One summer when I was ten my Mother had me making and selling pot holders door to door around our small town. There was a lady who lived several houses down from us whose door I had avoided for most of that summer. Finally, one day I got up the nerve to knock on that door. The old lady who lived there had the reputation among the neighborhood kids of being a descendent of the “wicked witch” that chased after Hansel and Gretel.
I will admit that I found everything about Mrs. Kelly and her home to have an other worldly sense about it. She lived in a small three room house with a weathered picket fence and several outbuildings. Neither the buildings or the fence had seen a coat of paint in decades. The yard was overgrown with all types of unusual plants some of which appeared to have dried up years before but always came back to life each spring. Mrs. Kelly and I formed a bond that first meeting, and from then on I would drop by as often as I could manage. She must have been in her late eighties at the time but I don’t recall ever asking her age. Mrs. Kelly’s house was dark, and had a strange smell that I could never completely identify. A combination of wood smoke, coal oil, the dried herbs hanging in bundles from the kitchen ceiling, furniture polish, rheumatism medicine were just a few. The front room was very formal and had large chairs that felt like they were made from some type of coarse animal hair. The drapes were dark and heavy. Years later I learned they were made of a brocaded velvet. Everything in the house was old and worn but it all had a well scrubbed and polished look about it.
This is not Mrs. Kelly. Taken from The Spirit of Ireland by Lynn Doyle Published by B.T Batsford Ltd in 1935
A large coal oil lamp hung from the ceiling of the kitchen and there was an old iron stove against one wall used for both heating and cooking. Beside the stove a much dented cooper pot held big chunks of coal and an old trunk, missing the top, was full of logs. The table was always covered with a stiff pressed linen cloth and there was a small loom in the corner that I learned was used for tatting lace. Mrs. Kelly was a short, thin lady who spoke with a thick brogue and wore thread-bare cotton dresses with a knitted shawl around her shoulders. The corners of the shawl crisscrossed her chest and were tucked into an ankle length apron at her waist. The dingy apron, securely tied at her waist, was used for everything from securing her shawl, carrying vegetables and flowers from her garden, to taking hot pots off the stove. Her snow white hair was in a long braid down her back or occasionally coiled in a crown around her head.
She had lived in her little ramshackle house since long before the area was incorporated into the town and before all the modern post war housing developments had built up around her. She continued to live on her little piece of ground the way she had since she was a new bride more than sixty years earlier. Since we were living in the middle of town in the 1950’s, she was considered to be an eccentric for choosing not to have electric service in her home. Her only concession to the modern times was a cast iron hand pump beside her kitchen sink. All I ever saw of her bedroom was the stack of handmade quilts that peeked through the crack of her door.
Mrs. Kelly was constantly shooing off the kids that wanted to take a short cut through her garden, pick the flowers along her fence, toss rocks at the cutout moon on her privy or chase her chickens; so she developed the reputation of being a wicked old witch.
She and her house were certainly different. But, the woman that I got to know just wanted to be left alone to live life on her own terms. She seldom left her place but never seemed to need anything from anyone either. To me she was a warm, friendly, lonely old lady who liked to serve tea from a cracked ironstone pot covered with a quilted rooster she called a cozy. We had honey in our tea and little sandwiches she made from thin slices of home baked bread with the crust cut off. She told me stories about growing up poor in Ireland and what it was like to come here as a immigrant . She talked about her dead husband and the babies she lost and the children she outlived. She showed me how she made the tatted lace she sold to a bridal shop in New York City. But, mostly she just reminisced and I listened.
Mrs. Kelly was the first of several women like her to come into my life over the years. These were women who managed to live to a very old age and remain in good health. Active, quick witted, sharp tongued women who faced life without flinching. Most grew up dirt poor, worked hard and learned early how to be creative at making do.
What an inspiration these ladies have been in my life. I just hope I inherit their longevity and hope I can hold on to a fraction of their energy and creativity.