Imposing personality haunts my memory

Lila was a scary woman to approach for an interview.

I was a young newspaper reporter (if I wasn’t tucking my hot-rollered hair behind my ears, it would have been wet back there) who would have preferred to hide behind a telephone, and she was an eccentric hoarder. If she had a phone, she probably couldn’t have found it beneath all the junk to pick it up before it stopped ringing.

These were the days back when phones had cords.

Yes, this is one of those posts.

Groaners may excuse themselves.

Lila, a large woman with windswept gray hair, had made a name for herself with the city council. Her Victorian-style house occupied a high-profile corner on a busy street not far from the county courthouse in town, but Lila refused to bend to neighborly social mores and perform such acts as mowing one’s lawn, repairing broken window and painting one’s house every decade or two. And really, why bother storing one’s belongings inside the house when one owns the yard and there’s more room to spread them out there?

My editor sent me to write a feature story about Lila who typically was portrayed as a crotchety old complainer at city council meetings. When her house was condemned and Lila was on the verge of being evicted, her story went from interesting sidebar to headline news.

So I approached the woman infamous for being difficult (to put it nicely) and asked for her side of the story. I still remember climbing out of my 12-year-old Chevy Chevette in the street (I was probably wearing a mini skirt because that’s what I did back then). I intended to knock on her door. Instead, she startled me when I found her sitting in the squalor of her yard.

“What do you want?” Her double-chin wobbled as she waited for me to answer her demand.

Eek! No turning back now. OK, so we’ll do the interview right here.

I turned on my wide-eyed 20-something charm and tried to make it safe for Lila to tell her story. I think I was the first female reporter in Warren County in some time, and I certainly was the youngest.

Maybe I didn’t look intimidating because, boy, could Lila talk.

Here’s an excerpt from the news story I wrote:

Where can you set up a telescope to look at the stars, work on your car or enjoy gardening if you can’t do it in your own yard, Lila McClure asks.

“If you can no longer do these types of things, you’ve really lost the use of your property that you’ve paid for,” McClure says. “If you can no longer use that strip of property that is yours, you’ve lost your quality of life in a small village.”

Aren’t property values ironic, she asks. “If you use your property less and less, it’s worth more and more.”

I mean, after our far-ranging conversation Lila almost had me convinced to live the life of a hoarder!

Lila wasn’t crazy (at least, not crazy in the narrowest sense — hoarders are their own kind of crazy I’ve since learned from episodes of “Hoarders”). She was smart. She knew how to use the law. She had outlasted the harassment of city officials for years; she always ended up abiding by the letter of the law at the last possible minute, skirting the edges of social niceties.

“When you’ve been through all these little ploys the city has done, you will see ‘bamboozle’ fits them, but ‘opinionated’ doesn’t fit me,” she told me.

Middletown Journal Photo by Mark Bealer -- 1991

Middletown Journal Photo by Mark Bealer — 1991

As it turned out, Lila wasn’t even living in her house. Since it had been condemned, she was living in her pickup truck in the yard (so when I violated her perimeter, I was practically in her bedroom). She was wearing a shapeless black polo shirt with food on the front. I think Lila was testing me when she starting talking about her undiagnosed endometriosis (who discusses intimate health issues with strangers? Lila did). So I worked it into the story.

I was terrified when the story went to print. Lila had a background as a reporter-publisher at one time in her life, and I was afraid of what she might find in my story to be offended by.

The phone on my desk rang the afternoon the story came out. It was Lila. She had located a phone. I braced.

Uh-oh, now I’m on the wrong side of Lila McClure.

“I said pesticide,'” she said. The word pesticide sounded like it tasted bad and she was spitting it out.

“Huh? What?” What are you talking about? My mind raced — where had I used the word pesticide in the story?

“I said ‘pesticide,’ not ‘fertilizer,'” she repeated.

She was right. In a story where I described her condemned house, the charges against her of improper garbage disposal and her endometriosis, she caught me on my use of the word “fertilizer.” I was not a gardener or a farmer and not yet a homeowner, and I had only a vague idea of the stuff one pours on one’s lawn to make it more lush. I had mistakenly noted that Lila refused to use “fertilizer” on her lawn when in fact, she refused to use “pesticide.”

Big difference. I know that now. I’ve never forgotten it.

And I haven’t forgotten the woman who taught me.

When I read the headline for this week’s WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge “Characters That Haunt You,” I thought immediately of Lila.

I wondered what had happened to  her in the two decades since I wrote a feature story about her. Thanks to Google, I didn’t have to travel two states away and dig through a musty newspaper archive to discover Lila McClure had died peacefully on February 16, 2010. Her obituary noted “she was very interested in the sciences, photography and journalism.”

Yes, indeed, she was interested in science. She knew the difference between fertilizer and pesticide.

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4 responses to “Imposing personality haunts my memory

  1. Lila made me smile. (I remember when telephones had dials…)

  2. Pingback: Weekly Writing Challenge: Characters that Haunt You | Chronicles of an Anglo Swiss

  3. The character who haunts me is the guy who only came to buy groceries once every 6 months or so and who brought his own bag to pack the groceries in (recycling wasn’t in vogue in 1957); I had a part time job in the local grocery store so I got to pack his groceries..in a smelly old gunny sack which go hadn’t been washed any oftener than this hermit was. He smelled as bad as the gunny sack. I really wondered why he lived as isolated as he did and what his story was but I never did find out.

  4. Pingback: Character Profile: Madi “Turtle” Yamato | Ramisa the Authoress

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