February 26, 2017

There Was an Old Woman Who Lived By a Brook [Bumped]


When the fog forms in Paradise all my ghosts come out, moving like wraiths behind the mist, believing no one can see them. But I do. Everywhere in this small town in northern California in which I was a young boy and to which I have returned as an old man, I often sense that boy and those long ago moments.

This morning the fog was thick here on the ridge as I returned from an errand down on Lucky John Road; a road I had not been on for over 60 years. Even before I came over the crest of the hill and started down the far side my back brain told me there was a brook at the bottom. And sure enough, in a moment, my car passed over the brook as it flowed in a culvert from one side of the road to the other.

Today there were a number of tidy cookie-cutter contractor-built homes on either side complete with their gardens, garages, and water-features. The once forest-thick pines were thinned out to garden specs.

The little old lady’s ramshackle homemade house was long gone to landfill... as was the little old lady herself. Still, as I pulled the car over in the fog and looked around, they appeared. Ghosts moving behind today's new morning; a kind of Balinese shadow puppet epic projected on the far side of the atmosphere by the lantern of memory.

The last time I had been to the brook I was 11 and I walked. I walked from my house on the canyon's edge half a mile to where the brook meandered out of the pines and under Lucky John Road. I did it because my father told me to do it. I did it because my father had decided that at 11 it was time I had “A Job.” My father believed in boys having A Job and having one as soon as possible.

One evening shortly after my 11th December birthday he called me aside. “There’s an old lady named Miss Helen over the hill who needs help,” he told me. “She’s getting on and she has no family. She needs help chopping wood for her heat and other chores.” (“Dad, please.”) “No backtalk. I’ve already told her you’d be there tomorrow afternoon.” (“Oh come on, dad.”) “Did I mention she was going to pay you.” (“Please, dad.... Oh? How much?”) “Four or five bucks a week....” (“When can I start?”)

This would have been 1956 and my allowance at the time was a royal fifty cents a week which kept me in bubble gum and comic books. Barely. The sum to be paid was an expansion of my cash on hand to levels beyond the dreams of boyhood avarice. The next afternoon my Keds crunched through the thin sheets of ice formed in the puddles next to the stream as I reported to Miss Helen driven more by greed than duty.

Thinking back Miss Helen’s place was more of a hut than a house. It had a tin roof and was very small, consisting of a small sitting area just inside the door, a kitchen behind that, and a sleeping alcove behind that with a curtain that was always closed.

The hut sat on what were probably cinder blocks on a sort of islet around which branches of the brook actually made a babbling sound over the mossed rocks. There must have been some electricity since I remember a refrigerator and a radio, but there weren’t any electric lights, only kerosene lanterns that required me to trim their wicks. Her water was drawn from the stream and stored in a large tank just on the other side of the kitchen wall with a pipe that came through the wall to a small metal tub she used as a sink. One of my primary tasks was to carry buckets of water to the tank and fill it.

This job began in the winter and the only source of heat Miss Helen had was a standard issue wood stove that she also used for cooking. The stove took a lot of wood and the old lady’s wood came from a large pile of logs on another islet behind her hut. They were far too big to fit in the stove and my main job was to take a maul, then an axe, then a hatchet, and transform the each log into a pile of kindling that the old lady could use. It wasn’t that bad a job except when it snowed or rained, which, since this was winter in Paradise was pretty much every other day when it was not a continuation of the snow and rain from the day before.

At the start it made me ache but by the end of two weeks I didn’t mind it much. I went to school. I took the bus home and at the bus stop instead of going down the dirt road to home I walked over the hill to chop wood and carry water. When I was done I would walk home. Tired.

Miss Helen was both little and very, very old. Or as old as a person in their late 60s appeared to a boy of 11 in 1956. She was small, stooped, with almost translucent hands, and as roly-poly as my paternal grandmother. She wore thick stockings and heavy shoes. It seemed to me that she wore only hand-sewn dresses that could have been fashioned from large print tablecloths. Over these she always had an apron on. These aprons always had a pocket and from that magic pocket, every Friday, she’d take a clasp-closed leather change purse and count out four silver dollars with their satisfying clack and clink.

Once I got home my father had me hand over two of the silver dollars so he could demonstrate the miracle of compound interest in a savings account he made me open.

“So,” he’d ask every week as he relieved me of half my cash flow,”how do you like going to the job?”

I’d make some kind of half-hearted response to which his response was always, “You don’t have to like the job, but a real man always goes to the job.”

I’d nod and dream of all the extra Fleers bubble gum and comic books my residual two bucks were going to get me down at the Feed Store. Sometimes I’d splurge and get a nickel Coke and read my comics lying on bags of feed with their dusty burlap smell.

And so I went to the job with the little old lady who lived by the brook. For months I chopped wood and carried water for Miss Helen, and saw how even the very old and the very poor still carried on their lives with dignity even when all they had was miserable, mean nothing.

Then, one day, I came home on the school bus and found my father waiting for me at the stop. “You don’t have to go to work today. Miss Helen’s left.”

“Left? Where’d she go?”


“When’s she coming back?”

“She won’t be. But she left this for you.” He reached into his wallet and handed me a ten dollar bill. At the time it was the largest bill I’d ever possessed. “It’s like a two week notice. She wanted you to have it.”

I took it feeling good about having it but disappointed that Miss Helen would leave without so much as a goodbye.

But of course she didn’t leave. She just became a ghost; a ghost my father wanted to spare me. Hence, she just went away. Until this morning when, sitting in my car near the brook on Lucky John Road, she came back.

She came back out of the fog; small, translucent, in her hand-made dress with her apron and her worn change purse fat with its silver dollars.

Which is when, after 60 years, it hit me.

Miss Helen was a very, very poor woman. In 1956 four silver dollars a week would have been a serious sum of money to her. Very serious. Unless she had some sort of secret stash of silver dollars. Which I was pretty sure she did not. In fact I’m pretty sure a secret stash of pennies would have been beyond her means.

On the other hand, my father really liked silver dollars and always kept a jar full on his dresser.

“You don’t have to like the job, but a real man always goes to the job.”

When the fog forms in Paradise, all my ghosts come out.

Posted by gerardvanderleun at February 26, 2017 3:18 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

I'm not sure why, but I feel like crying. That was a wonderful story.

Posted by: Patvann at February 13, 2017 4:33 PM

That one excels even Ambrose Bierce. Wonderful!

Posted by: Frank P at February 13, 2017 4:59 PM

Some of us have ghosts that follow us a few steps behind; they are from the past and can only come so close. Maybe others lead but mine follow, or at most flank like Stonewall's cavalry scouts, but always with a purpose, a lesson, even a tease. The experience is a less startling this decade than previous, and leaves an unfillable pang of regret I cannot compare to anything.
Embrace your ghosts, if yours are like mine their emotions are tender.

Posted by: Dan Patterson at February 13, 2017 5:06 PM

As a boy, we lived poor -- but always helped the poorer.
Thank you for your shared memories in this wonderful ghost story.

Posted by: Sam at February 13, 2017 5:14 PM

Boy! Can I identify with this. I left home 53 years ago and only in the last ten have I made short trips back to visit my sister, old friends and a few cousins. I drag my wife to childhood haunts and revel her with my boring stories. And I find ghosts, sometimes long forgotten ghosts. What bothers me most is to go to a place that was significant in my life and it simply isn't there anymore. My parents house on 2 acres is gone and in it's place are four McMansions. My high school is still there but it isn't safe to get out of your car and walk around now. It is a strange mix of nostalgia, loss, anger and sadness. Friends have passed, things have changed. It is true, you can't go home again.

Posted by: GoneWithTheWind at February 13, 2017 5:26 PM

It was absolutely a beautiful story, with a beautiful ending.

Posted by: Jewel at February 13, 2017 5:27 PM

Reminds me of my home at the same time and not far away from where you are Gerard. Brings back wonderful memories.

Posted by: Terry at February 13, 2017 5:46 PM

So lovely. Thank you for sharing.

Posted by: Leslie at February 13, 2017 5:59 PM

When I was young, there was a new wonder every day; life exploding--loaded, fragrant. Entering late middle age I am not really surprised that this kind of wonder is almost vanished. What does surprise me is that there are still some new wonders, and that there are ghosts who teach me things.

Posted by: rigeldog at February 13, 2017 6:32 PM

Beautiful story and well told as usual.

BTW does anyone know if Happy Acres has opened shop anywhere else since tumblr shut him down? I really enjoyed his commentary and quirky pictures.

Posted by: Arty at February 13, 2017 6:52 PM

What a Dad. We never quite get Dad until years after he's gone, and it finally sinks in how cleverly he taught us so much.

Posted by: Mike Anderson at February 13, 2017 6:55 PM

Beautiful. Thank you.

Posted by: Julie at February 13, 2017 6:57 PM

Dads don't really keep secrets about the important things in life...it's just that it takes us quite a long time to really understand the purpose of Dads and what they left us.

Posted by: indyjonesouthere at February 13, 2017 7:49 PM

Well, that clinched my blurry eyes up and trembled my lower lip until I smiled.
I'm so very glad you told us.

Posted by: DeAnn at February 13, 2017 7:59 PM

@Arty, Mr Happy Acres has decided to take some time off- he is blue about his soon-to-be empty nest. I told him he was missed.

Posted by: Leslie at February 13, 2017 8:48 PM

That touched me, in part because three of the four homes I lived in as a boy with my family no longer exist. I have no choice but to remember what I can of them.

Posted by: pfsm at February 13, 2017 9:35 PM

Thank you Leslie. I discovered H.A. through American Digest and both were regular stops for me. He is indeed missed. Wish him 'all the best' from me.


Posted by: Arty at February 13, 2017 10:03 PM

That was beautiful.

Posted by: The Old Salt at February 13, 2017 10:28 PM

You got a lot more than silver dollars.

Posted by: Glenn at February 13, 2017 11:39 PM

Simply, gloriously, beautiful. Thanks, Gerard.

Posted by: Charlie at February 14, 2017 3:04 AM

Being haunted by kind spirits is earning a medal of honor.

Posted by: Howard Nelson at February 14, 2017 4:23 AM

Born and raised in Gettysburg where plenty of ghosts stir, I too moved away at age 11 (1966) and never yet returned. Maybe it's time....

Posted by: ghostsniper at February 14, 2017 4:36 AM

HappyAcres was dumped? Was it his white privilege? Perhaps his blatant happiness with life. Or did he commit the ultimate sin of saying "blue lives matter"?

Some years back while traveling in Southern Europe my wife and I encountered a sketchy situation in a semi-public place with a guy who looked dangerous. He asked if we were American. I immediately remembered some advice I had gotten in the past and responded no, that we were Canadian, hey! He believed us and moved on.

Posted by: GoneWithTheWind at February 14, 2017 9:39 AM

Absolutely precious. Thank you.

Posted by: Grizzly at February 14, 2017 4:16 PM

@Gone WTW- I believe it was his posts about IQ and his general habit of "noticing", that got him kicked off tumblr. He was sent packing with no warning or explanation beyond, "Offensive" material.

Posted by: Leslie George at February 14, 2017 5:15 PM

Hey GWTW, what a coincidence. Every time any of my relatives went to Europe they encountered sketchy situations too. They were shot at and bombed the whole time they were there. I promised myself I'd never go.

Posted by: Arty at February 14, 2017 5:42 PM

Wow. Just started coming here. Now I'll be back, often. Brought me back 50 years to a similar story. Terrific writing.

Posted by: JP at February 14, 2017 8:53 PM

Even knowing your writing as I do, I had to read it three times. Then, the tears came to my eyes. Beautiful.

Posted by: Linda at February 15, 2017 8:38 AM

Got me all misty again. Thank you.


Posted by: jwm at February 15, 2017 9:16 AM

Thanks for this. So lovely, and so lovely to share.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at February 15, 2017 4:38 PM

Thank you. I'm glad you got to go home again.

Posted by: Grace at February 15, 2017 9:01 PM

I haven't read anything so wonderful in a very long time, Mahalo.

Posted by: Island Girl at February 15, 2017 11:38 PM

My father was a very successful CPA, a mathematical wizard who had his own small corporation, with clients that ran throughout South Texas. I saw occasional glimmers of his back-channel generosity, confirmed by many only after his funeral, when he would secretly lobby his contacts throughout the area to grant jobs to promising young men, and his anonymous fund-raising efforts.

One of his many bon mots on this subject was his observation that when you return to find your childhood home, it's not your home that you are seeking, but your childhood.

Posted by: Darkwater at February 16, 2017 4:50 AM

My parents are gone, their home sold. I cannot go home again but often they come visit me.
This was beautifully done Gerard.

Posted by: Kristin at February 16, 2017 6:08 AM

Wonderful, thanks Gerard.

Posted by: tonynoboloney at February 16, 2017 8:37 PM


Posted by: pdwalker at February 17, 2017 5:24 AM