Right at the center of our little village, Swanton, VT, in between Flat Iron Park and the Episcopal Church, there lived a mysterious woman named Mary. Mary lived in a once-majestic house, squeezed in between two other more modest-sized houses at the other end of Grand Avenue. It took me ten minutes on foot to reach her house from mine.
Whether walking to the middle school, or walking to Tiffany’s house or walking with friends somewhere else, you had to walk by Mary’s house to get into the middle of town. Passing along all of the houses on each side, you witnessed neat, tiny lawns, trimmed edges, wreaths hanging on front doors, and potted plants hanging along porches, overflowing with hot pink azaleas. Everyone’s house looked the same as everyone else’s house. That is, until you got to Mary’s house.
Her house was the size of a small mansion, at least for Swanton, VT. It might have even been one of the original houses to be built in Swanton, although I couldn’t say for sure. It was easily one of the biggest houses along our main route, and a bit out of place. It had no distinct color, as the paint had faded and chipped away so badly over the years. It was grey and crumbling, betraying the fact that absolutely no one had tended to its outsides in decades.
Mary’s front lawn, instead of being mowed and weed-wacked along its edges like its neighbors, was instead occupied by three or four border patrol cars that never, ever budged. It was almost as if one day, there was some kind of raid at her house, a handful of border patrol agents haphazardly parked on her front lawn, and then just never left. Their faded mint green coloring and old rims conveyed that this apparent raid had taken place many, many years ago.
Beyond the border patrol cars sprawled a huge front porch, but instead of hanging begonias, or wreaths made by twigs from Flowers By Debbie, or a welcome mat, her porch was lined from one end to the other, from top to bottom, with bulging, black garbage bags. They seemed to take up every inch of the porch, covered the windows and threatened to spill over at any moment. It was certainly a sight to behold when you came upon her house. It was fascinating, and a bit disturbing, at the same time.
Garbage bags and Border Patrol cruisers couldn’t have screamed “Keep Out” any clearer.
Mary herself did not look disturbing whatsoever though. On the rare occasion that I actually laid eyes on her, she looked like any other old lady walking her dog. Sometimes, she seemed a bit overdressed for August, what with her multiple sweaters and hat and scarves, but there was nothing else at all out of place about her, other than her house, really.
My own sightings of Mary were few and far between, but each and every time I walked or drove into the village with my parents, I searched for her. Occasionally I would see her walking past St. Marie’s store, her dog on its leash, her head down. I would press my face up against the window and crane my neck as we drove past, enthralled with this mysterious woman who marched to the beat of her own drum. Really, that was what seemed to draw me to her: She was not like many of the other people who lived in Swanton and it was a bit refreshing and I’d wished I could know her better.
One day, as I was making my up Grand Avenue somewhere, (I don’t recall where), I noticed that she was headed toward me on the same side of the street. She had her dog with her and her head down as she always did. Minding her own business. It was such a rare moment that I actually saw Mary, and I was so intrigued by her house, and why someone would want so many garbage bags and border patrol cars on her front lawn, that it was even more exciting to me to see her in person than when the Swanton Festival arrived each summer in our little park.
I wanted to say hello to her. To show her that I was not afraid of her and that I was friendly. For some reason, it was important to me that she know that. I think I wanted to be her friend.
As I cautiously continued on down the sidewalk, I watched as we slowly grew closer to each other: her, hobbling along with her sweet, calm dog on its leash, and me, my heart beating out of my chest, and unable to take my eyes off of her. Her dog did not pull on the leash, or yank it to go smell a spot of grass; it walked at exactly the pace Mary walked, and seemed completely content and happy to be with her. By now, we were only a few feet away from each other with the distance getting smaller and smaller. I could make out her canvas shoes: blue with white shoelaces and white soles. They looked worn, but comfortable. They reminded me of my grandmother’s shoes. Her pants were blue as well, and she wore a heavy flannel shirt, which covered other shirts underneath. She wore a scarf around her neck and a babushka that tied underneath her chin. I could hear her shoes scraping the sidewalk, but only in-between the loud pulsing happening in my ears.
This was my moment. This was my chance to say hello to her and make myself known. Who knows, maybe one day I would walk to her very house and bring her some cookies. Maybe one day I would sit in her mysterious house and she would tell me stories about her life and I would learn from her wise words. As the two of us grew closer, my adrenaline grew stronger.
Just as she and I were about to pass each other, I smiled and raised my hand, only just a bit, in a friendly wave, and said, “Hello” pausing my step just slightly.
It was as if I wasn’t even there. As though I were completely invisible. She didn’t even look up. She didn’t even miss a step. Had she not heard me? How could she not have seen me? I wanted her to know I was friendly and nice. It was so important to me that she know that!
As she and her dog passed me, completely unfazed and seemingly unaware of my presence whatsoever, I felt so stupid. I had built myself up so much, had almost had a heart attack envisioning a momentous moment where I possibly make friends with the mysterious and infamous Mary of our little town, and she hadn’t even known I was there. Or worse yet, didn’t care.
I continued on my walk, glancing over my shoulder after a while and noticed that Mary looked exactly the same as she had her entire walk down Grand Avenue. My heart began to slow and my embarrassment began to wane as I tried to figure out what just happened.
Maybe it was me who needed to feel accepted and approved of, and not the other way around.