Friday, May 27, 2011

The Party Line… and Local Characters. Part II


Once settled into our new home one of the first things we did was have a telephone installed. Our new home had never had a telephone, so there were no lines to simply ‘hook up’; lines had to be strung, literally strung, to our home. We were on a party line which was explained to me as neighbors sharing the lines and since electricity had not come to Hinton until the 1940‘s, phone service at all seemed rather advanced. The whopping price of $8 a month didn't seem such a bad deal and there was no need to dial the prefix, only the last four digits. A distinct ring indicated the call was meant for a certain house… two longs and one short was for us. Just another part of the adventure and I could adjust!

Rural land was divided into sections, most of which were divided again into quarters. At the corner of each section most people built their homes.. more to allow for unfettered farmland than companionship, but most homes were across the road or catty-corner to each other. Our little ’neighborhood‘, consisted of four homes besides ours, all within view of each other. Across the road one way were Mildred and Cecil Erickson, whose children were grown. Behind them lived the Milligan’s and Mrs. Milligan, and avid Ornithologist, had taught second grade for forty years. The Slaton’s lived on the hill to the West with their teenage son, and the hermit, Ester Ryker, lived just to the south in a misty, dark, and strangely spooky hollow.

No story could be complete without a crazy, reclusive neighbor, and I had mine with Esther. No one had seen Esther since her one trip to town to bury her father decades before and she lived alone with dozens (or perhaps hundreds) of cats. She was the character fairy tales are written about and with my vivid imagination, scared me to death. All alone out here with little babies, strange sounds in this strange land, little light and early darkness and a hermit living adjacent to me... terrifying! I saw her twice in the first three years. Each time she was wearing her father’s tattered clothing, his pants held up with a rope. A floppy man's hat was pulled down over her face and she had rather severe stoop or perhaps a hump on her back. She had lumbered to the mailbox to snatch her mail and rushed back into the foliage at the sight of me. My imagination ran rampant with tales of witches bearing poison apples, headless horsemen, and wind-whipped spells!

Asking anyone about her was always met with the same response.. no one had seen her in years; she was perhaps sixty when we moved but no one knew for sure. Her sweet Mother had died in childbirth with her and that is when the family buried itself in grief. Her father had once been an outgoing happy man, but was never the same after his young wife died leaving him with infant Esther, two year old Inez, and a son Roy. He became reclusive and depressed and solicited a promise from his children that they never fall in love or marry for they could suffer a such a loss themselves. The son married but the girls obliged. Esther had never gone to school or town, never dated, had no friends, and lived a self sufficient life without electricity. The grocer delivered monthly supplies which were put out near the road and the Co-Op delivered feed for her cows. No one saw her...ever... and I shared a neighborhood and phone with her!

Her phone ring, one long, one short and two long, sounded only on Sunday at noon, shortly before her sister arrived to visit. They would walk the property screaming and growling at each other for an hour or so before Inez' ride would come to pick her up to take her back to town.

The sister Inez ran the feed store in town. She lived in a long room adjacent to her store that was her bedroom/office. In there, as you stepped in to pay a bill or buy garden seed, her small bed and toiletries were clearly visible... and cat-covered. Rheumy eyed cats were not only on the bed, the chairs, the desk, the floor, and every other surface, but dozens leisurely sunned outside the store. Their health was deplorable and their gaggingly-awful smell hung in the air for a full block! I used to put the seed outside rather than 'perfume' my house! It was always an amazement to me that Inez dressed each day in a crisp freshly ironed dress, a spotless hairnet, and wore perfect hose... and none of her clothes had cat rips or any odor... a miracle!

But back to Esther... I did not know for years she listened to all my calls! It was a winter day and our dog escaped the yard and I could hear him barking at Esther's so I decided to go to the road and forcefully call him. She appeared in the woods and gruffly yelled at me to "Keep yor dog n Peacock outta here... n yor own Mother don't like 'ya!"  So much for privacy, and thanks Mom.

Of course she had no fences for her cows since she called them by name and they kept close to the barn. Once when our cattle escaped and ran to her woods Michael happened on her as he was collecting them. He apologized and she growled she knew they were out... the Owls had told her! (You can't make this stuff up.)

Once the little boys, in a spirit of generosity gave Valentines to all of our neighbors. Esther found their card in the mailbox, glared over here, tore it up and tossed it over the bridge. The children were watching for her pleased reaction so it hurt them fairly badly.

Naturally I did not want the children, who regularly visited Mildred and Cecil for cookies and conversation, to bother Esther. Since they were big enough to wander the creek we shared with Esther, I decided to let her know she need not bother looking out for them. So baby in arms one day after the Valentine card incident, I marched up the narrow dirt road to her house to tell her the children would never come to her place; I would make sure of it!

Her back was to me and I surprised her as she was feeding her cows. As she turned I saw her close-up for the first time in ten years. Good Lord, she was was wearing a man's formerly white, now brown t-shirt, man's over shirt, men's pants held up with a rope belt. She had long coarse eyebrows and her underlip protruded and shook back as forth as she hissed at me.

The children had gathered at the road after terrified word had spread among them "Mom's going to Esther's!!". As I approached them after my visit, they quaked and begged me to tell them what she had said. I told them she took baby Peter's leg and said "It's nice and plump, but not quite enough... send the other boys over."

I told them I had seen collapsed little-boy clothing by the barn and she was calling her cats names like Bobby and Sammy, Billy and Jimmy. As the children's eyes widened, I told them the cats looked very sad. I told them they had once been little boys who wandered into Esther's to explore and she had turned them into cats with a spell! I asked if they were ever going to go over there... Unanimous "NO"!

Hilarious stuff... I love creative parenting!

More Later~