The Woman in Black

Was our neighbor a witch?

The Woman in Black

The Summer of 1955, I was 5 years old: impressionable, imaginative, and gullible to no end. Being the youngest child and only girl, I was a bit of a tomboy. I adored my older brothers. I depended on them for much of my childhood entertainment, companionship—and education.

Therein lay my greatest problem. I was convinced my brothers knew what they talked about because they were older, they went to school, and they read really big books when they did homework. They knew stuff.

So I listened closely when whispering in the back seat of our family car, they shared their concerns about our new neighbor lady. “There’s something strange about her,” Tommy told me.

When we reached her property line, my dad slowed our car to a crawl to keep from stirring up a huge cloud of dust. We kids peered out the side window. There she was, standing in her garden. She had long black hair and wore a large black straw hat, a long black dress, and short black boots while carrying a basket of things she had just harvested.

She returned my dad’s wave as she walked toward her back porch. Waiting on the back steps of the porch was a large black cat.

“Look at that black cat!” Johnny pointed out.

“That clinches it. She’s a witch!” said Tommy. “I knew it!”

“Wow,” I said, in a barely audible whisper. “A real witch.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Johnny agreed.

“Wow,” I said, in a barely audible whisper. “A real witch.”

I hunkered down till my eyes were close to the bottom edge of the window, my mouth gaping open.

Tommy went on, “My friend at school said she makes witch’s brew and peddles it to folks in town. He says it’s some kind of poisonous potion that can kill you in seconds. Faster than a rattlesnake bite!”

“Wow,” I said again.

A week went by with us taking every opportunity to stare at the witch’s house whenever we drove by. Her entire backyard seemed covered in things growing on trellises and tomato stakes—her house sat in the middle of a huge garden. There were flowering hedges and vines all around her yard.

The time came for me to attend “starter classes” at a neighbor’s house. She was a school teacher who gave short lessons in the den of her home as a way to prepare young children for first grade. Mommy made several new dresses and purchased new shoes for me to wear. I was excited! The day came for me to attend my first starter class with two other little girls from our church, but when I sat at the table for breakfast that morning, I felt a sharp pain. My mother checked me over and then announced to my dad that I had a boil on my derriere. She couldn’t send me out in public like that.

Mommy called our doctor. He said he couldn’t do anything about the boil until it came to a head and he could lance it. Until then, he said, I should drink lots of fluids, take warm baths, and sit on a pillow. If it became too painful, he could prescribe a salve.

When Mommy told me what the doctor had said, I burst into tears. “I want to go to school!” I whined between sobs. “I’ll be the only one not there!”

I was so upset I missed the conversation going on between my parents. Something they’d heard about from folks at church socials.

Then Dad said to me, “Now, now, sweetie. Mommy is going to take you with her to try something new.” He took out his handkerchief and wiped my tears. “You eat your breakfast and get dressed so you can go with Mommy. You can wear one of your new dresses.”

I was soon fed, bathed, and dressed with my hair pulled back in a new ponytail tie. I sat on a fluffy pillow as Mommy drove our new ’55 Chevy out of our driveway, but we hadn’t gone far before the car turned. As my mother parked the car, she smiled and said, “Here we are. Let’s go see what she has.”

I looked out the window. We had stopped in front of the witch’s house! My mother opened my car door and reached for my hand. I didn’t budge.

“Kaye, come on now. Do you need help getting out of the car?”

I slid slowly to the ground, taking care to straighten my new dress. I walked behind my mother to the wooden gate, and we entered the yard. It was a normal-looking yard with lots of flowers and a stone walkway to the front steps. I looked around for the black cauldron that my brothers said she used to cook small children. The witch must have it inside. I clutched my mother’s skirt.

“Mommy, don’t go in there!”

“Sheila Kaye, what is wrong with you? Now come on, child. I
still have laundry to do today.”

Mommy gently placed her hand on my shoulder to coax me
forward. When she pushed the door open, the sound of bells filled
the room.

“Hello!” a woman’s voice chimed happily. “I am in the back. Just walk through the shop.”

Tea party

We entered the room and smelled all sorts of wonderful scents drifting from shelves and saw many pretty tables of displays. Soaps, candles, cough drops, teas, potpourri, cookies—the selections went on and on.

“Doesn’t this smell wonderful?” Mommy said.

A small room off to the side was lined with shelves of dried plants in jars with labels. Along one wall was a large work area with a sink and counter. A door stood open to the backyard where we saw the woman in the garden—wearing her black witch outfit! She soon approached, carrying a basket of cut plants.

“I was so glad you called this morning,” the woman said to my mother. “When you told me of your child’s problem, I decided to make a fresh tea for you. Please sit. Let me get out of this duster and boots, and I’ll be right with you.”

I watched as the witch hung her duster and hat on the back porch—and transformed into a normal-looking young woman. She motioned toward a table covered with a pink tablecloth. After placing three saucers on the table with three cups, she uncovered a plate of iced ginger snaps.

“Try a ginger snap. Tell me what you think. It’s a new recipe I’d like to sell in a few shops in town.”

The witch hung her duster and hat—and transformed into a normal young woman.

My mother helped herself to a cookie and then placed one on my saucer. It smelled enticing, so I tasted it. It was spicy, crunchy, and sweet.

The woman removed a pot of water from the stove, and then turned to me.

“What do you think of the cookie?”

“It’s really good,” I said, beaming.

“Good. I will take that as a sign that I should sell them. Ginger is great for settling the stomach.”

“What is ginger?” I asked.

The lady took a large jar from a shelf and showed me some brown roots that looked like misshapen potatoes.

My mother gasped when I said the roots were ugly. Then I asked why she cooked with them.

“I cook with all these odd-looking plants and roots because I’m an herbalist.”

“Oh,” I replied. “I thought you were a witch.”

“Ack!” My mother choked on her cookie. After a severe coughing fit during which her face turned ten shades of red, my mother took a drink of water and exclaimed, “Oh, good grief!”

Then she looked at our neighbor and said, “I am truly sorry, Miss Stevens. Honestly I don’t know where these children get these notions.”

The lady had a name—I’d never thought about that—and she almost chuckled as she stirred cream and honey into my tea and gave me another cookie.

“Tell me, Kaye. What makes you think I’m a witch?”

“Because you’re always in your garden wearing your black hat and boots—and you have that big, black cat.”

Miss Stevens laughed. “Well, I can’t blame you for having an imagination. And you’re right—I usually do wear black in the garden.”

She stood to go out on the back porch and motioned for me to follow. She took her black duster from a hook on the wall and explained that she wore it so dust and pollen didn’t cling to her good clothes. The boots kept her feet clean, and the straw hat shaded her from the sun.

She pointed toward her large, black cat lounging on her porch swing and said, “This is Truman. Would you like to sit next to him while you drink your tea?”

She held the swing until I was settled next to Truman. As she pushed the swing so it swayed gently, the cat sprawled out on its back for me to rub its tummy.

Truman and I enjoyed each other’s company while my mother shopped inside. When we left for home, I had an Epsom salt and lavender mixture to put in my warm bath to help my boil. Miss Stevens also sold my mother a mixture of dried and fresh herbs to boil into a tea for me to drink twice a day. She claimed that after drinking a week’s worth of the tea, I would not only never have another boil, but also I would be acne-free as a teenager. (She turned out to be correct.)

Now as an adult with children of my own, I often wonder what kind of nonsense they are conjuring up when I see them whispering to one another. I’ve learned to accept it as part of the business of growing up. Besides, it does make for fun family gatherings at my parents’ house, especially when my mother dramatically reenacts her horror at the way I acted the day she took me to our neighbor “witch.”

I always defend myself by looking at my brothers and saying, “It’s not my fault. I was listening to them!” Then they get in trouble with Mom all over again.

Works like a charm.


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