Mrs. Knapp had been a teacher prior to her retirement, whereupon she became simply old Mrs. Knapp (as she was referred to by all the kids in the neighborhood).
Berenice’s mother said Mrs. Knapp was older than our elementary school, older than the park on Falstaff, even older than some of the shade trees lining the street where Berenice’s family and mine lived.
Practically all the children in the area asked Mrs. Knapp questions over her garden hedge. Some asked because they were generally curious and wanted to know and others asked just to get the chocolate chip cookie she gave each child that stopped by.
Berenice, who incidentally was my best friend, had frequently stopped by for clarifications (and the cookie). Like the time she didn’t know where the moon had gone or the time she had started collecting worms and wanted to know what to feed them.
She would skip down the three steps in her backyard, swing past the enormous lilac bush and push through the wrought iron gate, cross the street and wait for Mrs. Knapp to come outside for her morning stroll with her floral mug of steaming hot tea.
Mrs. Knapp’s garden was exceptional, bursting forth with strange and wonderful flowers and plants of all shapes and sizes. Some of the flowers looked like the ones on her tea cup.
It seemed that spring lasted longer in her yard than in that of everyone else’s on the street, because the garden never ran out of colors.
There was also a beautiful wrought iron bench with an arch completely covered with wisteria next to a gurgling fountain at the far end of her property. And a lovely glass greenhouse, that was every kid’s dream to go into and explore, was tucked amidst a group of large oak trees behind the vegetable garden.
Her little terrier, Chico, was known by generations of school kids; the most petted and adored doggie around. Twice every year Chico would escape and be caught strolling and sniffing around the neighborhood. If you were lucky enough to locate him and bring him back home, you got a whole dollar and two cookies for your efforts. Mrs. Knapp would gently spank Chico’s bottom and repeat bad bad boy to her little bundle while cuddling him to her chest and covering him in kisses.
Mrs. Knapp had suggested that Berenice pay attention to the night and listen to the day. She had let me look at old postcards with incredible stamps from all around the world. She taught our friend Bruna how to take a cutting from a leaf to make a whole new plant. She was always kind and patient. She smelled of roses and always wore dresses with floral prints. Sometimes she would even put a flower in the white bun at the nape of her neck.
When Berenice turned five, Mrs. Knapp had surprised her with a necklace of flowers from her garden. I was so jealous that I didn’t speak to Berenice all day.
Unbeknownst to me, Berenice had told Mrs. Knapp what happened, so that the next time I went by, Mrs. Knapp called out to me and gently but firmly explained that jealousy was not good or healthy and gave me examples to illustrate.
After promising that I would try to be a better person and friend in the future, she handed me a bouquet of wild flowers tied with a real silk ribbon. I threw my arms around her neck and raced the fifty paces home to put my bouquet into a vase, promising the sky I would never behave badly again.
One day over the sound of the school lunch bell and all the clamor of hungry children, another shriller more invasive sound penetrated; that of an ambulance approaching.
All of us kids and even some of the teachers ran to see what was happening. It seemed like forever that we all stood staring at the gaping hole that was Mrs. Knapp’s front door while paramedics and strangers ran in and out. Then, a stretcher with someone lying on it (it must have been Mrs. Knapp but we couldn’t see) was hurriedly carried out and efficiently loaded onto the ambulance that once more took off down the street leaving behind a thick uncomfortable silence and shivers up my spine.
My mom, who had come out onto the street with my baby brother in her arms, gently took my hand and led me home as the crowd began to disperse.
I couldn’t eat a bite of lunch with a big lump in my throat and a strange pressure on my chest. My mom tired to console me and told me that Mrs. Knapp was very very old and it was normal that she might not be feeling well, but it was of no use.
That afternoon, during home pod, the Principal announced that Mrs. Knapp had passed away and that we should have a moment of silence in remembrance of this wonderful human being who had also been his teacher long ago.
I sat at my desk and tried to hide my face with my hair as the tears started to roll down my cheeks. It really didn’t matter because everyone was crying. Berenice reached across the aisle, from her desk, and squeezed my hand.
Mrs. Knapp who resembled an orchid and moved like Pampas grass had passed away. Passed where? And why? Mrs. Knapp and Chico, who occupied the space on the corner of Bannerman and Grovedale, who had always been there with answers and interesting conversation, yummy cookies and a great smile; in short, the formidable woman who had positively affected so many lives was no more.
That house on the corner with the lush garden was no longer part of Berenice’s or my or anyone’s daily routine. Chico had been taken away and given to an old friend of Mrs. Knapp’s to care for.
Eventually, a new family moved in and made the house and garden theirs eliminating any physical trace of the noteworthy lady and tiny furry companion that had inhabited that space for all those years.
The day that Mrs. Knapp died, was a day of coming to terms with undesired change and unexpected loss. It was a period of feeling new and raw sensations, never experienced before, in what was the beginning of our coming of age.
If there were a way for her to know, Mrs. Knapp would find true joy in the realization that those little kids, like Berenice and myself, after all these years, now old people themselves, still carry the fond memory of her close to their hearts.
Photo by Marta Dzedyshko