Over the years, there have been many people who have shown me kindness, compassion, and acceptance. I’ve kept these people and the memories of them close. For each of them, I have a kind of love letter inscribed on my heart.
Hannah was a legend in my town of Winslow. She looked like a cross between a character from Sondheim’s Into the Woods and Granny Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies. There were a lot of tales about Hannah: that she was witch, that she was a Cherokee Indian, and that her hair – which she wore wrapped in a tight bun and covered in an ever-present sun-bonnet – flowed down to the ground when unwrapped. She always wore work boots and long skirts. The skirts hung longer in the front due to her stooped and terribly humped-over back. But despite her bent posture, she would endlessly walk the town, picking up cigarette butts to pull out the tobacco. My brother, sister and I once trekked out into the fields to find her cabin, which people said was haunted. Even from a safe distance, I could see how overgrown and twisted the weeds were around her cabin and walkway. The whole place was dense with growth, like an Indiana jungle. Standing there, I remembered that people claimed she only bathed when the moon was full. All of this seemed in keeping with her image as a witchy, mysterious, and slightly alarming figure in my town.
Once, when I was riding in the truck with my father, he stopped and offered Hannah a ride. Being alone with my father was in itself a daunting task. Sitting erect, silent, staring straight ahead, I would pray I wouldn’t say the wrong thing. Or make the wrong move. Anything that would upset and remind him of the disappointment he had in his eldest son. We came upon Hannah – walking as always – and my father slowly rolled down his window. He leaned out his head, and I heard him speak in a softer tone than I was used to. This was a different side of my father – one I’d never witnessed. The brim of Hannah’s bonnet was now level with my father’s open truck window. And as she said an adamant ‘no’ the bonnet raised and I could see her face, unfiltered in the bright sun. She never made any eye contact—now I realize she probably had cataracts and her milky gaze was medical rather than witchcraft — as she repeated ‘no, no, walking keeps me alive’. My father affectionately reminded her he’d been watching her walk since he’d been a boy. As we pulled away that day, she looked directly at me. Right at me. It frightened and fascinated me. Why was she looking at me like that? Hannah never looked directly at anyone.
I wondered about it and then put it out of my mind. But then, on my birthday, I happened to glance out my bedroom window and coming up the drive was Hannah. Gasping, I blinked hard and then looked again. There she was, hunched but determined, her long skirt dragging up the dusty rock driveway. She walked right up into the back yard and then stopped. I waited a moment, and then worried, I ran to find Mom. “Mom! Hannah is in the back yard!” Even my mother was surprised, and we stepped out together. Warm and friendly, Mom called out “Hello, Hannah!”’ Hannah looked at us for a minute and then stepped forward.
She pulled out an old coin purse – which looked like it was from the Year One – and handed me a dollar. I was so startled and didn’t know what to do, but mom just looked on gently smiling. Hannah leaned in close to me and said in a hushed tone, “Happy Birthday.” I was completely dumbfounded. “Say thank you to Hannah, Eddie” Mom prompted. “Thank you,” I stammered. “Thank you so much.” Leaning in very close again, Hannah looked at me right in the eyes and said, “You’re special.” She nodded with satisfaction and without another word, turned and walked back down the rock driveway leading to Pike Forest road.
No one could figure out how Hannah knew it was my birthday. But from then on, every year, she made that walk up our rock driveway. Waiting in our back yard. An apparition with her coin purse and a dollar. Hannah became a kind of birthday legend for me. That legend became a timeless childhood memory. Mysterious words said by a mysterious woman, but like a fairy tale, those words were as powerful as a magic wand. “Happy Birthday. You’re special.”