When I was growing up, two elderly ladies lived in an old home in our neighborhood. I’m not sure why, but we children were afraid of them, even though we knew very little about them. We only knew them as Gladys and Mary.

Their relationship to each other was always a mystery. Were they sisters, mother and daughter, friends, housemates? No one had the answer to that question. I also never knew why everyone in our tiny village shunned them the way they did.

Perhaps it was because of their appearance. When the two women came out of their ramshackle house on only rare occasions, they never looked clean. Some of my friends even suggested they had no running water, something I couldn’t fathom. Gladys, the younger-looking of the two wore her matted red hair pulled back into a greasy ponytail, then covered it with a rayon scarf tied tightly under her chin. With her pockmarked and mottled complexion and her rotting teeth, she was a frightening figure to come upon as we rode our bikes around the tight corner near her house. Mary’s hair, coaxed into reluctant curls, was the color of ashes, as was her face. She limped slightly and wore thick glasses that made her eyes bug out like the eyes of the northern pike my dad caught in the river.

The two stooped, dumpling-shaped women could be seen shuffling to the corner store once a week, wearing their dull coats and rubber galoshes, even on the warmest days of summer. Gladys pulled a rattling, wire shopping cart, and Mary always carried a black umbrella. I was convinced that if I got too close she would soundly swat me with it and scream, “I’ll get you, my pretty!”

Yes, some of my friends insisted Gladys and Mary were witches who weaved magic spells and turned children who ventured into their patchy yard into cats. (“Why do you think there are so many of them, Karen?”) How else to explain the large litters of kittens that ran hopefully from under the cracked foundation whenever any of us passed by?

I never went into their yard, but from time to time I found myself in the store buying a Coke or candy bar when the two old women entered. There was Gladys, smiling crookedly and talking to herself as Mary hung back, silent and stoic, a scrap of paper gripped in one twisted hand. I stood back and watched as they handed the paper to Mrs. Whitney, who dutifully bagged boxes of muffin mix, oatmeal and instant milk along with cans of peas, Spam, white bread and Velveeta. After counting them out wistfully, Gladys laid food stamps down on the counter, along with a handful of change. It was always the same.

She smiled her crooked smile at me and the pair walked slowly home with their provisions.

Curious now

As I grew older, I was no longer afraid of the two women, only curious. I still wondered about them alone in that derelict house with the cracked windows and the dozens of related cats sitting neatly folded on the slanty porch railing. Now, I only saw Gladys at the store and would shyly look away when her gaze met mine. Sometimes I spied Mary hobbling about with a cane around their clothesline as she attempted to hang thin cotton dresses and worn underwear.

As I walked past their house on summer nights, I thought surely, they must have family or friends to help them, even if there appeared to be no evidence of it. Many times I wanted to stop and ask, “Can I do anything for you? Mow your lawn, sweep your steps, bring you something from the city, find homes for some of these cats?” I thought about it, but I never followed through. I kept walking, as did everyone else in town.

After all these years, the pair still comes to mind. No one knows what became of Gladys and Mary and their cats. For whatever reason, selfishness, busyness, ignorance or carelessness, an entire neighborhood put on blinders, and let two old women simply fade away.

Karen Carlton is a freelance writer living in West Bath, who is a regular contributor to this column. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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