She’s been dead for more than thirty years. Missus Simpkins. That’s what everyone called her. I was very young and didn’t know (or care) if that title meant that she had been married at some point in her life–probably–but she was very much alone if not for a local church. I never knew her first name, still don’t. Today I imagine it to be something old fashioned and of German descent, like Ida, because of her serious demeanor and Butterball Turkey calves.
Ms. Simpkins lived less than a mile from my childhood home but never entered my Jack London saturated mind unless our family car (a pine green Ford station wagon with fold out seats in the very back) passed Thimble Lane on our way to somewhere. The pale face of a weather-beaten white house peeked around a narrow corner and seemed to match her own, with two foggy windows for eyes and a chapped wooden door for a blue mouth that neither smiled nor frowned. Three cement steps, cracked and sunken in South Jersey mud, ascended rather steeply to the front entrance. As a boy of eight or nine, I pondered only the orange glow of a doorbell that never rang, bright as a single firefly on a summer night, but never once how she managed to come or go. She could barely walk.
So far, I’ve told you almost everything I know about Ms. Simpkins. You’re probably wondering why I’m writing about her. There’s not much to tell. Perhaps the old lady would’ve admitted as much if she ever spoke more than two words (rarely more than a salutation) but she remained as mum with her secrets as the Mona Lisa. On this frosty 2020 morning, I wonder what she might have revealed if I’d somehow managed to heat her blood with a few glasses of holiday port wine. In her eighty plus years, had she experienced love in all eight of its forms: agape, eros, philia, philautia, storge, pragma, ludus, and mania? Because she was so terribly alone at the end of it all.
Back in the innocent days of youth (I’m missing the innocence more than my youth), I lived intensely in the moment and never saw people as coming or going. Adults simply appeared and disappeared, like colorful characters on a stage, each with their own brief and limited role, specific and nonspecific, whether in school throughout the week or in church on Sundays.
Ms. Simpkins only ever appeared at the church, and less and less, throughout those rocket fast days that seem more like a dream than reality. Whether on the back row of the sanctuary, close to the exit and draped in an afghan that reeked of mothballs, or in the infant nursery, the only time I might have recognized the faint hint of a smile was whenever she studied a baby resting on her ample lap. A screaming newborn with a twisting dark red tomato head calmed instantly under her touch with the mysterious words she would whisper (perhaps in another language) or the sounds she would make in those tender rose petal ears, inducing a spell. She always squeezed into a padded wooden rocker stationed beside a painting of Christ (the one depicting eager toddlers climbing onto His holy knees: “Suffer the little children to come unto Me and forbid them not”) as if they were working together. Maybe they were. I don’t know. But that was where she was and what she was doing the last time I saw her. I was eighteen and leaving home the following day for the navy. She caught me staring and gave a simple nod.
Not long ago in the midst of my travels I was surprised to find her house still barely standing. There was a notice on the door. The white asbestos siding had jaundiced to a sickly color and the blazing firefly doorbell had long been extinguished. Certainly demolished by now, I’d no longer recognize the narrow lane after it has been widened, I hear, for the purpose of a brand new neighborhood with big fancy houses and young families. Truck after truck came along and dumped load after load of dirt onto the swampy patch. Whenever this sort of thing happens (call it progress, time marching on, whatever) a particular history is buried and forgotten. Huge mounds of fill dirt, one more layer of life pressing down upon and hiding another, creates something similar to an archeological tell where new walls rest heavily on ancient foundations.
It is the living who haunt the dead. That was the thought in my head as I lit another cigarette in the soft glow of the dying day. Many unsorted memories, voices, and ideas drifted upward in clouds of smoke and dissipated on a gray Delaware River wind. I stared at the flapping notice on the front door of the condemned house and remembered one thing more.
As her health declined, Ms. Simpkins would appear only at Christmastime. In my young mind, the cottage on Thimble Lane became a child’s storybook, opening once a year, with most of the pages ripped out.
In less convenient but better days, before the era of e-mail and e-cards, actual paper cards arrived in actual mailboxes and my mother taped every one of them to a paneled wall in our house, close to the Christmas tree. Multiple manger scenes, Bethlehem stars, wise men on camels, Santas, snowmen, cardinals, churches, scripture verses, and many bold Seasons Greetings sparkled in the light. But the handwritten notes and personal signatures on the inside represented the breath and soul of fellow human beings who had taken the time to remember and love one another.
Ms. Simpkins always sent her card late, without fail, signed with a shaky hand and scratched in ink that smelled like mint. She rarely wrote anything beyond her name. Her expression of love arrived in the form of homemade molasses raisin cookies. Three decades older and a smidge wiser, I imagine the woman hobbling and shuffling back and forth on swollen feet, dangerously short of breath, baking batch after batch of cookies for every family in a not-so-small church congregation that viewed her as a quiet grandmother who relieved young mothers of their screaming infants for an hour or two.
Now I know that Ms. Simpkins clung to moments rather than days. The women of the church were her daughters. The babies were her own.
“For the boys…” That’s what she wrote.
Three personal words on two large lime green plates stacked high with the best cookies I’ve ever tasted, with a texture–not crunchy–that melted smooth on the tongue like manna from heaven. She covered the two baked pyramids with aluminum foil. Her note–plain, predictable, and faithful (with no smiley faces or hearts)–was addressed very straightforward to me and my brothers every year.
Sugar, raisins, and molasses. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Christmas gifts in trio combination transcending and overpowering the grave.
Right now, all these many years later, I am thinking this: that Missus Simpkins–a one dimensional character and long dead–still speaks. Through a simple act of kindness and in giving all that she could give.