Several years ago, I wrote about four little elderly ladies I used to mow for. Going to their corner of the world was interesting.
I usually spent much of the afternoon into the early evening in their little neighborhood when I mowed on Friday or Saturday; this was a requirement. The yards had to look nice “for the weekend.” Most of them stuck pretty close to home and rarely ventured out unless they were getting their hair fixed.
At the center of this geriatric peer group was Mrs. P. When I met her, I thought she was one of the tiniest women I had ever seen, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more well-kept yard, house or car in my life. She was one of those people who sat and looked for imperfections; she was the type who had a stick with a nail on the end; if a stray leaf dared to blow into her well-manicured lawn, she would snag it before it had time to even think about decomposition.
When I first started mowing for her, she would come out in her usual ensemble: sensible shoes, little white socks, house dress with an apron over her clothing. She almost always had a broom or some sort of cleaning utensil in her hand. When I would show up, she would stand beside her bushes with a rake, holding the bushes up so I could mow underneath. She was a stickler.
I was always worried about the lawn mower spitting grass clippings onto those little socks.
A water break was standard procedure after finishing mowing, and I would camp out on her front steps. This was a social time for her. She would bring out a pitcher of ice water and place it on the porch. Out of gratitude and because I didn’t want to insult her, I would usually drain that pitcher of water in pretty short order.
Over the length of time I mowed for her, I listened to her stories of day-to-day life and realized her world was very limited. She was not an unkind lady, but her way of “feeling alive” was to complain, bad-mouth and be upset with something or someone at all times. I do not believe I ever found her to be content.
She once told me she did not speak to the people across the street because they put in a row of small trees. I couldn’t figure that one out, so I somehow encouraged her to explain further. “Well, they never care what the rest of us think around here. They let their grass grow higher than everyone else and they rarely ever are out pulling weeds or taking care of things. They are on the go quite a bit. I have no use for them.”
I still wasn’t quite sure why she decided not to speak to them anymore.
I believe the way in which people “kept their yards” was one of her primary concerns, and a tool she used to judge their worth. She almost always made comments about the yards around the neighborhood. None were better than hers. No one was more knowledgeable about how to keep a yard.
She seemed very charitable; she shared flowers and seeds, fertilizer and weed killer. Neighbors thought she was being kind, but her generosity was really just a way for her to tell them how to do things.
“They didn’t even plant those flowers I told them to plant,” she once said to me.
Notice she said “told,” not “gave.”
The lady who lived next door, Mrs. W, was considerably younger than Mrs. P, and was, in my eyes, her best friend on the block. In fact, Mrs. P made this lady the executor of her estate.
Yet, boy howdy did she bad-mouth her! When Mrs. W would stand in the yard and talk to me, Mrs. P was almost undoubtedly nearby, straining to hear or watch. In fact, she spent most of her life looking out the window.
When I would venture back over through her yard, Mrs. P would ask me, point blank, “What did she say to you?”
Bad-mouthing was just as common and acceptable to her as anything. There wasn’t one conversation that went by in which she didn’t talk about someone. This included family members and those she seemed to care a great deal about. Every conversation. I’m not exaggerating.
Probably the most significant thing about Mrs. P was her ability to worry about anything and everything. She told me several times that she’d been up at night “wringing her hands” about things. When I once forgot to mow a small patch on one side of a neighbor’s porch, it “worried us all to death” until I returned and mowed it the next day.
Before I returned to fix the mistake, she’d called me twice to see when I’d be coming.
It must have worried Mrs. P more than the actual owner of the yard, whom I never heard from.
She had a lovely, pristine 1958 Chevy in her garage. During the week, she’d venture out to the beauty shop or the grocery store, but it was rarely out and about. Sometimes, I would find her out back with a bucket of soap and her hose at the ready, carefully washing off any blemishes she’d acquired on her excursion to the A&P.
During one of her conversations, she told me she’d been beside herself about her car. When I asked why, she said “Well, I didn’t get the bugs washed off the bumper yesterday and I’ve run out of soap.”
I tried then and I still try not to judge Mrs. P. This was just the person she was. Although I understood that taking care of the things you owned is important, I always came away from her house hoping I would never be in her shoes. Constantly watching out my window, criticizing or bad-mouthing everyone, choosing not to speak to people for incredibly silly reasons, and wringing my hands over my “stuff.”
It made me form ideas about priorities early on. I didn’t plan on being “that way” in my dotage.
I also felt sorry for her. I mean, things have to happen to people to cause them to be focused on such things. It is almost as if she was a prisoner to her own way of life.
I often wondered if Mrs. P was a happy person. As I said, she wasn’t unkind or unpleasant. But as I said, she never seemed content. She failed to enjoy the moment because she always seemed to be thinking of the next thing that needed to be done or what she’d worry about next. A terrible cycle to get into.
When I visit my hometown, I drive by her old home. It isn’t in the same shape it once was, but it still looks good. However, if she were still on this earth, I’m pretty sure she’d be standing out front, shaking her head and pointing to every imperfection.
Enjoy the journey. Take a deep breath and just be in the moment. Love others and find joy (or heck, amusement) in the differences of people. Let things unfold and be spontaneous. Sit back and enjoy the ride. Trust God.
Am I preaching to you? No. I’m writing that last paragraph to remind myself. It wouldn’t take much for me to fall right into her way of thinking.
Because, you see, we all have a little Mrs. P within us. Oh, yes you do. Admit it.