The stories from “Mill Hill Girl” are of life growing up in a small southern town. Most are humorous, while some reflect a hint of melancholy of a simple mid-century childhood. If you choose to read my stories, I think you will find a little of yourself in the pages. Some of the stories are factual, while others due to my lack of recall and imagination may be only as I thought they were. To which is fact or fiction, I cannot tell, for I have slept too many nights since then. I hope you will enjoy all the stories from “Mill Hill Girl” on my website.
“A Witch Named Willa Mae”
I suppose it is fair to say for as long as I could remember the witch lived next door to us. Did I say—witch? I am sure I did not come up with the idea that the woman was a witch on my own.
Someone must have planted that idea in my head. Who,I am not sure, however, I shall leave ‘witch’ to your determination once you read my account of Willa Mae.
Let’s begin with her house. The four-room house was open underneath. From pillow to post the bare dirt housed old bottles and tools and even stray cats looking to dine on a mouse or two. To its credit it had a nice front porch, which was furnished with a few cane bottom chairs, a wooden rocker, and a much-used spittoon.
The house sat disturbingly close to the road, although I suspect it once had a nice front lawn before the city widened the road. Now, like most of the houses on our side of the street when a truck passed the windows and the dishes rattled.
In contrast to the front yard, I used to think everyone’s backyards were like city parks, when in reality ours was a little plot with a few fruit and chinaberry trees.
Willa Mae’s plank house stuck out like a sore thumb among the white painted houses with their picket fences and manicured flower beds. Her’s was as bare as a baby’s butt with not a speck of paint or even any suggestion there had ever been. Not only was the house unadorned, so was the front yard. It was swept clean with not a blade of grass, shrub, or flower around the house. The only vegetation was an acumination of rag weeds and skinny elm trees struggling to grow by the collapsing wire fence.
The fence somewhat divided our yards, and it is where I would meet the daughter when she came to visit her mother. I think her name was Charlotte, or perhaps she was from Charlotte. Well, fiddly dee, the name is not so important. What is important to understand, Charlotte was a grown woman, and she even had a baby to prove it. However, she appeared nearly as small as me.
I have tried to rationalize why I thought this and have determined it was her hair. In those days most grown woman wore their hair teased up in some beehive arrangement, but not Charlotte. Her straggly blonde hair hung loose and free like mine.
She simply did not look like a mother. She did not wear print dresses, stockings or even lipstick. I recall her dressed in short shorts and tied up tops that exposed her midriff.
What I first found strange about Charlotte was her eyes. My mother’s eyes were blue, but not pale milky blue like Charlotte’s. Second, was her intense curiosity with me.
I was just a skinny little girl, not much to see or to be interested in. In fact, the most interest I attracted around my house was a spanking. Which was 99% of the time brought on by my boredom and adventure seeking (more details of my shenanigans will follow in this book).
I can still see Charlotte standing by the fence, squinting her pale eyes looking in the direction of our house. She did not have to look far, for our houses were very close together. Since we did not have air conditioning, the windows were always open in the summertime, and she could easily see directly into my bedroom. She may have called for me, or maybe not, but somehow, I knew when she was there and would go to the fence.
Sometimes she would have the baby on her hip. I don’t remember what we talked about, other than her trying to convince me to climb over the fence into her yard. If mother happened to come out, Charlotte would cease her pleading and without saying a word, turn and go inside. On the contrary if my daddy came for me, she would stay and chat. Mother did not like Charlotte—I think we can figure that one out.
As long as I can remember the word “witch” was associated with the house next door. To me, Willa Mae certainly looked the part. She was an imposing raw-boned woman with wild long grey hair. Her long baggy dresses reached down to her ankles exposing her large bare feet. I overheard the neighbors telling of her wailing down the street on the nights of a full moons.
Most days you could see her sitting in her rocking chair on the front porch. On occasions my curiosity would get the best of me, and I would stroll down the street in front of her house. If I called up to her, she cupped her hand behind her ear and shook her head. No matter how many times I repeated, “Good morning.” She never replied. I soon learned that she was very hard of hearing.
I watched her out my window, walked by her house and tried to see in her windows. None of the adults were willing to answer any questions about her, so I turned to the other kids in the neighborhood (names withheld to protect the innocent—but you know who you are.)
Sadly, most knew nothing and only a few had heard bits and pieces. I was quick to tell them all I knew and had seen. Using a wee bit of exaggeration and pointing out her broom, I was soon able to recruit a small army bound to find out the truth.
First, we began our spy mission. We took turns off and on all day walking by her house. Yet, the most our little spy ring could uncover was: if it was not raining, or if Charlotte was not visiting, Willa Mae and her cat came out on the porch shortly after noon. She sat down in her rocker, dipped her snuff, and read the newspaper. It always ended with her falling asleep with the newspaper and cat in her lap. Her loud snoring and snuff dripping down her face was not a pleasant sight, but hardly qualified her into witchhood.
We needed more evidence! Even at the risk of being thrown in a pot we had to advance. It was not as if we could just walk up on her porch and ask, “Hey are you a witch?” But if we got close enough to talk to her maybe we could get some clues.
So, we took it to the next level, taking turns to walk to the edge of the porch and ask her silly questions. “What time is it? Do you think it is going to rain? What is your cat’s name?”
We learned that not only did we have to talk very loud for her to hear us Willa Mae replied in the same tone.
Our next mission was fueled by the knowledge of Mill Hill etiquette. In those gentle days it was considered unneighborly to lock your backdoors in the daytime. Neighbors did not knock they entered calling out, “Yoo- hoo!” If they found your door locked, it was determined either you were angry or had something to hide.
Even though we thought Willa Mae might have something to hide, there was a chance her back door might be unlocked. I decided I was going in! It was a brave mission and took teamwork.
We waited until we saw her come out and take her place on the porch. The other’s started their questions. While they distracted her, I climbed over the fence and crossed over into her yard. All the while listening for Willa Mae’s voice.
I was excited as I walked up her back steps and my hand was trembling as I reached for the screen door. I was almost hoping the door was latched, but as anticipated it was unlocked.
It squeaked when I opened it, but nevertheless I stepped inside. I could see the kitchen door was standing wide open. When I saw the big straw broom by the door, my heart started pounding and I wanted to run.
For what seemed like hours, but was only a few minutes, I stood there with my feet frozen to the wooden floor. Slowly, once again I began to hear the voices from the porch, and I gained courage to enter the kitchen.
It was a crisp Fall morning, but the kitchen was warm and cozy in a strange sort of way. There was pot of something cooking on the stove, maybe collard greens, I recognized the smell. I made my way around the small table and chairs into the hallway. From there I could see into the bedroom and the living room.
The living room couch was old and broken down and the two chairs were much the same. The curtains were pulled, and my eyes were trying to adjust to the low light as I walked toward the bedroom.
The hall was small, and I bumped into a little table and nearly turned over the lamp. Again, I froze until I was certain I could hear the conversation from the porch. Then I tip-toed toward the bedroom, but something made me stop at the doorway. The room was sparsely furnished with only a small dresser and a black iron bed covered with a faded red quilt. Then as I looked over the bed, much to my surprise hung a picture of Jesus.
Suddenly I felt ashamed that I had entered this poor woman’s home without being invited. I carefully made my way out of the house, climbed over the fence, and signaled for my friends.
That was the day the witch hunt ended.
As I reflect on this story it makes me want to both laugh and cry: The part that makes me smile is wondering what that old woman thought of us silly girls. Perhaps she even knew I was in her house.
The part that makes me cry: Time passed, the old house was torn down and I never knew what happened to the woman next door or her daughter. I did not even know her name until I decided to write this story. I researched old city directors to find her name, marriage, and death certificates.
The truth is: Gossiping about someone is the same as giving them poison. Poor Willa Mae may have been strange, but perhaps it was because she was a lonely widow, nearly blind and deaf. So, God rest her soul, maybe, she needed to howl at the moon from time to time.
Lastly, ‘old’ is often a state of mind and defined more by the scars in one’s heart. Willa Mae was set free at the age 62. Records show she died of cancer in a state hospital.
“A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.” Proverbs 16:28