Before blogging, I used to write little vignettes of people to myself. They were kind of a diary, but at some point I sucked up all my nerve and asked my friend Ray to give me feedback. We were at a wine bar, and lots of things were going on, live music, friends… but Ray produced a red pen and started marking all over my tender feelings. I wasn’t allowed to talk to him, so I drank a lot of wine to make the whole process less painful.
One of the stories I let him read was about Mrs. Harbison. She lived across the street when I was growing up, and since she was blind, I read her mail to her every month. My original story was a little less than 2 pages long, but Ray wrote at least that much in red ink in the margins and across my carefully spell-checked typing. I ordered another bottle of wine. When the misery of watching Ray edit was over, he said “She sounds sweet.” What?!! If she sounded “sweet”, I had completely failed. We drank the wine and Ray explained all his red ink. I had to admit that everything he said was valid, and I studiously rewrote my story when I was sufficiently sober again. Less than 2 pages became a short story, or more accurately, a chapter for a book. Nobody was going to call Mrs. Harbison “sweet” again.
It took me a long time to realize that I had written the blind woman’s story in a completely visual way. Maybe that’s because she asked me to describe visual things to her, or how she softly touched the tips of pussy willows… Oh wait! That’s where someone can get the misconception of “sweet” when more accurate words are “crazy, nuts, certifiably insane”. I dreaded her monthly call for me to read her mail. I nearly wet myself when I knocked on her door. I sssoooooo didn’t want to be nice to her. I wanted to run and play in the sunshine, far away from the crazy lady’s mail and her creepy, creepy house.
She had every right to be nuts. She started out as a favored daughter on “Millionaire’s Row” in Cleveland, married badly, got disinherited, got abused, and her only son died . That’s the Cliff Notes, and hardly begins to tell her story. The only person who went to see her besides me was her priest, and when he moved away, I became her only visitor. I was the only one to see black gobs of cobwebs hanging off the ceiling, opera glasses on the floor, cans of food crawling with bugs on the counter, and photos of long-dead people on the walls and tables. If other people in the neighborhood saw her out in the yard, they quietly tiptoed away.
Maybe in some ways she could be sort of sweet. She tried to educate me with long, boring stories about stuff I didn’t care about, and she had enough self-awareness not to call for me when she was in a real psych state. I never thought she wanted to harm me. It’s just that there’s no way around crazy. Crazy is scary, and I got some grudging respect from the local bullies for going there. Eventually I even developed a relationship with her. She was very intelligent and determined. She was awe-inspiring in a multitude of ways, but I never stopped wishing I didn’t have to read her mail. I just learned to deal with my fate while I passionately prayed for her to have a bad month so I wouldn’t have to go over there.
Her end was as bad as everything else in her life. She heated her home with a Ben Franklin stove in the living room, but the stove went out one winter. No call. Another month, no call. Another month… Well, it wasn’t the first time she hadn’t had a good month for 3 months, but the fire department came and broke down the door with axes. It wasn’t pretty, but she finally got to quit living her miseries.
I usually try to write happy stories on this blog, and the thing is, in a way Mrs. Harbison is a happy story. She helped me develop strength and character. I learned to do things even when I don’t want to do them, and to show compassion. She gave me an example of survival, even when faced with things nobody should ever have to face. The blind woman gave me sight, and Ray helped me become a better writer.