Friday, November 02, 2007

Profile: Margaret "Toots" Ryan

My grandmother had many friends in St. Vincent. When I think back about it, she and my grandfather pretty much knew everyone and everone knew them. She would often go visiting, or have others visiting her. It was part of everyday life. One such person she knew was Toots, her neighbor.

Toots (Margaret) Ryan and her brother Andy lived north of Grandpa and Grandpa Fitzpatrick's main street home, right across a little alley running east to west most of the length of the town. Margaret was not just a neighbor, but a friend with Grandma. Another family in town called the Friebohles were close to Toots and helped her out with things like taking her to the store, church, etc.

I remember Toot's backdoor steps, very steep and high, but still not quite high enough to reach the door stoop, so one would have to take a very large step up and in. In my mind's eye, I can still see Toots coming out, and it was a bit hard for her since she was a short woman. Many was the time in the summer when I was little, where I would come down the road from our house four blocks north, to visit my Grandma; if she wasn't home, I'd fly out the back door, the screendoor slamming behind me, and run north across that alley and up those steps, to find her visiting with her friend. I remember both of them as seemingly always in an apron, and maybe they were, ready for work around their homes.

Toot's house was small compared to houses today, but for the time, it was very nice with high ceilings and large windows, with a good size kitchen and front sitting room. In that room was an old piano that had real ivory keys, just as many keys missing the ivory as had 'em. Even as a little girl, I could see that this piano was special and not like new ones. It may have seen better days, but it was a link to the past, a mysterious and special past in my little girl's mind. It was so out of tune it sounded like a honkytonk piano in an old west saloon with it's fascinating old round stool with claw feet. The parlour it was in had old persian carpets, thread-worn but still elegant. In the kitchen was an old porcelain sink with its hand pump - no faucets.

Toot's brother worked for the railroad and was gone a lot, or so it seemed to me. I remember him as a large bear of a man dressed in overalls and an engineer's striped cap. The siblings lived together and neither had ever married, for whatever reasons. It wasn't so unusual back then for that to be the case. I remember Toots herself as being a short rather round woman, with white medium-lenth hair worn loose. When she smiled, which was often, she showed some missing teeth, which made her all the more interesting to a little girl like me.

I once was staring at her in her own parlour, just having played with her piano, during a visit with my Mom and Grandma. I looked at her and said, during a pause in the adults' conversation, "You're fat!" She laughed, my mother blanched, and I got quiet, but I still thought she was fat. I wasn't trying to be mean, I was simply amazed. I had just realized in my 5-year-old mind, how definitely round she was, and I didn't know anyone else like that. Toots called me "PK Gum" (after an old Wrigley's gum brand...), since my first two initials are P and K. She replied, "Yes I am, PK Gum!"