Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Neighbors

A couple of years ago Maya and I figured out a way to make simple little stuffed dolls out of our drawings.  She drew a dog and then a mermaid, and we scanned the drawings then sized them and printed them out on tee shirt transfer material.  Then we ironed them onto old pillowcase material and stitched and sewed them.

I was so pleased with Maya's dolls that I decided to make some of my own.  I was working on a piece about my childhood neighborhood and had painted some of the grownups that had orbited our little group of kids, vague otherworldly characters that we saw one-dimensionally and through only the sparse interactions that we had with them.  I'm surprised at how much I like the dolls, although I've never done anything with them other than sit them on a shelf in my studio.

I have a feeling you have a collection of Neighbors yourself, maybe the same ones I have.  See how many of your own you can recognize here:  on the left is Mrs. Warner who lived next door behind a tall wooden fence.  I never saw her other than through the cracks in the fence.  She interested me because she had chickens in that secret yard, and she also had a collection of rubber balls; we hit a ball into her yard on an almost weekly basis, and she never returned a single one.   My mother told us she wore dresses made of feed sacks.

The Bishop was a frightening but ephemeral character who wafted in and out of our lives, mostly scowling, very tall, wearing his pointy hat (although he wore a little red beanie for daily wear) and seeming to be one long dark robe.  He was the pastor of our neighborhood and school church and growled at us from time to time.  He once chased me out of the back of church when I was exchanging a pamphlet I had bought for a fresh one (after reading the original purchase to amuse myself during the long afternoon in class).

Arthur Smeedge lived in the house behind ours, also behind a tall wooden fence that enclosed a wildly overgrown yard filled with cashmere bouquet bushes and Japanese plum trees.  He lived with his mother and two sisters, all ancient and unmarried.  On summer evenings Arthur would stand in his back window in his undershirt and old pants and look across our yard.  In eight years of living in that house I never exchanged a word with him or had any dealings at all with him other than scuttling through a hole in the fence and climbing the Japanese plum trees on my way to my friend Joanna's on the other side of the fence that separated his yard from hers. 

The fourth neighbor on this page was actually a ghost, the legendary aunt of a long-ago family who had lived in the haunted house down the block.  The neighborhood story among the kids was that she had died while the family was on vacation one summer, and had haunted the house since that time.  The house stood empty for as long as I lived there, and frequently we would hide in the yard and watch the upstairs window, hoping to see the ghost and looking for clues, to what we weren't sure.

These last two were friendly neighbors.  On the left was Prif, who was a youngish man (although we thought him old), who today would be classified something- or- other and would be living in a halfway house.  He was gentle and simple and always wore a plaid shirt neatly tucked in.  He lived with his parents at the end of the block.  He came around every day and watched us play ball or fling sand at each other or build tree houses.  Sometimes he would try to referee our arguments, but he never actually got involved in our games.  He was a kind of neighborhood watchman. 

The woman with the skull was my favorite.  She lived next door on the other side from Mrs. Warner,  and I knew a few things about her:  her name was Mrs. Turley;  she drove a big cadillac car;  she was a Widow-- the first time I ever heard that word-- and her husband had been a doctor;  she dyed her hair red;  she rented out one of her downstairs rooms to a medical student, who once  put a skull out in the backyard to dry after he washed it, causing a major terror among all of the kids in the neighborhood as we tried to figure out how it had gotten there and if it was real.  Mrs. Turley hired me to climb her fig trees and pick her figs one summer.  She paid me 25 cents a bag for the figs, and she invited me to spend the night at her house the last night I picked for her.  I was excited to get to spend the night but also a little uneasy because I knew that skull was in the house somewhere.  I slept in one of the twin beds in her bedroom.  Just as I was falling asleep she said from her bed:  "You never have to be afraid when you sleep at my house because I have a gun under my pillow."  She then said "Nighty night" and left me staring into the dark, snapped wide awake and terrified that she would forget I was there and shoot me if I got up to go to the bathroom.


  1. These are wonderful characters Gwen!
    you really get a sense of that long ago neighborhood through your stories.. must have been a lot of fun making the dolls.

  2. absolutely! and there are more. . . . thanks for your comment, Rosie