We bought the house we’re currently living in from an elderly woman–Constance Dryden–who had lost her husband ten years before. My wife Teri and I figured Constance to be in her late seventies, perhaps early eighties. On our first walk-through, and all through the sales process, she seemed vaguely ambivalent, even unwilling to part with the bungalow on Portland’s Southwest Devonshire Street. According to our agent, Sally Showwalter, her family had insisted Grandma Dryden give up the homestead when it became clear she could no longer keep it up. Her three children were worried about her living alone with the stairs to the basement, the old clawfoot tub, the considerable amount of work needed in the large yard. The oldest daughter was taking her in.


Our offer was countered, we accepted, and that was that, but returning from a run to Home Depot several days after closing we found Constance raking October leaves on the front lawn.  “You have to stay ahead of the leaves this time of year,” she said. “How do you like the place so far?”


Teri and I were friendly, but a shadow of wariness crossed our shared glance.


“Visiting some neighbors?” I ventured.


“Oh no,” Constance replied, “I’m the last of the old-timers. These new families, there’s nobody around during the days anymore.”


I made show of bringing up the yard debris cart to help gather the leaves. After she’d gone, Teri and I figured Constance’s visit was an understandable one-time anomaly, and we both felt for the displaced old woman obviously clinging to habits and memories.  But two weeks later she showed up again.


It was alarming this time because Teri was at work, I was enjoying a day off with Micah and Mina, twelve and seven respectively, and the three of us were returning from the historic commercial strip known as Multnomah Village on foot. The kids had run on ahead, almost home.  I knew from our real estate relationship that Constance drove a white Chevy Malibu, but that day I didn’t make the connection. From a distance all I knew was that a white sedan was parked in the driveway and the kids were talking to whoever was in it.


Hurrying my steps, I was relieved but slightly irked to see who was behind the wheel. Constance told me that she was “just checking to see if the post office had neglected to forward any of my mail.” I told her there’d been nothing, my sense of her intrusiveness expressed by a clipped tone of rudeness.

Her sad, translucent blue eyes passed over the front of the house. “I see you’ve taken down the awnings.”


We had. The house formerly owned by Constance and Elmo Dryden had been built in 1928. They had purchased from a printer with a shop in the village in 1948, and raised their children in the modest bungalow with a wide front porch and nice brick chimney. The weathered gray-and-green striped awnings over the picture windows in front must have been at least twenty years old. Removing those looming awnings opened up the living room to light.

We had also removed the wrought iron porch gable supports and replaced them with two prefabricated columns from Home Depot.


“It looks so different,” said Constance, and I could not discern by her wistful sentence whether she approved of the changes or not.


We had found several photographs on a closet shelf in one of the upstairs bedrooms, obviously missed when the Dryden children cleaned the place out. They were typical family snapshots, young Constance, tipping a watering can, muscular Elmo, a concrete contractor by trade, and three blond children who had done well for themselves and moved to pricey spilt-levels in places like Beaverton.


That day after returning from our village walk, after Micah and Mina had headed down the side yard to the play structure we’d carted over from our previous home and reassembled, I briefly considered giving Constance the photos we’d found. I imagined it would hopefully signal some final passing of the torch, the last of her belongings, a reminder that her life was with her children now, not on Devonshire Street.


On second thought, I decided not. Better to have Sally forward them to her real estate agent. Constance was obviously having trouble letting go, and when Teri got home, she agreed with me that delivering the photos in person might have strengthened the connection between the past and the people who had inherited the setting for those bygone years.


Three weeks later, a Sunday, we arrived home from a day trip storm-watching at Canon Beach to find the white Malibu parked in front of the house. Autumn had finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest; Constance came out of the ancient detached garage at the back of the lot wearing what looked like a man’s trench coat over a flowered sundress. The look on her flushed face was a combination of having been caught in the act and subtle defiance of the realities that deprived her of final years living in the home she might have wished to live in until the end. We knew from Sally that Elmo, a Marine who had sustained a serious burn on his back from a friendly-fire flame thrower accident while mopping up on Iwo Jima, had died of heart failure in the very master bedroom that was now our own.


Teri took the initiative that Sunday, which was good, because I was officially steamed. I took the kids inside and watched my wife gently lead Constance by the arm out to her car.


“She was looking for her rake,” said Teri after we watched the Malibu pull away. “She said she thought she might have left it here.”


“Are we talking, I mean, is this Alzheimer’s or something?” I asked Teri.


Teri pondered a moment before saying, “I don’t think so.”


I called Sally first thing Monday and in no uncertain terms told her that Constance had to “cease and desist” from coming to the house. I didn’t want to have to call the police on her. The language used is a good indication of how fed-up and borderline worried I was.


“I had no idea,” Sally said, promising to address the situation that very morning.  Later that day I dropped by her office in the village with the photos we’d found in the closet. Teri had placed them in a white envelope upon which she had written, Constance Dryden.


Sally, who had shown us scores of properties during our search for just the right home, must have successfully impressed upon the young Drydens that the situation with their mother showing up at the house had become a problem, because we never saw Constance again. But we did hear from her again, through Sally that early December, after settling in over the cloudy month of November, making further improvements, and getting to know some of the young families that were our new neighbors. They were pleased to learn that the “elderly lady” who’d lived in our house was living with family now, out in Beaverton. We didn’t tell them about Constance’s post-sale returns to Devonshire Street.


Sally: “Yeah, um, Constance Dryden again. She may try to contact you, wanted to give a head’s up.”


Constance was claiming that she had filled the underground heating oil tank just before the sale went through, and that she thought that she should be reimbursed for the oil. It was true. When the fuel delivery company came out to perform a winter tune-up on the forty-year-old basement heater, the eight-foot dipstick showed that the thousand-gallon tank was only down about three inches. Constance was asking for $630.00.


Sally assured me that the sale and everything attached to it was final and that we were under no obligation to pay for the oil. After conferring with Teri, who finally allowed a peeved incredulousness to color her feelings about the woman whose feelings we’d strived to empathize with, I told Sally to just say no. To deliver the message that we would not be paying for the oil. In truth, as a dual-income family, we could have paid for it, despite the fact that we had sunk a considerable amount of money on the down payment, on fix-ups, and were still absorbing the costs involved with getting two children started at a new school. We felt that the Dryden family should have brought the oil up earlier.


That’s the last we heard of the matter, but just after Christmas, on a dark and stormy Oregon night, I dreamt that I had gotten up to go to the kitchen for a glass of water. The front door of what was once Elmo and Constance Dryden’s home has a leaded-glass window about shoulder high. As I walked down the hall half asleep, I looked through the window.


Constance had returned, in what looked like a worn burgundy bathrobe. Her hair was gray and frizzled from the damp air, and she looked angry, her eyes blazing.


She rang the doorbell…


That’s when I woke up.


Winter hit hard this year. I’m not going to tell you that we would eventually learn that Constance had died around the time of my dream, nothing so obvious as that. This is not that kind of story. We hoped she was happy with her family, and had forgiven us for being the people who uprooted her, and refused to cover what must have been one of her last utility bills.

At various times over these dark winter months I’ve heard noises in the house. Creaking from the ceilings in the upstairs bedrooms where the kids sleep. The tick of lathe and plaster behind closet doors. Drawn out sighs from down in the basement. That thousand-gallon tank of oil will keep the house warm until spring.

Micah and Mina are thriving in our new home—they love it. Multnomah Village is the kind of place where you can let your children walk down to the shops and stores that line what was once the main highway into downtown Portland.





Photo by Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection

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