Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Of Course Not Looking Has Its Problems, Too

A few days ago I told the story of my mysterious first neighbor and how my mother deeply regretted going out of her way to catch a glimpse of him.

My second neighbor - the one who rented the apartment right next to ours soon after the first had moved away - taught me how painful it can be *not* to catch a glimpse of something.

This neighbor was Mrs. Seymour, a dowdy, 60-something woman who seems to have been a perfect example of everything Jacqueline Kennedy was not. In retrospect, she seems to have been a living fossil from the 1940s with her dark, floral dresses and dark frame glasses and black "old lady" shoes. Taking her picture with color film would have more or less yielded the same result as taking her picture with black and white.

Her personality was pretty much as monochromatic. Although I can't recall her ever being particularly sad or angry, I also can't recall her ever smiling. Whatever hopes and desires, aspirations and regrets may have been bubbling in her head, her stoic poker face kept them hidden from me.

I suppose I had many months to study that face at length as she somehow or other ended up serving as my main babysitter during my pre-school years. Going to her adjacent apartment certainly was physically easy enough for me. Given my mother's lack of money and social skills, I remain utterly perplexed as to how the exact arrangements were ever made.

However they were made, the end result was that I was left in the exclusive care of Mrs. Seymour for a large part of most of those days that my mother was off to work and my much older sister was off to school.

"The Beverly Hillbillies" had recently debuted and won over Mrs. Seymour but not my mother (who seems to have never allowed it to play on our TV past the first few banjo notes). The Rooftop Singers's "Walk Right In" was playing on the radio. I was fascinated by the manila brown paper shades that adorned the front windows of our new neighbor, so like our own double-hung sash windows, yet so different thanks to those shades with the round pulls hanging from strings and thanks to the fact that the outside scene had been magically shifted several yards to the west.

As Mrs. Seymour watched her dull as dishwater afternoon soaps, I often stood at those windows, watching the somewhat more interesting real world going by. It at least had the advantage of being in color, though it might have been improved with a few commercial interruptions.

One day I stood and watched a "steam shovel" razing what I believe had been an ice cream parlor at the southwest corner of Central and Cherry (where the Marathon gas station would eventually be built, and where a Rally's restaurant stands now). The excitement of seeing such a destructive machine in action for the first time ever was offset a bit by the realization that I'd never gotten to taste any of the ice cream that had been served there over the years, and now I never would....

As it turned out, Mrs. Seymour was no stay at home granny. For each memory I have of being stuck in her apartment with her, I have another in which she is out and about and I'm being dragged along. At some point in her life (I have no idea now how early or late), a boy on a bicycle had run into her, leaving her with leg problems. I can recall going with her several times to see a doctor, apparently for these problems (though she always seemed to walk just fine to me).

I can recall trips to other places as well - places I never visited with anyone else, places that now exist as formative memories in the foundational levels of my mind - but the one I want to talk about today seems to have been her daughter's place.

Her daughter lived in a two-story house in a somewhat nicer part of town (perhaps somewhere off Sylvania Ave. a mile or two to our north). I seem to have sometimes been taken there when Mrs. Seymour had other things to attend to. The thing about the house that seems to have made the deepest impression on me involved the window of an upstairs bedroom. There was a large tree right outside that window, and its leafy branches almost brushed the screen and glass. It was one of the most unexpected and impressive things I'd ever seen. I think I ended up envying the girl (Mrs. Seymour's granddaughter?) whose room it was even though I might well have pitied her instead for not being able to watch steam shovels had I thought more deeply about it.

Mrs. Seymour's daughter seems to have been a quite normal-looking 30-something woman with short dark hair. On the visit I remember the best, however, she was sitting on a large chair in the living room in front of the TV, bundled up in an enormous quilt. I spent most of my time playing on the floor in front of her along with two or three other kids. I suppose at least one was her own daughter.

In any event, what made this visit so memorable was the fact that this woman had recently had stomach surgery. And it seems that almost as soon as I had arrived, she was promising to show all us kids her incision "in a little while"....

The minutes ticked by, as minutes are wont to do. This gave me time to ponder at length whether or not the aftermath of stomach surgery was something I really wanted to see. I tried to imagine what I might see. Having very little understanding of either the human body or modern medical practices, I envisioned her stomach being opened up like the top of a pumpkin being turned into a jack-o'lantern. Of course the opening would be where her belly had been and not on the top of her head, and the tangled guts that were exposed would be dark red and churning, not orange and static, but... close enough for my young mind.

For some reason, I imagined that her "top" had been thrown away, leaving her with a gaping cannonball-size hole in the middle of her front.

I tried to think of alternatives, but I couldn't. And the more vividly I tried to bring this one into focus, the sicker and more feverish I started to feel.

As time dragged on I think I started hoping that she'd forgotten her earlier offer. Of course she hadn't, and so long before I could make my escape she announced that the time had come for us kids to gather around and behold the handiwork of her surgeon.

As the other kids gleefully competed for the best viewing position, I think I slipped away to the front hall. Or maybe they all followed her into her first floor bedroom while I stayed behind in the living room. In any event, the end result was the same: The others looked while I didn't.

Within a matter of minutes it was over and the scene had returned to what it had been before.

I seem to have found myself second-guessing my decision not to look. The other kids didn't seem any worse off for having looked. And they seemed unable or unwilling to answer my shy questions about what they had seen.

When it came time for me to go back home, I think I asked about the possibility of a private viewing.

"Nope, sorry," the 30-something woman with short dark hair told me. "You had your chance. You should've stayed with the other kids when they looked."

And so that was that.

It was a relief, in a way.

But something of a curse, too.

For as bad as the sight of a stitched-up incision may have been, the imaginary sight cooked up by my feverish brain was probably worse.

If I'm lucky, perhaps I will have forgotten it by the time I'm 90....

Such is life. You're born, you immediately get busy going about your business as best you can, and before too long, without any discernible reason or warning, you find that some horrible aspect of existence is brushing up against you. Do you turn and look? Or do you turn away? There are advantages and disadvantages to both courses of action, but it's impossible to say exactly what those might be in any particular case until after the fact.

Bottom Line (in my estimation): Unless you were lucky enough to be born into a world that doesn't contain anything horrible, you're basically screwed.

Please accept my deepest sympathies.


  1. I bet they aren't making scars like that any more.

  2. My parents watched the Beverly Hillbillies, but wouldn't let me because it was past my bedtime. Or maybe because Jethro was a cross-dresser in the first season.
    The first season was never shown in the reruns that pervaded the sixties and the seventies.