By Bill Stork, DVM
Mrs. Haynes lived across Nickey Avenue from our family. I only knew her as a widow, smartly dressed and made up, whether she was mowing grass, shoveling snow, or going to the market. Wearing a clear plastic rain bonnet with blue trim hovering over a brand new perm and tied under her chin, she may have been five foot two, in perpetual motion, dawn to dusk.
From her mailbox, four concrete steps led to the front door, between two huge red potted geraniums. To one side of the porch, a two-seat white swing swayed lazily in the breeze, hidden in the shade. Her driveway had more cracks than a Kansas wheat field in the dust bowl. From the road, it descended to the left of the Japanese yew, and wrapped the back side of the little red brick home, forming a parking pad just off the garage and kitchen. Her ¾ acre lot more resembled a motocross course, with crab grass and a big black walnut tree by the front ditch. Her back lot line was marked by the stump of a long-dead oak that also served as second base in the empty lot where my friends and I played ball.
Summer mornings, the sun’s rays would warm the heavy dew clinging to the tall grass of the infield of our neighborhood “field of dreams,” forming a thin ground fog, and warming the 4x4 picture window through which Mrs. Haynes watched the world.
Through that window was her kitchen, where she seemed to live. Four oak arm chairs with pads tied through the spindles were neatly pushed under a small round kitchen table. The top was covered with the requisite plastic table cloth and last year’s copies of “Better Homes and Gardens,” recipe pages dog-eared and coupons clipped. An upright piano was pressed against the stairwell. Just past were two easels, from which every friend or family member had a meticulously brushed red hip-roof barn with silhouettes of horses and white fence, or sawmill and paddle wheel hanging in their kitchen or hallway. Two parakeets whistled and cackled, their cage doors always propped open.
Folks born near the turn of the century had gutted out The Great Depression and a world war. When they asked for “a little help,” you didn’t question their need. Mrs. Haynes called my mom: her mower wouldn’t start. Could little Bill come and take a look?
At twelve, just old enough to feel a little swell in my chest, but no more a mechanic than I am today, I stuffed my pockets with the few tools I knew how to use, and a couple that looked manly. Brow creased, I angled across our yard and hers. With an 11/16 deep well socket, a farmer’s match and four hard pulls, the 21” Craftsman staggered to life. As the smoke cleared, I offered to take a few rounds, “just to make sure it was gonna stay runnin’."
Having learned a thing or two about selective hearing from Dad, I pretended not to notice when she tried to take over. My attempts to refuse payment proved futile and I just kept mowing, shoveling, picking up walnuts, and raking leaves, until I graduated from high school. She paid $7.50 for mowing and raking, $5.00 for shoveling (the walnuts I picked for free, but resold to my grandpa). Fair pay for the day, and plenty for Big Macs, malts and boat gas, with some left for saving.
In retrospect I would have done it all, plus clean her gutters, the parakeets' cages and fetched the newspaper… for a single slice of her cinnamon bread.
KFC vents their fryers over the entrance to the restaurant, saturating the parking lot with essence of “Original Recipe.” Colonel Sanders had nothing on Mrs. Haynes. By the time Mom would poke her head around and call, “Mrs. Haynes has cinnamon bread!” I would be airborne. The sweet aroma had already wafted through her kitchen window and across the road. Absorbed in long division or diagramming of sentences, I would sit bolt upright and fly over the first four steps from my bedroom to the landing of the stairs with a 150lb THUD!
I’d cover the 100 yards from our door to hers as fast as my high-top Converse would carry me, trying to settle my breath in time to be polite. Attempts to make conversation were transparent at best: “Hi, Mrs. Haynes, how are, um…?”
“Oh you’re right on time, I just pulled a loaf out of the oven," she would giggle modestly.
Wrapped intricately in two pieces of tin foil, cradled perfectly between my fingertips and elbow, I carried it sacred as a game ball in the Super Bowl. Carefully, Mom would lift the dome on the holy loaf. The crust was brown as a buckskin horse and flakey as a used car salesman. Perfect as a pebble in a pond, each concentric ring was butter-brushed and sprinkled evenly with cinnamon sweetness. Like the last tug on the straw before the malt goes slurp!, the gooey center begged for just one more swallow of milk.
Mrs. Haynes was my earliest recollection of the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
The first sign of decline could have been the bread: a bit overdone, maybe a little chewy. In my earliest confirmation of the beholder and beauty, it was always perfect. When Mrs. Haynes, by definition proud and proper, was seen fetching the morning paper in her undergarments, and the mail in her nightclothes, there was no denial.
On Sunday, September 15, at 10:00AM, our family will be participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer's, in memory of Mrs. Virginia Haynes, Alma Ann Stork, Estol Beasley, and in support of tens of families we know personally and thousands worldwide devastated by this dehumanizing monster.