When I was a little girl there was a lady on our block named Mrs. Schleeter. (I have no idea how to spell her name, but that's what it sounded like.) She lived across the street from us and one house down. Her house was like a little brick cabin; it was very different from the other houses on the street. For one thing, it was small and only one story. It had a large side yard, and a winding path down to the sidewalk. The forested train embankment rose up behind the little house, the way it did for all of the houses on that side of the street. Mrs. Schleeter was old. Long black calico skirts and aprons, long white hair pulled into a bun, a men's plaid wool coat in the winter, men's boots, a cane in a bony hand. I remember my father telling me once that she had told him (possibly in the only conversation they had in the twenty-five years my parents lived there) that she and her husband had bought the house many decades before, when the street was still sparsely populated with houses, because her husband (who was long passed) worked for the railroad, and she liked the railroad. My dad liked the railroad, too, and so did I. Soo Line freight trains rode those rails above our street several times a day and through the night. It's still a sound that I love, and a sound that feels, along with the coo-coo-coo of the mourning dove, just like home.
I think my dad liked her and respected her. Mrs. Schleeter was not a friendly lady, and I think he liked that too. She didn't socialize with anyone on the street. She never said hello, never waved. If she was outside and other people came out, she would go in. We were told to give her her space, and leave her property alone, because that was what she wanted. Weeks would go by without a glimpse. There were probably twenty kids on our block. I think I can count twenty. We lived on a cul-de-sac, and we kids had free reign over the wide, quiet two blocks that made up our world. Oak trees towered from either side like flying buttresses and formed a vaulted ceiling of green. The houses were large and old and pretty but weathered; people lived here for a long time. Lilies of the valley, hosta flowers, rusty wire fences, long grass. The only cars we ever saw there were owned by our various parents and we knew each of them; if a strange car came down our street we all stopped at stared at it, wary, until it moved on. We knew everyone and everyone knew us. I had been in almost every house on my street (except Mrs. Schleeter's), and if I hadn't been in the house I knew the people who lived there.
There was a school yard at one end of the street, down near our house, and that was our school. The other end of the block butted up against the elevated Metra train tracks, which went downtown to Chicago (another world), and that end of the street had a slightly more refined, more cosmopolitan air. Our end was the woolier end. We were wild kids then — the minute we finished dinner we were outside until dark. It was the '70s, and, as everyone will tell you, things were different. No one watched us. We knew to come home when the street lights went on. If we were late, my dad would come out onto the front porch and call for us. That was not preferred; he would not be happy if he had to do that. We almost always came in before we were called. If one person got called in, the whole group would disband. Fireflies lit the humid air. Every seven years the sound of cicadas sizzled, constant and frenzied. We had many societies, most of which were focused on fighting with each other, competing with each other, or generally doing things we weren't supposed to: going up into someone's crumbling attic, sitting on the roof of the Miller's garage (their parents were divorced, and their mother was never home) with a pack of cigarettes, climbing over the fence to the railroad embankment behind the school yard and throwing rocks at stuff. Every summer there was a new, very competitive game: Kick the Can, Running Bases, Rummy 500. Fall was miserable, as it was always Acorn Wars. There were tears, tattling, and bruises during Acorn Wars. We spent the time after school collecting hundreds of little nuts in dozens of coffee cans that we'd hide from each other (it was usually boys against girls, which got complicated if you had brothers, which I didn't), and then after dinner we'd race back outside, excavate our cans, and whip acorns at each other for hours, until someone went home crying and someone got in trouble. I hated Acorn Wars, was pummelled mercilessly, and was usually one of the ones who went home crying.
Mrs. Schleeter's house was in the middle of all of this. But we never walked on her lawn, never congregated on her sidewalk, never played Ghost in the Graveyard on her part of the street. There were rumors that she shot squirrels and ate them. There were rumors that she had kidnapped kids, or at least had yelled at them which, as someone who was scared of getting yelled at, I thought was almost as bad. In spite of the fact that I had once wiped out on the sidewalk in front of her house (it was winter but there was no snow, I was getting over a cold and my legs were wobbly, I was running past her house and faced-planted in front of it, resulting in a long scrape and subsequent string of scabs running from my forehead to the tip of my nose to the space above my upper lip [scab mustache] to my chin for the Christmas picture — see, I shouldn't have been near her house!), I had secretly always liked it. I thought it would've been perfect for me. My own cabin. Rust-colored brick. A little tremble of smoke constantly coming from the little chimney. A big front window made up of rectangular panes, the skinny trim of all of those panes painted black. Crooked, ancient-looking apple trees in the side yard. A raucous, old-lady's vegetable garden out back (rhubarb, rutabaga, cabbages, turnips?). The edge of the weedy driveway was lined with two dozen blousy, blustering peony bushes, white, light pink, and dark burgundy wine. She, and it all, seemed like they had been there for a hundred years. A fairy tale crone-cottage on Forest Avenue. I liked it, and looked at it a lot.
In early summer, on only one night (one very special night that I think now she probably waited for all year), she came slowly out of her house. She would wait until we kids were somewhere close, learning the Bus Stop in the Papienski's yard or playing volleyball in front of mine, and she beckoned to the closest one of us. "Come here." The child would drop the ball, and, walk, looking back nervously, across the street. "Come here" — a crooked finger gesturing toward the rest of us; a small herd of small sheep, we'd walk as a unit toward her house and our nervous friend. It was very quiet. She didn't speak. She had several pairs of big black scissors in her big patch pockets. She handed them to the oldest kids among us. Our little sisters and little brothers were close on our heels, wide-eyed. She walked to the long row of peonies and we'd follow. There must have been of a hundred enormous flowers, perfectly in bloom or bud. One by one, she'd point to exactly where she wanted the stem cut — that one, there. That one, there. This one, there. One flower, and one child, at a time. The stems were thick and crunched when you cut them. The scissors were metal, dull black, huge and oiled. The peonies were heavy and twitchy with ants. Blossom by blossom, kid by kid, she directed each cut until our arms were filled with flowers, and our little hands could hold no more. Those great bushels put my wedding flowers to shame. When she was finished, she collected the scissors and moved, in her long skirts, back off toward her house like a ship, until next summer. Chagrined, thrilled, still slightly terrified, we whispered our hoarse, peony-scented thank-yous and skittered away to bring the bouquets home to our mothers. Our mothers would say, "Did you say thank you?" and we'd nod, still nervous. I remember that my mom would put the bouquet in the middle of the dining room table. I'll have to ask her if she remembers. Along with fragrant handfuls of square-stemmed lily of the valley from next to the front stairs and billowing clouds of lilacs from under the dining room windows, peonies are the only cut flower I remember us having in the house, and only Mrs. Schleeter's, and only for that one week.
We have ten pink peony bushes, all coming into bloom just now. None of them seem like the right varieties to me, though when I bought them (as dried up little roots, in a box) ten years ago I was trying to get the same ones Mrs. Schleeter had. The smell of the bouquets in the house takes me right back. When I was in River Forest this past summer I saw that Mrs. Schleeter's house had been seriously remodeled, the yard tamed, the peonies gone. If I see some big black shears at an estate sale, I'll get them.