy as she asked about my grades, and interjected a little about her own life. Her memories of the Great Depression and two world wars still churned in her mind like steam in a boiler.
After another hour of work, Miss Blunt paid me in cash—plus a bit more than she promised.
Over the next couple of summers I looked forward to defending Miss Blunt from wicked blackberry vines. She had no telephone, so her closest neighbor hopped on the party line to call me when she needed chores done.
Our friendship grew, and our routine never changed when I worked for her: Miss Blunt watched intently as I whacked and stacked berry vines or split firewood wearing her floppy gloves. At intervals the old teacher whistled me to her kitchen table for a glassful of “something,” and we chatted about my hobbies or school, or about students I reminded her of.
One summer she never called, so I busied myself cleaning horse stalls and hauling hay for spending money. I completely forgot about my elderly friend until glancing her way one morning as I bicycled past. I skidded my Sting-Ray, staring in disbelief! A bulldozer had scraped away my old schoolmarm’s home—privy, berry vines and all!
Miss Blunt had broken her leg and lost the argument with relatives about moving to a nursing home—permanently. Shortly after her convalescence, she died.
I value my first job sweating under the watchful eyes of a schoolmistress whose face I shall never forget. She carried hickory in her tongue, and expressed a gruff generosity common to unsentimental women and men of her generation.
We shared a memorable friendship—and a pair of old leather gloves.
Miss Blunt’s face and her friendship is as vivid as if she lived down the street today, while some details relating to her house and events skip through my memory like a scratchy old vinyl record….