The old woman had raised most of the children in the village. Every Sunday she would go to the little restaurant on First Street, sit at the same table, and hold court. A stream of young people would enter the restaurant, stop by the table, and submit to her review. Some came by themselves, some in groups, but all came to see the old woman.
She knew all their names. She’d helped raise some of them from infancy. She remembered all their birthdays, all their hopes and dreams, and all their past mistakes, better than they remembered them. And though some of them were well into raising children of their own, they still came, they still presented themselves for inspection, and they still listened to the old woman.
The old woman was the one who took them in when their parents were thrown in jail, or when a mother escaped from an abusive father who didn’t know how to care for children, or when they ran away from home because the fighting got to be too much, or when the bank foreclosed and there was nowhere else to go. She had played the role for two generations in the village, and she soaked up enough bitterness and frustration and tears in that time to break ordinary people. She was far from ordinary.
She was raised in a time when learning proper behavior was an important part of growing up, in a place where it was valued and passed down from generation to generation. She knew the right thing to do in any situation. The correct gesture during times of sadness, the correct sentiment during times of joy, the right words to say when she knew you were ashamed of how you’d acted or of what you’d done. The old woman had moved to the village with her husband when she was a young woman. They had begun their family in the village, and at first, life there was much like where she had been raised.
But slowly, over time, the threads of the village began to fray. The local factories that employed the villagers began to close, moved to foreign lands. The farmers who employed the villagers grew old and retired, and their children sold the farms to absentee landholders who sent in seasonal crews of outsiders to perform the work the villagers used to perform. She was there as the stresses began to rend the village apart. First it was her generation, the ones who lost the good paying jobs, who began to crumble, who sank into depression, and drink, and divorce. So she raised their children, the playmates of her children, when her peers could no longer do so.
The old woman was in the village so long that, when her children had children, and the only jobs that were left were service jobs and part time jobs, she raised a second generation of children. And still the seams of the village, the very warp and weft of the village, were pulled and scraped and stretched. This new generation of children she raised had parents whose own parents had crumbled, so to them crumbling seemed to be just the way it worked.
Still she was there, raising children, raising spirits, dispensing wisdom, making sure the children she raised knew the right thing to do in any situation. She was there right to the very end, right up until the day she died. And on the day she passed away, the word of her death spread so quickly that a crowd of mourners gathered outside her house to watch the county coroner roll the gurney out to the waiting hearse. Just to make sure it was true. And it was. Mother Mary had passed away.
The threads of the village finally let loose, this time for good, and blew away on the wind.