All the kids in the neighborhood thought that Lela was a witch. She certainly looked the part with her long faded skirts and oversized, threadbare sweaters. She was a small person, bony and thin, and her face was as withered as an old apple, with wide set eyes that peered out anxiously from deep sockets. She wore her long hair, which was the color of tired whites, pinned up except for once a month when she let it down to wash it. Lela didn't use shampoo: she washed her hair with a bar of Ivory Soap, and in an age of products like Breck and Prell, this seemed extremely odd and old timey. When the weather was warm enough, Lela washed her hair outdoors in a basin set up on a table on her porch, and then let it fly free as she skipped absently up and down Cherry Street, singing softly to herself until it was dry.
Lela lived with her older brother Burt in a faded two story house on the corner of Sargent and Cherry Streets in Norwood, the section of Warwick, RI, where I grew up. Her yard was separated from ours by a border of pale gold iris's which, when you closed your eyes and sniffed them, smelled exactly like root beer. Her house was older than most of the homes in Norwood which were built at the end of WWII, and had sprung up en masse like mushrooms after a summer rain. It had Victorian details; ornate woodwork atop the columns on the back porch, and a gabled roof, and for as long as I could remember, was in need of paint. On Lela's property there was also a dark old musty garage with a dirt floor, and a smaller building that had once been a chicken coop.
On sunny days, Lela and Burt sat outdoors in two old wooden chairs by the side of the garage. They were always bundled in layers of clothing of indeterminate colors, even on hot summer days. Burt sometimes plucked at a banjo, but otherwise they simply sat for hours, facing the sun, with their cats asleep at their feet. Burt died before I entered grade school so I mostly remember Lela living alone. After Burt was gone, Lela wandered the streets alot, talking to her herself, carrying a broom for a walking stick. What am I gonna do? she'd mutter. What am I gonna do? Occasionally she'd wander into our yard, where my Grandmother stood hanging the wash on our clothesline. What am I gonna do? she'd ask her. My Grandmother had no tolerance for Lela and shooed her away as if she was a pesky crow. That Lela is not right in the head, she'd say, disdainfully.
Lela was the only person in the neighborhood who actually stopped The Rag Man, as he floated slowly up and down the streets in an ancient pick up truck, yelling, Rags! Raags! in his wrecked and spooky monotone. She waited for him on the curb, waving her hand in the air and yodeling, Yoo Hoo, Yoo Hoooo! over his hoarse, insistant, Rags, Raags! until he stopped. Lela gave him her bundle of rags in exchange for a few cents, which she would snap into a small leather change purse that she kept in her sweater pocket.
Sometimes Lela stopped me on the street and handed me some coins from her purse. She always asked me to go to the corner market to buy the same two items: a can of Calo Cat Food and a box of chocolate covered graham crackers. Lela had no teeth, and I imagined that the graham crackers were easy to chew. I'd run to the store, purchase the crackers and cat food, then head to her house and knock on her back door. I could see her stooped figure approaching through the sheer curtain as she inched her way down the stairs to let me in. Once inside the back hall I was overwhelmed by the odor of cat urine. And another smell: Noxema. Cat pee, Noxema, and Ivory Soap; these were the smells in Lela's house. Lela took the grocery bag and the change from my hand and thanked me. Then she'd turn and say, What am I gonna do? and walk back up the stairs. I never saw beyond this back hallway, not until my late teens.
I was having a rough winter my first year out of high school. It was the early spring of 1973, and I had started the fall semester at URI, then dropped out. I was too distracted by my relationship with my boyfriend, and getting stoned every day. I was back living with my parents and feeling quite depressed. I took a job working the assembly line at Hasbro Toys in Pawtucket, putting the legs on GI Joe dolls, quit that, then tried waitressing in a bar, and quit that, too. Both jobs were equally depressing. In the meantime, while looking for another job, I took care of my parents' house while they were at work: I cleaned, prepared supper, and hung out the wash. Lela would spot me and walk slowly over to the clothesline, broom/cane in hand.
What am I gonna do? she asked me. I didn't dismiss her the way that my Grandmother had. I didn't know what I was going to do either. I started to invite Lela in for tea. She'd sit with a downturned mouth, looking worriedly around my mother's kitchen. My parents didn't like this. Why are you bothering with Lela? they asked, perturbed. I think that they thought of her like a stray cat or dog, and that once you fed one, you could never get rid of it. She has family, they insisted, A nephew, and he looks in on her and gives her money. But I knew that Lela needed more than this.
I began to take her over a plate of the supper I cooked each evening. She was grateful. The first time that I followed her up the stairs through the door to her kitchen, I was shocked to see how bare the place was. The kitchen was very old fashioned, with wainscoting and high cupboards: there had once been wallpaper but it had long since peeled off, and the trim paint was filthy and chipped. Lela slept in an adjoining room that had once been a sitting room: now there was only a narrow wrought iron bed with yellowed linens, a worn wooden dresser, and a chair. Most curious of all was a flush toilet that sat out in the open in one corner.
I began to visit Lela during the day as well. I got used to the smell. Typically I'd find her lying in bed with her cats. One day when I arrived, Lela was up and rummaging through the top drawer of her dresser. She pulled out a couple of old photos of herself and Burt, and showed them to me. Then Lela told me that she used to have pictures of her parents, but she'd ripped them up and thrown them away. Why did you do that, Lela? I asked her gently. She became agitated and did not answer. I wondered what her childhood had been like, and I tried to picture Lela as a little girl in this house when the paint had been glossy and new.
It was around this time that I began to consider going back to school, to study art therapy, and I got the notion that I could rehabilitate Lela. I walked over to her house manned with paper and paints, determined to to get her to make some art. No, YOU paint, she instructed me. So I sat and painted. One day Lela asked me to paint a picture on the bare cracked wall above her bed. Paint me a Bird of Paradise, she commanded, I want to lie here and look at a Bird of Paradise. The next morning I brought over the encyclopedia, stood on her chair, and referencing the colorful photograph in the book. painted an enormous Bird of Paradise on the wall in gaudy rainbow hues. Lela laid back on her pillow and smiled her toothless smile. Ah, it's beautiful, she sighed.
Soon after this Lela became ill and was taken away in an ambulance. After several days she returned home from the hospital and visiting nurses started to come to her house daily to give her her medication and to bring meals on wheels. I felt relieved that Lela was finally getting this care. I had found a steady job cleaning rooms at a hotel near the airport, and had gotten clean myself. No more smoking pot. I enrolled for the fall semester at RIJC.
Lela died that October, and the house sat empty with a For Sale sign on the front lawn all the following winter. In the spring, a young couple with two small children, a boy and a girl, bought Lela's house and began to renovate the place. I watched from my parents' kitchen window as they carried wheelbarrow loads of plaster down the sidewalk, and nailed up vinyl siding. I wondered what they thought about The Bird of Paradise? Did they smile at it the way Lela had? Or did they hurry to cover it with fresh paint, anxious to erase it along with the smell of cat pee, Noxema and Ivory Soap...