Nobody called her Florence. She was always Mrs. Cuthbertson, her name spoken softly to avoid summoning her in person.
She lived on Wellington Street, next door to us and behind Paterson Memorial Church, and we knew if a baseball was hit over the fence into her back garden it was gone.
At best, she’d keep it for a very long time before returning it with an unambiguous lecture, her white hair as wild as her eyes.
One of our more reckless pals claimed he’d snuck into her yard once. Maybe. Or maybe he just boasted about daring to even think about it.
I do know that Mrs. Cuthbertson was the reason I couldn’t have a dog. My parents discussed it when they thought I couldn’t hear them. It would cause Mrs. Cuthbertson (and therefore us) too much grief. So instead, Mom gave me a tiny doggie vase to sit atop my bedroom dresser.
That was my only dog.
Dogs and dog parks and dog beaches didn’t make headline news in Sarnia back then. Not as many dogs around, maybe. My neighbour Miles owned a demon dog, a Scottie (named Scottie) that yapped and growled at everyone. Nobody but Miles loved Scottie.
I’m sure I would have loved my dog too, if I’d ever had one.
Whenever neighbours complained about their lives and how things couldn’t get any worse, others would reply, “Well, you might live beside Mrs. Cuthbertson.” They’d glance toward our house, shrug their shoulders, and gain comfort knowing there was truth to that.
In my mid-teens, after graduating from backyard baseball, I would often notice Mrs. Cuthbertson sitting on her front porch, levelling a disapproving eye on the neighbourhood comings and goings.
One day, unexpectedly, she invited me with a little extra oomph in her manner to come and sit down. A person didn’t say “No thanks.”
We got to chatting. I told her I was interested in writing a jazzy brass quartet arrangement of ‘The Saints’ but knew nothing about chords. She offered me the use of her old upright piano. So, for many weeks I plunked away.
She never objected, either to my presence or to my rudimentary chord arrangements.
One spring, on a Saturday, I belatedly realized the next day was Mother’s Day. I had no cash and the banks were closed, so I knocked on Mrs. Cuthbertson’s door and asked to borrow $20. She disappeared inside to some secret hidey-hole and brought me four fives. To be repaid promptly. Tuesday at the latest.
How to sum up Mrs. Cuthbertson? Living beside her taught me people and relationships are complicated and that sometimes someone just has to go first.
And it helps when we don’t hit baseballs into other people’s petunias.