Mrs. George is dressed in a tomato-red track suit, hospital-issued non-skid socks, and a pair of black leather clogs. She stands in her front yard between a large leaf-filled trashcan and a stool she has fashioned from an inverted five-gallon bucket. As she leans over to pick up a stick, one gnarled hand gripping the trashcan for balance, the pendent of her medical alert necklace slips free from inside her jacket and swings over the clutter of yard debris.
“Mrs.George,” I say, but my old neighbor doesn’t acknowledge me. Doesn’t hear me. I consider the noise from the cars as they race down the street. I consider, too, her hearing loss. I say her name again, this time with a marked increase in volume.
She hears me this time. She drops the stick, rights herself, and grips the trashcan with the second hand.
“Well – what is it?!” she says.
Her voice is harsh and impatient. Her eyes focus on me, then widen. It is most frightening. I decide she must be paranoid. That dementia has set in. Poor Mrs. George. Her mind had been so clear during our last visit, but that was over a year ago. She is 97, and that is how it goes at this stage in life. Your mind is perfectly fine until it isn’t.
“IT’S GINGER FROM ACROSS THE STREET,” I say. I am attempting to reassure her, to put her mind at ease, but I succeed only in insulting her.
“I know who you are,” she says. She points to my house. “You have the two beautiful children. Y’all are Methodist.”
“YES,” I say.
“Well, what do you want?” Mrs. George looks past me. Scans the cars as they pass.
“NOTHING, I JUST…”
“Can I just tell you what I’m trying to do?”
Mrs. George reaches out, takes a step, then lets go of the trashcan completely. She walks toward her porch. Away from me. Walks as though she is on a frozen lake. Slowly. Vigilantly. Hands outstretched.
“I JUST SAW YOU IN THE YARD,” I say.
Mrs. George reaches the sizable rock newel post and leans on the stone structure.
“I AM GETTING HOME FROM A WALK. IT IS SO NICE TO SEE YOU OUT! IT HAS BEEN A LONG TIME,” I say, and it has. I haven’t seen her step foot in the yard in over a year, let alone perform chores. She has had some strokes. Two at least.
“I WANTED TO SAY ‘HELLO.'”
“Well, I guess that will be fine, and I apologize for the condition of my yard,” she says. “See, I had a great yard man. Cruz. Been with me for over ten years.”
“YES MA’AM,” I say.
“Cruz is Mexican,” she says. “Doesn’t speak English. He is smart, and…”
Mrs. George pauses to watch a white SUV slowly creep down the street. Once it passes, she sighs and rests an elbow on the top of the post.
“Sorry, I was worried that was my granddaughter. Do you know her?”
“Good. Well, as I was saying, I’ve had Cruz keeping the yard up for me. He is the best. All I ever have to do is come out here and point and he knows exactly what I want.”
“HE SOUNDS LIKE A GOOD GUY,” I say.
“He is. He’s broken his leg, though. Fell off a ladder. Won’t be able to work for eight weeks or more.”
“OH, NO. I HOPE HE WILL BE OKAY.”
“So I hired this new fella to come out here and do some work for me. A man from out in Sonoroville,” she says. She puts the second elbow on the post.
“YES,” I say.
“Well, he put in three box woods. They’re going to be pretty. He cut the grass, did some trimming. Wasn’t out here but three hours.”
“OH?” I say.
“And do you know what he charged me? Four hundred dollars. Four. Hundred. Dollars. And just look and all this mess he left. Just awful!”
And there is a bit of raking which needs to be done, but really, the yard is fine. Fine by my standards. Her standards are much higher, however, and I refrain from talking her out of her opinion.
“CAN I HELP? I CAN RAKE.” I ask.
“No, I can do it,” she says. She shifts her feet. Lays her head down on her arm. “I just do a little, then I sit down and rest. I don’t over-do it. I promise.”
“My daughter that lives with me – she is on vacation this week. Went to the mountains. And my granddaughter – she comes by before and after work.”
“THAT IS NICE OF HER,” I say.
“She made me promise I’d stay in the house. She said, ‘Granny, you promise me you wont get out.’ But I just can’t stand all this mess he’s done left out here.”
And now I understand her paranoia. She isn’t demented in the least, but sharp as ever. Her anxiety stems not from imagined dangers, but from the very real possibility that I will rat her out to her family for working in the yard against orders to do otherwise.
“YOU ALWAYS KEEP SUCH A BEAUTIFUL YARD.”
“It isn’t beautiful now. And do you know what he charged me?” She is sweating now. Her voice is growing softer.
“FOUR HUNDRED DOLLARS?”
“Four hundred dollars!”
“I KNOW YOU LIKE A TIDY YARD, BUT IT IS MIGHTY HOT OUT. LETS GO INSIDE.”
“I will. I’ll go inside. You just go on now, okay. Just leave me to it. I just have to take my time.”
“I WANT TO GO WITH YOU – MAKE SURE YOU GET IN OKAY.”
“Of course I can get in okay. I have lived here since 1940. I know how to get in my own house.”
“YES MA’AM, I KNOW THAT.”
“So just go on home, Ginger. You go home to those beautiful children.”
Mrs. George steps away from the post and ice walks toward the driveway.
“I WILL. I JUST WANT TO WALK YOU IN FIRST, IF YOU DON’T MIND. IF I AM NOT BEING A BOTHER.”
“You’re not a bother, but I am able to do it. You see me going, don’t you? I just have to take my time. But I am going in now, okay?”
“TAKE ALL THE TIME YOU NEED. I WONT RUSH YOU. TAKE MY ARM.”
“There is no need in all of that,” she says.
She crosses the driveway, leans over, and shoves a coil of garden hose off the retaining wall.
“The people at rehab said the more I do for myself, the better I will be.”
Mrs. George reaches for the retaining wall, lowers herself down, and sits.
“I can’t go no more. I will rest here as long as I need to and then go on in or, if I feel up to it, get back in the yard.”
“MRS. GEORGE, I AM JUST A WORRIER BY NATURE. I WANT TO STAY WITH YOU. WHEN YOU ARE READY, LET ME WALK YOU INTO THE HOUSE.”
Mrs. George closes her eyes at the insult, then opens them again and looks me up and down.
“I tell you what,” she says. Her voice is suddenly bright. Patronizing. “To be as slim and trim as you are, at your age and after having kids, now I know that is a sin!”
This is a brazen attempt to flatter me out of her business. It doesn’t work. I force my will and stay by her side (which may be a sin).
“YOU WILL BE DOING ME A FAVOR. PUTTING MY MIND AT EASE. WILL YOU DO THAT FOR ME?”
“I feel fine.”
“But I am lying,” she says. “I have been lying to you. I guess you know that.”
“It just snuck up on me, I guess. The heat. I was hoping to get the yard cleaned up, but I’ve gotten tired.”
I join Mrs. George on the retaining wall. She asks if my daughter is still playing piano. I tell her no, she is learning to play drums. This pleases her. She says complimentary things about school’s music program.
“You are lucky your kids go to the city schools,” she says. “Some of those kids out in the county are so dumb. And it isn’t their fault. They don’t know any better. The dumb little things. They need our prayers.”
After a few more minutes of conversation, Mrs. George announces that she is rested and ready to stand. She is ready to get back in the yard.
“LET ME WALK YOU INSIDE, AND THEN I WILL GET OUT OF YOUR HAIR.”
“Okay, but you have to let me take my time and let me do it my own way.”
Mrs. George stands. She shuffles up the driveway, stops by the mailbox, and removes her post – one envelope at a time. She steps through the gate, opens her door, then leans in the doorway.
“Now, you can see I am inside, and you can go. Go home to your beautiful children.”
“I ENJOYED VISITING WITH YOU,” I say. And I go. I go home to my beautiful children. Todd is home as well. I tell him of the visit I had with Mrs. George.
“Can you believe she was out trying to work in the yard? At 97! And after two strokes?!”
“Working in the yard is the very reason she is still alive at 97,” he says.
“She could die out there!” I say. “She could over-do it, fall, and pass away before anyone got to her.”
“She is going to die sometime. Like all of us. She would probably just as soon die while working in her yard as any place else, don’t you think?”
“So what would you have done?” I ask.
“I would have stayed – made sure she got inside,” he says.
“Exactly. I couldn’t have lived with myself if something had happened to her.”
And I understand why Mrs. George is annoyed with me – not because I am witness to her frailty, but because she has to sacrifice an afternoon in the yard to tend to my neediness.