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A Life-Changing Encounter With The Neighborhood Oddball

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When I emerged from the womb, my parents were stunned. It hadn't occurred to them that I might not be another boy. They had to abandon the name they'd chosen and settled hastily on that of my father's recently dead aunt. (But that is a whole other story.)

The world they brought me home to was chaotically, boisterously male. Kids rang our doorbell and asked if my mother could come out to play. And she'd go, grabbing her mitt or stick or racquet, whatever gear the season dictated. We lived on a cul de sac in a development that backed up to the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. Where the houses stopped was a tangled wood, destined to be razed for a future high school, but back then it was a wilderness where forts were built and pets were lost.

One winter my mother convinced the fire department to create, under her direction, a skating pond in a scruffy clearing. She and the gang built a bench so you could sit and put on your skates. I didn't like to skate. It was cold and it hurt my feet, and some boy or other would inevitably think it was joyful and festive to hurtle himself at me and send me crashing, while he glided away whooping. I liked huddling next to the bonfire, separate from the melee of the hockey games and races my family was always at the center of. I was a fractious, moody child, convinced that I'd been switched at birth.

At the edge of our development, on a rise slightly apart from the neat rows of mirror-image homes, was a house where "The Strangey" lived. It was the farmhouse the land had once belonged to, and its occupant was an old woman of 40 or so. No one ever saw her. You didn't go there on Halloween, and your parents didn't honk and wave if they happened to drive by when her station wagon was pulling out of the driveway.

My parents were so thrown by my intrusion into their funhouse they responded with bravura denial. Repeatedly they yelled for me to c'mon, join the gang, undaunted by increasing evidence of my utter lack of skill at tomboyism. I liked it when they all left, and I had the empty house to myself. That's when I would fervently, assiduously clean. By the time they'd tumble back through the door, noisily arguing over some game-related infraction, the kitchen counters would have been scrubbed of the accumulated spills and globs and crumbs that didn't seem to bother anyone else. In vain were my protests as they gleefully re-splattered my work.

Even my father, who had a soft spot for me, joined in the mockery. They called me "The Pill." They assured me that if I'd only give it a try, if I'd only fix my attitude, my sourpuss mien would melt away. Finally, a kind of disappointed truce was struck, unspoken but understood. Which is not to say that concessions were made. I still wore mostly hand-me-downs from my brothers, except for the two school dresses that were purchased each fall from the Atlantic Superama. But one Christmas someone with a burst of inspired empathy bought me a pair of plastic high heels and a little purse to match. They were blue, embedded with glitter, and I took to teetering around the neighborhood in them, filling my purse with treasures from the woods.

My secret pleasure was to climb the rise to the Strangey's house and sit under a particular bush, lulled by the solitude and the thrum of traffic on the Parkway. All our houses were 60s ranches, but hers was like a witch's in the woods. It had shutters and window boxes and a rickety fence all around it. From where I sat I had a view of her back garden, a place that confounded me. It was just the kind of thing my parents rolled their eyes about, wondering why anyone would want the trouble. Our own backyard was a gravel patio with a barbeque where my mother grilled burgers. It blurred into state-owned property that bordered the Parkway, and was perfect for batting practice.

Sometimes, while crouched under my bush, I saw the Strangey pass across one of her windows, but mostly all was quiet and still, and I had developed a dangerously lax attitude toward my trespassing. One day I brought a comic book to read, and I was so engrossed in it that I failed to pay attention to signs of movement until the sound of a screen door swinging shut shot through me. The Strangey had emerged, in a big straw hat and gloves, and was on her knees raking through the dirt.

Terror rooted me. If I stayed where I was, even holding still, she was bound to discover me. Jumping and running seemed impossible. Even without my high heels I was a slow runner, and the underbrush was thick. A very loud bee was making a racket which I was sure was a warning to her of my presence. Visions of my fate sprang before my eyes: she'd turn me into stone or imprison me until I grew old, or throw me into her fireplace. My little heart was leaping around inside me like the frog my oldest brother had captured in a Ragu jar. Panic propelled me. I began to crawl, dragging my purse, but my heel got caught in a tangle of branch and suddenly I was thrashing about with prickles clutching me like the ghostly fingers of the other children she'd caught. Now I had no choice but to wrench myself free and run for it, heels or no. But as I did a sticker bush dragged across my arm, and I cried out in pain as beads of blood rose up. I glanced at her, and then froze.

She was sitting back on her heels, gazing at me. Her face was pretty, and she was actually smiling, sort of. "Those blackberries have the most awful stickers," she said. And then she said, "Have you come to join me for tea?"

Remembering that day from this great distance of years, I realize that nothing really extraordinary happened. But the words spoken, along with images, tactile and visual, seared themselves into me so that they are still vivid. Her fat tiger cat, dozing in a sunny window nook. The crackled blue willow china, the well-seasoned teapot, the tins of tea that she let me sniff and choose from. How, when I drained my first cup, the glaze was etched with spider lines like a fairy map. The plate of cookies she put on the table, cookies like nothing I'd ever seen before, thin as Communion wafers with slivers of almonds.

She talked to me as no one ever had. Asked me where I'd gotten my shoes, said she'd been looking for a pair just like them. Then she brought me a gift from her closet, a blue silk scarf, glittery like the shoes, and told me I must have it because it matched the shoes so perfectly. She draped it around my shoulders and showed me how to wear it in different ways. I know I chattered shamelessly, because I remember her laughing at one point and saying I certainly wasn't shy. But that was the thing. I was shy, or at least I had been. The Strangey was the first person who ever listened to me, who ever seemed to understand who I was and find it valid. All that, from a pot of tea and some girl talk.

Never again did I trust the conviction that I was wrong, a mistake, a failure. I had learned that a world did exist where the little things that mattered to me were of value to other people, too. Just not the people in my family. I'm pretty sure I visited the Strangey again, but soon we moved to a different town and I entered adolescence and then grew up and sealed my childhood away, as we must. But in my own house, where my cat dozes in the sun and my tea cupboard is always well-stocked, when I cut fresh lilacs to place in a vase or fold away scarves and sweaters in lavender sachets, whenever I feel unapologetically content in my skin, it is an homage of sorts to the Strangey, a generous woman who deigned to converse with a changeling, and by that single act of kindness ushered her into the world she was born to.