Friday, January 6, 2012

The Least of These

I guess most every neighborhood has at least one crazy person. In ours, it was Mrs. Barnes. She was our next door neighbor. From as long as I can remember she was this shriveled up wisp of a woman, shuffling through the neighborhood in her slip and housecoat.

Word on the street was that she didn't wear underwear. Her skin resembled beef jerky and the air around her smelled like garbage mixed with cigarette smoke. She hated kids. She hated everybody. But she loved dogs. She didn't have any dogs of her own but that wouldn't stop her. If your dog went missing you could find him in her back yard but it took negotiations on a level more common in labor relations or perhaps international intrigue to get poor Rocky or Toodles back.

For whatever reason, she was particularly attached to this one mutt named Tag. In order to call Tag to his (in her mind) rightful home she would open a mailbox, any mailbox, peer inside and proceed to yell his name INTO the mailbox in a sing songy voice. Whether she actually believed the poor pup was huddled behind today's bills or she was on to something with the effects of echo, we'll never know. But I can still hear her. “Ta-a-a-a-a-a-g” “Ta-a-a-a-a-a-g”.

Her other passion, besides dogs, was stuff. Lots of stuff. Particularly newspapers. Seeing how she was our next door neighbor, we shared a fence line with her. On the opposite side of our shrub disguised (thank goodness!) chain length fence would be piles and piles of STUFF. Yard waste. Garbage, Furniture. Just stuff piled in a fortress. Keeping out curious looks and holding at bay rainwater and averting said rainwater into our basement. Try explaining that to a homeowners claim.

In my younger years there were whispers that she was a “witch” but maturity brought everyone to the realization that she was, at best, eccentric, and quite possibly just plain crazy. She was a classic hoarder and known shoplifter. She gave the appearance of being a, at one point in her life, well-to-do woman having fallen upon hard times. The reality was that she was a millionaire.

Over time word trickled out that her name was Marie and she was born in France and had worked as a prostitute. Mr. Barnes (I never knew his first name and he died when I was young) was a soldier in France in WWI and had met her, fallen in love, and brought her back to the United States with him. His family owned a gravel company in Memphis, which he inherited.

The rundown brick rancher next door to us, where she spent the vast majority of her time, was actually her 4th home. Somehow she managed to keep up (or not) a house in Memphis, one in Florida, and a mansion on Lookout Mountain. For you Chattanoogans, it was at the top of the Georgia side where you turn left to go to Rock City. It was known to those on the mountain as the 'haunted house'.

I don't know exactly when things went wrong with her. But she was never really sane in my lifetime. One day a teller at the local bank realized that she hadn't been in in a few days. The authorities broke in to her house and found her. In bed. With a dead dog. Both had mange. She also had tuberculosis. Amid the stacks and stacks of old newspapers and magazines were checks for thousands of dollars.

She was taken to the hospital and cleaned up but didn't live much longer. Sure she had been mean and crazy. She yelled at us. Chased us away. Even threw dog poop at some on occasion. But what must her life have been like when she was young and, from all accounts, beautiful? What was her story? And what if I had reacted with compassion and not fear? Even she was the least of these.

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