Loyal Readers may remember a lengthy two-part entry I did a couple years ago about a neighbor I had when I was a kid, a cantankerous woman who was justly infamous in our neighborhood for her unpredictable temper, and who carried on a territorial pissing match with my parents -- well, mostly with my dad, if you want to get technical about it -- more or less continuously for a couple of decades. More recently, my folks and I watched as she fell increasingly under the vile grip of Alzheimer's Disease before finally being institutionalized by her children. I wrote at the time:
She's not The Crazy Lady anymore. She doesn't seem to have any memory of the feud, or all the screaming, or all the threats. She doesn't remember throwing garbage over our fence into the pasture, or having my dad throw it right back. She doesn't remember playing petty games with the irrigation water, or recall my dad turning her in to the city council as a nuisance because of the way her goats smelled. She's a different kind of Crazy Lady now, a sweetly confused old woman with skin tough and leathery from years of working under a hot sun, who believes my father's '56 Chevy Nomad is her first husband's station wagon and that I am a high-school senior with my whole life ahead of me. My parents and I have all had trouble wrapping our minds around this change of paradigm, but Dad has done the best with it, I think.
I never would've have wished this fate on anyone, not even my father's mortal enemy, but it's hard to know how to feel about this development. I spent so many years fearing and disliking The Crazy Lady that it's hard to now see her as an object of pity. It's like the sudden deflation that came with learning that Darth Vader, the scariest creature in the galaxy, was just a crippled old man.
My feelings haven't changed much since I wrote that. To be perfectly blunt, the woman was a royal bitch throughout my childhood and teen years. Everyone on the street feared her and did what they could to avoid her. I didn't like her one bit. But nobody deserves what happened to her. Nobody.
I learned yesterday that my neighborhood Crazy Lady -- Janice was her name -- passed away the day before, Tuesday, October 19. My parents have heard that, in the end, she didn't recognize anyone, not even her own children. Her mental dissolution was complete. It's an image that fills me with existential horror, and a great deal of compassion for a fellow human being that lost one tiny piece of herself at a time until there was simply nothing left. There are very few fates lying in wait for we fragile creatures that are more unjust, more terrible, more frightening, or more pathetic than that.
But then I read in her obituary that "She did everything she could to help in the correct development of her children," and my bleeding heart scabs over as I imagine the scene my parents have often described for me: Janice chasing those same children around the front lawn, in full view of the whole damn neighborhood, wailing on them with a broom handle. I was only an infant when that happened, too little to recall it personally, but I have my own memories of her kids down on their hands and knees, plucking weeds from the lawn on the hottest day of the year while their mother stands above them, hands on her hips, like a stereotypical southern prison guard lording it over a chain gang in a bad exploitation flick. And it's such a creepy phrase, isn't it? "The correct development of her children." Sounds like something a vicious schoolmaster might say in one of those plucky-underdog coming-of-age stories. Only Janice's kids didn't turn out to be David Copperfield or Harry Potter. In fact, I happen to know that at least two of her daughters worked as strippers for a time. Which makes me wonder which of the children wrote that frankly bizarre bit of spin and how they could do it with any kind of straight face. Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps?
I know I shouldn't speak ill of the dead or of her survivors, but my feelings toward this woman remain so very muddled. Perhaps the best thing to focus on is something else I wrote in that entry two years ago, the larger position the woman I used to call the Crazy Lady occupied in my little universe, and the most important thing -- to me -- that her death really signifies:
The Crazy Lady is the last of the neighbors from my childhood. To the north, Mac, the nice old town doctor's widow who lived next door to us, who knitted me Christmas stockings when I was little and who was the other victim of Alzheimer's I mentioned, has been gone for years; Mr. Stephensen, the grandfather of my old buddy Kurt and who claimed to have known Butch Cassidy as a boy, has been gone for years longer; and both of their houses were bulldozed a decade ago. To the south, Jack and Rae are both long dead, too.
I don't expect to ever see The Crazy Lady again, certainly not alive. And when she's gone, a big part of the town I knew growing up will go with her. There isn't much of that town left, these days...
And just like that, an era comes to a final, definitive end. For whatever it's worth, I do sincerely hope my former neighbor -- and her long-suffering children, as well -- have at last found some sort of peace. They certainly didn't have it when I was a kid.