Mrs. Tippy’s New Life

Mrs. Tippy’s New Life

By PATRICK WOLFE

I will never forget how it began.

The sudden knocking was loud and insistent. Its urgency compelled me. I don’t remember taking the few steps from the living room to the hall to the front door. It was Mr. Sylvester, our elderly next-door neighbour.

“Quick, get your father!” he barked beseechingly, his eyes big and desperate. I’d never seen him—or anyone, for that matter—look like that.

Moments later, I followed dad and Mr. Sylvester as they hurried down our front steps, across the lawn and over to Mr. Sylvester’s, then down his driveway. Dad was carrying the smaller of his medical bags. They rounded the side of the building, a side-by-side duplex, and entered the back yard. A woman was lying across the cement walkway that ran behind the two residences. She was just beyond the start of the low hedge that separated one yard from the other. I tried to see past and through my father and Mr. Sylvester, but I didn’t get a good look.

“Get Andy out of here!” my father commanded as they got closer. I was ushered away.

Back at home, I soon heard the siren. The oscillating sound got louder and louder, closer and closer. Watching from the living room’s big corner window, I saw Mr. Sylvester meet the ambulance. The paramedics jumped out and quickly unloaded a collapsible gurney. Following Mr. Sylvester, they disappeared around the far side of the duplex. The next few minutes were probably the longest of my young life. The paramedics returned with the woman strapped to the gurney. They loaded it and the patient into the back of the ambulance. Then they were gone and, momentarily, the siren was wailing again. Soon after, dad came through the front door. He was deep within himself, his fixity of purpose even more pronounced than usual. He didn’t see me. He went down the hall and disappeared into his office.

My witness, at a near remove, to this and subsequent events has never left me.

*

It was not a successful suicide. At some point, once underway, the woman, Mrs. Talmadge, reconsidered and sought help. That’s what she was doing when she collapsed on the walkway. I learned this and other details years later on the few occasions when the subject came up in conversation with one or both of my parents. Mrs. Talmadge had slit her wrists; there had been a great deal of blood, which precipitated dad’s order that I be removed immediately from the scene. Remarkably, I never saw any blood. The body had been lying with its back to us and I was scooted out of there before I could see anything up close.

At the time I didn’t even know Mrs. Talmadge’s name. She was a newcomer to the neighbourhood and on the few occasions I’d seen her I hadn’t given her much notice. She had only occupied the smaller half of the duplex for a couple of months, if that. I was unaware that she was grief-stricken and trying to start her life anew—that she’d lost her husband and young son in a car accident a year before.

*

I was outside in front of our house when Mrs. Talmadge came home from the hospital some days later. She emerged from the taxi and stood waiting on the sidewalk. Her arrival interrupted the game I was part of and I stepped away from it to watch her, erect and alive, in the near distance.

We were having a “texuador” on the front lawn as we often did for a year or two then. A texuador, so named by my baby brother Matthew, who we called Matty in those days, was a form of battle royal that sprang into existence when Matty was four. He was all of five now. A texuador usually involved three, four, or five kids in addition to Matty. There’d be me and our other brother, Stephen, and one or more of our friends. I was five and a half years older than Matt. Steve was three and a half years older. The one rule of a texuador was that Matty always won. He was also the only one who sometimes wore a cape. He would charge into our midst like Mighty Mouse and we’d obligingly tumble over each other then get back up again to have another go at the superhero only to be repeatedly bested by him. Matty loved this role and played it to the hilt, so much so that he thought all games worked this way. When the family played baseball with a big plastic bat and ball in the back yard, he not only refused to be put out but would become indignant if that result were suggested to him. Much indulged, he was a mini-prima donna as well as a superhero for those brief halcyon years.

The texuador continued behind me as I observed a second woman exit the taxi and join Mrs. Talmadge on the sidewalk. The taxi driver also made a brief appearance; he removed a suitcase from the trunk. After the taxi left, the two women lingered on the sidewalk next to the boulevard. Facing Mrs. Talmadge’s half of the duplex, they seemed to hover there, suspended. Finally, the other woman, who turned out to be Mrs. Talmadge’s sister, picked up the suitcase and the two of them went along the walkway and up the front stairs and disappeared inside.

*

Not long before the sister’s month-long stay ended, Mrs. Talmadge got a dog. It was a friendly three-year-old yellow Labrador from the SPCA. The dog’s name was Tippy. Everyone was soon seeing much more of Mrs. Talmadge as she walked the dog each day. Early on, when a bunch of us were consumed by the frenetic mêlée of another texuador, Mrs. Talmadge and Tippy appeared on the sidewalk beside us. We were alerted to this by the dog’s excited barking. Tippy was well-behaved, but she wanted to play, too. Matty was immediately drawn to the dog which, with her bottled-up energy, sprang up from her obedient sitting position to lick Matty’s face. When he laughed, so did Mrs. Talmadge. I was struck by her sudden merriment and the splash of its vitality.

Matty knocked on Mrs. Talmadge’s door later that day and asked if he could play with Tippy. It wasn’t long before he was telling our mother that he was going to Mrs. Tippy’s for tea, which he did almost daily. While the dog was the initial attraction for Matty and even lent its name to who, in Matty’s mind, Mrs. Talmadge was, the deeper friendship that emerged was between the lady and the little boy.

One day soon after Matty’s tea visits began, the front doorbell chimed brightly. Upon opening the door, I found Matty, Mrs. Talmadge, and Tippy on the stoop. Mrs. Talmadge asked to speak to our mother. I stood behind mom as Mrs. Talmadge introduced herself. The pleasant scene created a jarring juxtaposition in my mind: Mrs. Talmadge standing where Mr. Sylvester had less than two months before. The two women would become friends; mom occasionally accompanied Matty to tea at Mrs. Talmadge’s. That day at the front door mom said yes when Mrs. Talmadge asked if Matty could join her and Tippy on some of their walks. It was thus that Mrs. Talmadge, Matty, and Tippy became a well-known trio in the neighbourhood over the next year.

“I’m going for a walk with Mrs. Tippy,” was Matty’s new refrain.

But this period largely ended when Matty entered Grade 1. The following summer Mrs. Talmadge moved away. Before going, she invited Matty and mom to tea and told them she’d met a man and that they were going to be married. After this, Mrs. Tippy, which was how she always signed off, never missed sending cards to Matt for Christmas and his birthday. In addition to her well wishes for Matt and the family, she always included her news. When Matt was eight, she gave birth to a girl. The next year, she had a boy. We always conveyed her news to Mr. Sylvester until he, too, moved away. Matt was fourteen when he received the sad news of Tippy’s death. Mrs. Tippy’s children were six and five by then, the same age Matty had been when he and Mrs. Tippy had spent so much time together.

Mrs. Tippy is a grandmother now. She and Matt continue to exchange cards with clockwork regularity. Every Christmas when the extended family gets together, I ask Matt if he’s heard from Mrs. Tippy and he shows me her card. Even after so many years, these simple affirmations of her new life still hold special meaning for me. They are sparks that jump across time like a jubilant dog or a little boy who can’t be beaten or those unforgettable scenes at the front door.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

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