MARTHA SEZ: ‘A shadowy presence, yes, but there was nothing haunted about Mrs. Hinkle’

Mrs. Hinkle and another old lady lived next door to us back when I was growing up in the 1950s. My definition of “old” has changed since then, but even by my present day standards I am pretty sure they were old.

Mrs. Hinkle’s housemate I remember only as a shadowy presence behind the front door.

A shadowy presence, yes, but there was nothing haunted about Mrs. Hinkle, her housemate, the old two-storey red brick house they lived in, or the barn at the back of the yard. As children, my brothers and sister and I were not curious about these two ancient, gentle women.

It is only much later, now, when I have no way to learn anything about her, that I have begun to wonder about Mrs. Hinkle. After all, everyone, no matter how ancient, was once young. On my last birthday, my grandson asked, “How old were you when you were little, Grandma? How old did you use to be?”

“I was every age, Jack,” I told him.

“Once I was your age. I’ve been every age up until now.”

Children cannot truly comprehend this, just as the elderly can’t comprehend how quickly time passes. I have learned that when old people say, “My, how you’ve grown!” it’s not just some irritating figure of speech. They really mean it. They can hardly get over it, until they forget in a minute or two.

Time is cruel. Just as the Bible says, Ecclesiastes 9:11, “… time and chance happeneth to them all.”

My grandmother, Rose, who lived with us, said that Mrs. Hinkle grew up on a farm in Detroit, back when the Detroit River was clean enough to drink out of, and not likely to catch on fire. Of course, in the 1950s, that farm no longer existed. It must have disappeared when Detroit became the Motor City.

Rose declared that Mrs. Hinkle was pretty. I couldn’t see it. Her eyes were blue, a noticeable blue, not some indeterminate color like mine, but still. Her face was round, her cheeks were pink, her hair was white. Pleasant. But pretty? Sophia Loren was pretty. Marilyn Monroe was pretty. My mother was pretty.

When I was growing up, Detroit was encroaching on our town with speed and deliberation, its freeways and mile roads like blood vessels–major arteries–connecting it more and more closely with the heart of the big industrial city.

The children on our lane had a wonderful rural playground, enclosed by burgeoning residential development. Mrs. Hinkle’s property was our playground, part of our heaven.

An island surrounded by treeless, sterile, ranch-house developments, Mrs. Hinkle’s yard was, to a child, vast and wild, intoxicating and tenderly comforting at the same time. Just step off the gravel drive of Mill Pond Lane, past the overgrown rose bushes and into the apple orchard –only a few gnarled old apple trees, fragrant with blossom in spring, fragrant with green apples in summer, full of wormy fruit in fall, and fragrant again with rotten apples in November.

In apple blossom time, morel mushrooms grew in the unkempt grass under the apple trees. We brought them home to my mother.

Walking–or preferably running– past the barn and behind the house, we arrived at the field where red raspberry bushes and bachelor button flowers grew in profusion under the summer sun. Mrs. Hinkle let us pick all we wanted. When I wanted to get away from it all, as children as well as adults need to do from time to time, I would lie in the deep, sweet-smelling grass and watch the bugs climbing the stalks and the clouds changing shape overhead.

I have looked up the Hinkle name and found that it is Dutch. Most of the early Hinkles in Detroit were farmers. I have learned from the others who grew up in the lane that I was the only one dorky enough to obey the grown-ups who told us never to trespass in Mrs. Hinkle’s barn.

After the two old ladies died, the house and barn were demolished, replaced by a housing development I haven’t forgotten Mrs. Hinkle. I know that she was a girl once too, a pretty one, and maybe a mother, and that she was every age until she died, and that she and her housemate, whoever she was, enriched our lives, even though we never gave them a thought. But at their age, you know, they understood about all that.

Have a good week.

(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the News for more than 20 years.)