My memory has a tendency of failing me when it comes to the many areas of my childhood. Nevertheless, at the youthful age of fifty I can still remember growing up in the big village of Beachville, Ontario as clearly as I remember yesterday. I may not commit to memory the faces or the names of my neighbours, friends, teachers, and school mates, but I do remember the corner lot house I lived in until the age of ten quite vividly. I can call to mind a number of ghostly encounters in and around this home. It is quite literally the scariest place I have ever lived in to date, my grandmother's house taking a close second.
One encounter that has always stuck out in my mind took place while outside on a beautiful summer day. Furthermore, it involves a particular young woman dubbed by many people in the village as "Mary the Drunk Lady". And, well, I suppose she wore that name rather well at the time. It was the only name my siblings and I knew her by, and we were by no means fearful of using the term in the company of our peers. Heck, most of them called her Mary the Drunk Lady too.
To my recollection Mary the Drunk Lady had never been a visitor in our home. She was, on the other hand, very good friends with a close neighbour of ours named Dinty Moore. My parents claimed that he was, in point of fact, the first person in Beachville, or perhaps in Oxford County, to own a vehicle. When I was a child, Dinty Moore had owned no vehicle. He lived alone in a beat up old trailer home that was awkwardly situated on a small plot of land across the road from our house. He was, in true essence, a dirty ole' stinky tobacco-chewing kind of man who had the likes of an old village bum. Every now and again I would stop and chat with him if I happened to spy him on his dirty old lawn chair, ceaselessly spitting out his dirty old chewing tobacco. With the exception of Mary the Drunk Lady and my parents, he seldom had any other visitors, and was rarely seen venturing further than his own front yard.
Mary the Drunk Lady would frequently visit with Dinty Moore during the summer seasons. I, on the other hand, attempted to stay as far away as possible during these visits. My siblings and I habitually feared, disliked, and were for the most part disgusted by her and all her ugliness. That was just the way it had always been. She was a very loud, mean, filthy dirty drunk who had done nothing but frighten me as a child. Believe it or not, she had blatantly telephoned the police on my six year old brother for supposedly stealing a dime from her. The police had come, the police had quietly left. In the end, this unpleasant event had done nothing but heighten my fear of her. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my final encounter with Mary the Drunk Lady would lead me down a path to seeing people differently.
It happened on a gorgeous summer day in the year 1971. I was eight years old and my sister Denise had just turned seven. We were sitting outside playing with some toys on the concrete cistern in our yard. It was in close proximity to the right hand side of our house and perfectly positioned beneath a huge, shady maple tree. While we played, I glanced up towards the railroad tracks and to my grandmother's house beyond for the umpteenth time in my short life. The railroad tracks were on a bit of an incline and ran parallel to the narrow dirt road at the right side of our house. My grandmother's house was located directly on the other side of those tracks. They were extremely close, so close in fact they crossed over my grandmother's short driveway. I did not and was not expecting to see much when I glanced up there because we were the only two houses to be found on this little piece of deserted road. What's more, zilch happened on those railroad tracks unless my siblings and I were the ones making it happen.
A short time later, I glanced to my grandmother's house with varying disinterest and was startled to see a young woman standing in the middle of the railroad tracks looking at me and my sister in our play. She was dressed in an expensive long sleeved white formal dress that flowed down to just above her costly white shoes. Her hair was lengthy and brown in color. It was put up in such a way, that I was positive in the moment that only the finest hair dresser in some distant town created the style. She was quite beautiful and displaying a smile that was both warm and inviting.
I must confess, I was a little taken aback to see her standing up there the way she was. I looked up and down the railroad tracks but saw no one following behind or ahead of her. She was alone and that was somewhat bothering to me. I could not for the life of me figure out why this beautiful young woman was standing up there on those dirty railroad tracks with not another soul in sight. My grandmother was not at home, so I knew she was no visitor of hers. It was a puzzling sight indeed and I can remember thinking that possibly she had walked over from the church around the corner. I considered this notion for a small number of seconds before realizing this wasn't a Sunday. Honestly, I was absolutely dumbfounded as to who she was and where she had come from. My curiosity grew the longer she stood there smiling down at me.
I glanced over to my sister who was peering down, engrossed in what she was doing. Casually I say, "Hey look, there's a lady standing up there on the tracks looking at us". When my sister looked up, the woman cheerfully called out, "Hi girls, how are you two doing today?" I immediately bolted up from where I was sitting; feeling flabbergasted and shocked surprise all at the same time. I knew who that voice belonged to, but the woman in front of me seemed to be somebody else entirely. In all the excitement I think I might have blurted out fine or some such thing, while my sister just sat there and said nothing, as usual. She rarely said a word to anyone and was currently looking to me for direction.
I whispered down towards her, "That's Mary the Drunk Lady". I didn't wait for a response; in fact, I really wasn't looking for one. For whilst these words alone were tumbling out of my mouth in what seemed to be the slowest of motion, my only real thought was to high tail it back into the house and have a talk with my mother about the situation at hand. It was all wrong; her being on those tracks the way she was and something needed to be done about that. I was convinced my mother would follow me outside to confront Mary the Drunk Lady as to why she was on those train tracks because I certainly couldn't find the voice to do it myself. Hurriedly, I continued on, "I'm going in to tell mom".
As I turned to go, I peered up one final time to that stunning young woman who, for some strange reason, was disguising her voice to be that of Mary the Drunk Lady. I took that final moment to truly look beyond all her fancy attire and fully focus on the woman hiding underneath. As I fixed my gaze upon her face, I could unmistakably see, there would be no further doubts in my mind; it really was Mary the Drunk Lady standing up there. With that confirmation planted firmly in my brain, I completed my turn and headed towards the front door with my sister silently in tow. I heard Mary calling out behind me, "Good-bye girls, it was nice seeing you", but I couldn't even bring myself to turn around, or offer her a polite reply in return. I merely began to walk a little faster with my silent sister walking a little faster behind me.
My mother was right inside the door when we entered. Without hesitating I said, "Mom, Mary the Drunk Lady is up on the tracks all dressed up like she was just in a wedding or something. You need to come outside right now and ask her why she is just standing up there doing nothing but starring at us and being nice and all". My mother had persistently replied back with, "Believe me, it's definitely not Mary the Drunk Lady" the more I strived to tell her it was. I knew in my heart of hearts, and was absolutely positive beyond positive that it was her up there. I had my confirmation by golly and nothing could change that. Hastily, I gave up trying to convince my mother of what I knew to be the obvious truth. I demanded she come outside and tell me who was standing up there on those train tracks if not Mary the Drunk Lady.
This business between my mother and I took forever, or so it seemed to me. In reality, it happened in under a minute, and then the three of us were out the door to investigate. As luck would have it, Mary the Drunk Lady was nowhere to be seen. Not seeing her up there on those railroad tracks was an enormous disappointment and my mother only had one thing to say before returning to the house. "Doesn't matter, it wasn't Mary the Drunk Lady anyways, and that's final!"
I was livid to say the least. I stormed into the house behind her, preparing to question her knowledge. In my eight year old, domineering voice I said, "Mom, why are you so sure it wasn't Mary the Drunk Lady if you didn't even see her? I know it was her, I swear it was her; I'm not lying, really. I heard her, I know her voice, and I know what she looks like!" On and on I went, wearing down on my mother's thin patience. Ultimately, she said something I have never forgotten. "Shelly, I know it wasn't Mary the Drunk Lady because she died a couple of days ago in a fire." Of course my immediate reaction to this information was one of pure disbelief. I told my mother to quit joking around because I had just seen her outside on the tracks with my own two eyes. But this was no joke, and according to my mother, Mary the Drunk Lady had not only perished in that fire, she had also been the cause of it. In short, she inadvertently started a general store on fire with a lit cigarette. Gradually, the Mary on the railroad tracks became all but forgotten as I took in this terrible news. To my surprise, I actually felt a genuine sorrow towards this woman whom I have never liked. Being witness to a whole other side in our Mary the Drunk Lady had changed things. Because, for a brief moment in time, I had the distinct pleasure of catching a glimpse at the real Mary under the Mary the Drunk Lady and I had liked her.
I never gave the railroad track incident or Mary the Drunk Lady much thought after that day. She was just another ghost in a small line of ghosts previously encountered. I never questioned it. It was what it was. A few years later our family gratefully moved to Woodstock, Ontario, leaving behind the phantoms and apparitions of my early childhood. Shortly thereafter, I steadily began to realize that seeing Mary on the railroad tracks was teaching me a little something about something in my new home town.
You see, for the first time in my life I was seeing individuals on the streets and on the busses that were just like Mary or worse. Whenever I spotted "a Mary the Drunk Lady" I would involuntarily think of her tragic demise and my heart would break a little inside. Without ever really knowing it at the tender age of ten, I was beginning to comprehend a wise proverb. "Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes." On the whole, I started to feel empathy and a real concern for these people instead of constructing jokes at the expense of their misfortunes. Mary was helping me to see the good under the bad in these creepy new characters. In effect, I think she showed herself to me in the hope I would recognize that a genuinely kind, lovable human being was living underneath all that nastiness. I sense she wanted me to know that life had somehow dealt her a wrong hand. And, that perhaps in her own way, she was remorseful for being that terrifying individual she portrayed herself to be.
I suppose Mary the Drunk Lady sent me an unspoken message that day, a message that said, "Hey, take a look at me; I'm not such a bad person after all. I fell on my share of hard times but I'm all better now." You know, I have no doubt she is. Rest in peace Mary, rest in peace.