As our visits continued, we quickly came to discover the positive, independent attitude and irrepressible sense of humor that marked our new friend.
A scream, then sounds of a struggle. Then . . . gurgling.
"Mary are you all right?"
A rather breathless, "Come in! Come in! I'm here in the kitchen!"
I set my newest addition to her plant collection on the floor and the two of us quickly made our way through the inner door.
There we found our friend collapsed in a chair, head on the table, obviously convulsed with . . . emotion.
Her large, grey cat was sitting on the table beside her, poking at her hair with a soft paw.
I hurried to her side and put a hand on one shaking shoulder.
"Mary, are you all right?"
A blackened face appeared, with two bright blue eyes looking out of it.
She scrubbed at some clear, wet streaks on her cheeks.
"Oh, Mary, Frank, you're just in time!" she gasped out.
"Mary, what's wrong?"
"Whoop! Nothing - that a person with a stronger stomach than I - can't take care of!" she chuckled.
I realized that her shoulders had been shaking, not with tears as I had first imagined, but with laughter.
I stood back. "What happened? What can we do?"
Still chuckling, she scrubbed at her face, smearing the wet, teary streaks. "Well, I guess for one thing, you can get me that coal scuttle over there." Mary waved a hand, indicating the ancient metal bucket beside the stove.
Frank hurried to bring it over.
"Oh, and the broom and dustpan." Mary glanced down and, for the first time, I realized that we were standing in a light carpet of ashes.
I stepped to one side, feeling the slight crunch as my foot came down on still more debris.
"Ick," I said.
"Good word!" Mary said, "and totally appropriate."
"But Mary, what happened?"
"Well, I was working on my quilt when I heard the most awful scrabbling sound here in the kitchen."
"Scrabbling sound?" Frank said.
"I don't know how else to describe it," Mary said. "I hurried in here and realized that the sound was coming from the chimney."
"Oh, dear," I said. "A bird?"
"Yes. The screen around the chimney must have blown loose or something and a bird got in there. Poor thing. I didn't have a fire going as I had been planning on cleaning out the ashes later today, but there must have been some residual smoke or something because, as I was trying to figure out how to help it, it quit struggling and I heard it fall to the bottom of the chimney."
"Oh, the poor thing!" I said. "So did you reach into the stove to help it?"
"Well, I tried. But when I opened the door, there was no bird in sight. So I decided that maybe it was just buried in the ashes. I brought the coal scuttle and a candle and peered into the stove. I discovered that there are a series of bars across the bottom of the chimney, where it joins the stove."
She shook her head. "I put the light further in and could see . . . something lying against those bars. I reached in . . ." again her shoulder began to shake with laughter.
"Mary, what happened?"
"I grabbed what I thought was the bird's foot, thinking I'd just pull it out. But what I got was the bird's beak."
She laughed again.
"I don't know why, but it seemed so much more . . . personal . . . than a foot. I screamed and pulled my hand back, then lost my balance and landed, face-first in the ashes." Her eyes twinkled from their sooty frame. "Then all I could do was laugh. That's when you two came in."
We stared at her.
What would this marvelous, independent woman think up next?
She got to her feet. "I'd better get this cleaned up."
"Please let us do that for you!" I said.
She sat back down. "You know what? I'm going to let you," she said.
Frank and I swept the normally spotless floorboards clean, dumping the ashes into the coal scuttle and setting it back beside the stove.
The Frank grabbed a small shovel and broom from hooks on the wall and proceeded to sweep the rest of the ashes and soot from the stove, adding them to what we had collected from the floor.
Mary got up again and moved over to the counter. She picked up a small mirror and peered into it.
"Oh, my!" She traced one sooty finger across her equally sooty face, then looked up at us.
"You have to admit, this is an improvement!" she said, her eyes twinkling.
She dipped steaming water out of the reservoir attached to the side of the stove and, pouring it into a little pan in the sink, quickly washed the ashes and soot from her face, hands and arms.
Finally, looking a bit more like Mary, she dried herself on a towel.
"There. That feels better!" She turned and looked at Frank, who was just finishing with the stove.
"Oh, thank you, dear boy," she said. "You are so kind!"
Frank set the coal scuttle beside the stove and walked over to the sink to clean his hands.
Then Mary grabbed some pieces of wood from a stack beside the cupboard and quickly laid and lit a fire.
Closing the stove door, she turned and looked at me. "Well this was hardly the way to welcome my friends into my home!" she said, smiling.
"Maybe, but at least we'll never forget it," I said.
She laughed. "Let's have tea!"
"First, where can I put those ashes," Frank said.
"Oh, just leave them there. I'll tote them out later."
"No, I like to finish my chores once I start," Frank said.
Mary smiled. "Well. all right."
She moved to the doorway of one of the bedrooms and pointed. "There's a door to the outside behind that curtain," she said. "You'll find a pit for the ashes not far from the back of the house."
Frank lifted the scuttle and disappeared through the door.
"Now, you set yourself right there at the table and I'll get the tea together, dear," she said to me.
Obediently, I settled into the chair she had just vacated. We chatted while she bustled around.
By the time Frank came back through the door, carrying the now-empty bucket, she had laid everything out on a tray and was dipping water out of the reservoir into her little teapot.
"Everything's just about ready, my boy," she said. "Now you two go out into the front room and I'll follow."
The tea tasted especially good. Maybe because it contained even more love than usual.
We were sitting quietly during the drive home, each of us busy with our own thoughts.
"Do you know that Mary doesn't have a bathroom?" Frank said suddenly.
"Bathroom. Mary doesn't have a bathroom."
"I rather guessed," I said. "I didn't see one on our initial tour and none have sprung up since then." I looked at him. "But did you just discover this? You've been all over that house, tinkering."
"Well, I just never thought about it. I never went into her bedroom, and I just sort of assumed that there must be a little one in there. You know, joined up to the kitchen or something. With a little pump . . ."
I looked at him. No plumbing in the kitchen and you thought she would have it in a bathroom?"
"I know. Silly, right? Anyways, she has an outhouse, probably built when the rest of the house was built, out behind."
"Yeah. It's stone, like the house and really is quite nice."
"But it's still an outhouse," I said.
"Well . . . yeah."
"Not very pleasant in the winter."
"Definitely not." He looked at me. "And another thing. She has a big washtub hung against the back wall. And a scrub board."
"I didn't know you knew what a scrub board was."
Frank made a face at me. "Of course I know what a scrub board is. I've seen them played as instruments."
"Oh, that would explain everything!"
He laughed. "Anyways, I think that Mary scrubs her own clothes and takes a bath in that washtub."
"My thinking exactly!" He frowned. "The thing is, I can't help but think of what her life must have been like, living in the city with its obvious amenities. And then, when she is in the winter of her life, moving back here, were there really aren't any comforts at all."
"Well, she does appear to love it," I said, doubtfully.
"No phone. No plumbing. Fireplace and stove for heat. The only modern convenience she has is electricity, which she hardly uses." He looked at me again. "My point is - how can we help her?"