We found out about her death because Dad saw her obituary in the newspaper. A week or two later, her property was posted with a sign advertising the sale of the contents of her home. Dad collected antiques and anything old. He was anticipating treasures waiting inside to be discovered.
I gripped his hand as we walked down the path and up the steps to the large front porch of the house next door. I wanted to enter but felt like we were trespassing – invading her privacy. Being inside her house was like an unsolved mystery.
“Is it okay for us to be here?”
“Yes, it’s fine. Don’t worry, honey.”
For two years I thought we lived next door to a witch. She was an old lady, alone in a large, three-story house made of stone. We didn’t know much about her but neighbors said that she was a retired high school math teacher and had never married. At one time, she had lived in this house with her parents and an older brother, but they died long ago.
She was skinny and wore knitted shawls over long, flowered dresses. As her head shook slowly from side to side, she walked awkwardly with a cane and her white hair was pinned up. Her face was mapped with wrinkles and she wore wire-rimmed glasses. We were warned by the other kids that if a ball should accidentally land her yard it was lost forever. When my brother once tried to sneak over the hedge to retrieve a football, she appeared and yelled out in a shrill, shaky voice “Get off my property,” waving her cane in the air.
I was nine years old when we moved into the neighborhood. My bedroom window on the second floor faced the side of her house. A few feet of lawn and the width of her driveway separated us. At times I saw her moving around in her kitchen or washing dishes at the sink in front of the window. Once she looked up and saw me. I was ashamed of myself for spying.
Every week she entered the garage to start up her old black Ford. She would back it halfway down the driveway where the engine would run for about fifteen minutes. Then she returned it to the garage. Sometimes I watched this ritual from my window. I never saw her drive the car on the street.
The house was packed with noisy, curious people handling and inspecting her furniture, clothes, and framed art. The air smelled like old books. Dust was floating in the bright sunbeams shooting between the open blinds. There were old steamer trunks filled with fur coats, hats, shoes, and purses. There were no toys.
“How much for the piano?” Dad asked the man greeting customers and collecting money.
He purchased the square grand that would be moved to our living room. He also bought an antique music box and two old trunks.
“Dad, what’s in the trunks?”
“That’s the fun of it. We’ll find out when you unpack them at home.”
When I was brave enough to leave his side, I wandered around afraid to touch anything. Family photos stared from the walls. I covered my eyes and imagined that she, along with her parents and brother were watching me. I tripped over a box and threw out my hands to break my fall. I clapped them together to clear off the dust from the floor.
There were piles of folded linens, stacks of china, and tarnished silverware. I found myself in the kitchen and from the window, it was strange to see our house. I contemplated her view of our busy family while she was there alone. Living with my Mom, Dad, three brothers and a sister, I could never imagine being alone. My two sets of grandparents visited often and I sometimes stayed overnight with them playing cards, celebrating holidays, looking at old family photos and telling stories. There was always candy or an ice cream cone.
Her possessions were on display like in a museum or a garage sale. There had been no grandchildren in her life. I felt a throb of loneliness in this gray house that was gradually being emptied by strangers.
I needed to find Dad and ask if he were ready to leave. Backing out of the room, I spotted an old wicker laundry basket sitting in the corner filled to the top with balls. Mystery solved – she was finally giving them back.
Lois Perch Villemaire lives in Annapolis, MD. She loves practicing yoga, writing flash stories, and blogging forannapolisdiscovered.com. Her work has appeared in Potato Soup Journal, 101 Words, and The Drabble. She can be found on Twitter @loisville