Her name was Adele and she was a widow who had sharecropped in North Carolina tobacco. She was so tiny that she made me feel tall, and at 5’3″ there are not many women whose heads I could tuck under my chin when I stood behind them. I believe she was over 75 years old when I moved in next door, and she smoked like a Hoover on fire. She had the kind of skin that only a Camel smoker can cultivate over many years. My only defense to her smoking at the time was that I smoked my Marlboros along with her as we drank endless pots of coffee. Everyone called her Miss Penny but nobody knew why or how, since neither her first or last name was Penny.
She was my next door neighbor in North Laurel, Maryland 1971-3. I lived next to her when George Wallace was shot at the GIANT FOOD store where we went to shop for groceries together with our fists full of coupons. I was collecting the brown and mustard floral ironstone ‘dish of the week’ that you could buy if you spent $10 on food. Miss Penny would always buy Eggo waffles even though I told her I would make them for her homemade on my Sunbeam. She thought them to be very modern, popping them into a little toaster oven in her closet-sized kitchen.
If you could picture the house below painted white it would look a lot like the house she lived in, it was made out of a steel shipping container. I believe her husband had done the work just before he died. She lived there alone, and since it was very tiny, maybe that was a good thing. There was another shipping container in the back yard sitting at an angle that said it had been dropped off without any idea that it would sit there with weeds growing up around it for many, many years. It was going to be a second part of the house, but then death intervened and the house stayed small and housed this sweet little widow for about three decades.
The front had an elevated tiny front porch and stairs that were built of cinder block and painted grey. It was not so large as the one shown here, I think one fan back metal chair fit there and I painted it red. There was an old galvanized bath tub out in the back too. I painted it red, brought it around to the front yard and filled it with dirt and planted it full of Anenomes, Muscari, Daffodils, Geraniums and Creeping Charley for a Mother’s Day present.
Miss Penny sewed for folks to augment her tiny Social Security check. I think her daughter sometimes sent her some money. I only saw her there visiting her mother once in three years. It wasn’t that long a drive to where she lived in Virginia, I knew because I drove to National Airport two or three times a week in my little Volvo 122S.
Miss Penny taught me to refine my shopping mojo. She was the queen of thrift shopping. She knew all the stores and when the annual tag sales were held by churches and civic organizations. She was my second hand shopping mentor. I would take her to lunch after we plundered the sales and spent less than a couple of bucks to drag home dishes and pots and utensils that I didn’t have as a young bride who married far from my family in California. I found vintage 1940’s clothes that fit my taste and she taught me to alter them. Dresses like this:
Now it cost hundreds or more to get these. I got them for something like $2. Maybe I’d have to renew the sequins. Miss Penny would show me how.
Now here’s the truth about what I was like at age 21. I was a snob about getting to know anyone who wasn’t close to my age. I was just beginning to get over a painful childhood and I hid out in the culture of my youth and I smoked a lot of pot and dropped quite a few psychedelic drugs. I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted out of life or what I could actually have.
One day, I was in the kitchen washing the dishes listening to John Prine album we had just gotten. It had a song on it that got right under my skin. Here’s a video of him singing it recently:
Because of this song I got to be friends with Miss Penny. I learned a lot about being helpful to others, about learning to have fun some other way than what I already knew how to do. I learned that making do isn’t the worst thing that could happen. I learned how to be something more than a stupid kid.