By Jerry Janco
|This Bob Blickensderfer photo could resemble Mrs. Garrison, although we don’t know what she really looked like.|
I knew her only as Mrs. Garrison. Then, as now, it didn’t seem appropriate to call her by her first name, though I imagine it to be Edna, or Mable, or Gertrude…one of the old-fashioned names that are out of style. She was a tiny, old lady with long gray hair which she kept in a tight braided bun. Once, when I was delivering groceries to her place, she hadn’t had time to braid her hair and it was well below her shoulders and down her back. To me, it seemed so strange that she had to spend the time to weave the hair braid and then coil it on the back of her head. After all, both of my grandmothers cut and curled THEIR hair. That seemed easier and more flattering. But I don’t think Mrs. Garrison was concerned with ease or flattery. Pride maybe. She seemed embarrassed that I saw her with her hair down and it never happened again after that one time.
In all other things modesty prevailed, from her simple flowered house dress to her humble surroundings. Mrs. Garrison smiled a lot, but we never had much of a conversation. She had hunched shoulders which gave me the impression of someone who was used to hard work and tough times. She nodded more than she spoke, but in a friendly way. I delivered groceries to her from Picard’s Market As far as I know, she didn’t drive a car nor was ever actually in the store. Perhaps when she was younger.
Mrs. Garrison lived in a chicken coup that had been converted into a house shortly after the Depression. From the outside, it still looked like a coop. At its highest point the roof was maybe nine feet tall, and it tapered down to about six feet. It was a good twenty feet long but only ten feet wide. The original tongue and grove siding had been covered over with thick sheets of tar paper that had a brown-brick pattern in it. It was supposed to look like the real thing, but you knew it wasn’t. At least durable, it didn’t need to be painted. The entire south wall of the coup housed the large, paned windows. Chickens need plenty of heat and light to thrive, and the windows provided both. At some point, plastic had been stapled over the windows in order to keep the place warmer in the winter.
The interior looked more like a house, but the traces of the coop were still here. The ceiling had been painted but still had the downward slope of the roofline. There was a small, makeshift kitchen when you first entered. Surprisingly, a hand-pump was still intact from its coop days, and Mrs. Garrison’s only means for water in the kitchen. There was a single, cast-iron sink beneath the waterspout of the pump. She had hung a pair of curtains under the sink, so I don’t know what held it up. Next to the sink was the gas stove, one that seemed to match Mrs. Garrison’s age and condition…old and frail. A small cupboard was next to the stove. I have a feeling it was made from the remnants of the coup renovation, but I don’t know for sure. It looked homemade. The tiny refrigerator was opposite the stove, and next to it was a tall, white, metal cabinet with doors. Frankly, it seemed out of place since it couldn’t have been more than a few years old.
Throughout the kitchen the plank walls had been papered with a tiny floral print It was pink on a white background. Well, I say white. Over the years, and with help from the gas stove, the background had faded to a dull, dirty beige. You could still see the flowers, but they weren’t as prominent. The paper-tears between the planks didn’t help either. One of the south-facing windows was in the kitchen and in front of it was a small wooden table with a chair on either end. They were old, too. I don’t remember if it had a tablecloth, but I suspect it did.
The only thing that was hanging from the wall was an old picture of a young man with a beard. It was mounted in an oval frame and the glass that covered the photo had been molded to form an outward bow. I had never seen glass like that, and I thought it was unique. The man was tall and thin and dressed in what could have been a leather shirt. It had a row of fringe along the front. It reminded me of the image I had of a Kit Carson or other adventurer of the 1860’s, though I think the photo was taken at a much later date.
His beard seemed large for his face, as did the moustache, but it must have been the style at the time. He had long hair, too. It flowed out from the brimmed cap he was wearing. Though I’m not assuming that this was Mrs. Garrison’s husband, in any case, I felt it had meaning, as it hung above the sink and was one of the first things you saw when you entered her place.
Off from the kitchen in the downward slope of the coop, was a tiny bathroom. Beyond the kitchen was what she probably called the living room. I never had a reason to go there, and she never invited me there. Chances are she used the living room as a bedroom, too, though she may have been reluctant to admit it. I like to think she kept her blankets hidden and only used them when nighttime, winter winds tore the plastic on the windows, and she was dreaming of a young man with a beard.
Or not. Ah, but for the imagination of my youth. She may have just been thankful for a warm place.
The chicken coop is gone now. I suppose I could try to trace Mrs. Garrison’s history. The coop was on Earl Torrence’s property, and I think Mrs. Garrison was Mrs. Torrence’s mother. The Torrence’s lived in the big house next to the coop. They are all long dead now and the neighborhood has changed. Most of them never knew there was a coop or a Mrs. Garrison.