In the small town where I grew up, people never moved. Upside was that your kids didn’t have to change schools or make new friends. Downside: If you were at odds with your next door neighbor, the problem never went away.
I’m thinking of the feud between the Menzies clan and the Warren clan that raged for well over fifty years. Specifically, it was a feud between my mother and Mrs. Warren, who Mom always referred to as “Old Lady Warren.”
How it started, I have no idea, but I suspect it had to do with the fact that Mrs. Warren, unlike my mother, was childless. Children, as any homeowner knows, are the free-ranging agents that forge relationships all up and down the street. Some of those relationships are good; others, not so much. I hesitate here to implicate my older brother Chuck, but since he usually caught the blame for everything that went wrong, why not? What he couldn’t catch was a high fly ball, and if one happened to fly over the fence into Mrs. Warren’s front yard, there was no chance of recovery. Before it even stopped rolling, she’d be out the door to snatch it up. Needless to say, this lent an air of tension to any game of catch. It’s not as if our baseballs were crashing through her windows; they were just landing on her lawn—never to be seen again.
Once, while we were eating, a police car pulled up in front of our house. Someone had reported that my brother Jim was trafficking in illegal fireworks—which was true. In those days you could buy industrial strength firecrackers in bulk, and then parcel them out to your friends for a profit. Jim wasn’t arrested, but the cop relieved him of his inventory.
“Old Lady Warren,” muttered Mom, sounding a lot like Don Vito Corleone.
Of the three Menzies brothers, I was the only one not involved in a criminal enterprise, so I suppose that’s why Mrs. Warren chose to approach me one day with a peace offering. I remember I was sitting on our front porch, minding my own business, when she came bearing a fat slice of cake on a plate. I distinctly recall it was a yellow two-layer cake, with thick chocolate frosting.. She smiled and handed it to me, but before I could take a bite, it slipped from the plate and fell onto the pavement, frosting side down.
“You did that on purpose!” she shouted. And to this day, I wonder if she was right.
Husbands of the two feuding housewives couldn’t broker a peace, although near the end of his life my father tried—by buying and moving into the house across the street. The old house he rented out, and after he died I became a reluctant landlord. By this time Mr. Warren had also passed, and by and by it became apparent that no one was living in the Warren house. The sacrosanct lawn had given way to dandelions and the shrubbery was running wild. A large limb had broken off from one of the two giant Siberian elms that dominated the backyard, and since the limb was lying atop the cable that ran from the power pole to our old house, I figured it was my job to remove it.
Never before had I ever set foot in Mrs. Warren’s backyard. The rusty gate squeaked shut behind me; dead grass crunched underfoot. A chill ran up my spine. I was so…afraid!
Wasting no time, I dislodged the fallen limb, then scurried across the street to our new house, only to find the door locked. After much pounding and yelling, my mother finally opened it.
“I’ll bet Old Lady Warren is getting an eyeful,” she hissed.
That made no sense, nor would much of anything my mother would say in the years to come make sense. Her mind was clearly going, and we all worried that she would wind up like her older sister Inez.
One day my cousin Joan arrived from California to visit her mother—my Aunt Inez–now a resident of a nursing home just one block down the street. I went with her, and was surprised to find that my aunt’s roommate was none other than Old Lady Warren.
“I’m so concerned about your mother,” she said. “I’ve seen her walking the streets, not knowing where she is going.”
For the next hour or so the two of us enjoyed a pleasant conversation, reminiscing about pretty much everything except lost baseballs and dropped layer cakes. All the while, Aunt Inez lay snoring in a persistent vegetative state, taking no notice whatsoever of her only daughter. Within a few years, I ‘d find myself in the same boat as my cousin Joan—forgotten by my own mother, remembered by others I never really knew.