Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Monday, June 23, 2008


"I was wrong to grow older. Pity. I was so happy as a child."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For a long period commencing when I was eleven years old, when my brother and I attended Sunday Mass in the nearby village, an old lady, unfamiliar to us, took her place regularly in the pew behind our regular place.
We noticed her when she began to make her weekly visits a routine. I never found out where she came from or who she arrived with but the appearance continued for several years.
"Ninety-three," she would spit onto the back of my neck, or that of my brother's. She made rubbery noises with her lips at every declaration.
"Ninety-three" was all we ever heard her say before she blew air with a rather disturbing smacking noise.
I remember getting to my feet once for a certain part of the service and finding that I was unable to rise completely. The old woman had grabbed with two hands the bottom of my jacket and was tugging for all she was worth with a strength that belied her age.
"Ninety-three," she wheezed. I could not move and was caught midway, unsure what to do for the sake of politeness.
Much later, what seemed to me like hours, she relaxed her iron grip on my clothing and I was free, albeit blushing furiously at the unanticipated encounter.
She was not really there; that is to say I do not believe she was aware she was holding onto the jacket of a stranger nor indeed even that she was in a church. Most likely she was enveloped in another world entirely, shielded from her infirmity by the mercy of her memories.
I admit that she frightened us both. We were children, and not able to comprehend why an adult would act in such an eccentric way. Elderly people were known to us for their wisdom and common sense, and in our eyes she broke every rule.
The elderly are full of the most elaborate mystery; tragedy occurs when that treasure can no longer be accessed. My brother and I always wondered what "ninety-three" might have meant to her that she needed to mutter it over and over again.
Maybe it was a portion of a girlish song from her early days, or the number of her first house with a dear husband, or the number of pennies she once won unexpectedly at a village fair. Of course I cannot say for certain but I would like to imagine that it was a happy fragment she spun in her mind.
My sibling and I continue to remember that old lady and her restless numerical chattering- but, just like a faded photograph found in an anonymous box, it remains permanently without meaning or a frame of reference.


julochka said...

maybe every church has a rather scary old lady...i remember ours was scary because she sang so loudly and off key that it was quite alarming. there was actually a whole row of them and we called it the LOL row. that's why i can't use that favorite blogism that has come to mean "laugh out loud." to me, it's "little old lady" :-)

happy monday!

polona said...

perhaps the old lady knew the answer to the secret of life, the universe and everything and douglas adams was wrong all the way... (sorry)

Jaime said...

What a curious story.

You know how children when they are, say, 5 years old, love to announce to the world that they are now *FIVE*, holding up their hands with all 5 fingers?

Maybe she was doing the same, but celebrating a much more substantial number.

Barb said...

I love this story.

It makes me remember quite a few of my own "church" stories.

Thanks for the reminder, your posts always seems to jog some little memory hidden in the recesses somewhere in my mind. B

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

Julie, the LOL row... too funny. I'll never forget that one. Thanks! ;)

Polona, you could well be right. I didn't think of that one. After all it must have meant something and in her age and wisdom who knows what she knew.

Jaime, I thought of that too but I don't think she was in her nineties... that's what I thought but I could have been wrong. I was only 11 then.

Barb, I'm always glad I can remind you of something! I like how every story is connected to others and we can tie everything up together. It fascinates me how we can find commonalities in all our lives.

tangobaby said...

Being very much in the midst of an unfolding story with two 90-year-old grandparents, part of what makes me wonder at what age the mind gets old like this?

One can only assume that this lady was a coherent thinking individual for many years, before "93" was the extent of what she was finally able to express.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

Tangobaby, I wonder that too. I think of the last age she was truly coherent at, and whether the slide was gradual or rapid.
It was a most unusual thing to keep repeating which is why it stayed with me.

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