In 1962 I listened to Arthur Godfrey on the radio while my mother combed my hair before sending me out the door to kindergarten. We baby boomers overflowed the two elementary schools, so I walked cement slabs and decorative, turn-of-the-nineteenth century brick sidewalks on my way to the Lutheran church, where my kindergarten class met in the basement. The next year I joined my older brother and sister at Main Street Elementary School, a low-ceilinged concrete building where big wall clocks slowly clicked the minutes away.
One day I came home from first grade and in the corner of the living room sat a piece of furniture that had never been there before: an upended rectangular box with wooden sides and a glass front with a green sort of oval in it.
We’d never had one before. Mom and Dad hadn’t said anything about this!
“When did we get that?” I asked my four-year-old sister.
“But how?” I knew Mom and Dad could never have afforded a television set. My older brother and sister were just as puzzled.
“The man from the TV Clinic brought it in his truck,” Mom said. “He just pulled in the driveway, walked up the front porch, and said, ‘I have something for the Cox children,’ but wouldn’t say who it was from.”
“I don’t believe it,” I said, looking at my little sister, who was nodding in agreement with Mom’s words.
“Didn’t you ask him?” my older sister said.
Mom nodded. “But all he would say was, ‘It’s from a white-haired lady in a black raincoat.’”
“Didn’t he know who she was?”
“He kept grinning, like he was proud to be in on such a secret, but he wouldn’t say anything more.”
My older sister, a voracious reader, had been pouring through every Nancy Drew book my parents could get their hands on. She knew a mystery when she saw one: this was The Mystery of the Little Old Lady. We assumed she was old — we couldn’t picture any young woman nor any of the neighborhood mothers in white hair or a raincoat in sunny weather. How would Nancy solve this? She would investigate. Talk to the TV Clinic man. But that meant crossing the highway on our bicycles, and we weren’t allowed to do that. We thought of all the people we knew who fit the description, only to eliminate each one.
Then someone suggested Mrs. Hall. Mrs. Hall was rumored to be the richest woman around. She lived in the oldest house in town, close to us, so she could have known we didn’t have a television. We’d even seen her wear a black raincoat, although she still tinted her hair red. Maybe the white hair clue was a red herring!
We took our solution to Mom, but she shook her head at the name. “I don’t think she’d be the type to give someone something without letting everyone in town know it was her.”
We were disappointed. No one else seemed to fit the bill. “Who do you think it is, Mom?”
She smiled. “I think it’s someone who doesn’t want to be found out, so I don’t think you should try.”
This made sense, so we resigned ourselves to watching the Jesse James show and tried not to wonder any more about who had done such a wonderful thing.
Mom and Dad put an ad in the local weekly newspaper, thanking our anonymous friend for the gift. We learned to live with the mystery we were reminded of every day, but eventually thought of the TV’s unusual arrival less frequently.
Maybe we would have forgotten the episode entirely except seven years later we had another visit. This time it was Mr. Peters who owned the hardware store on the corner of Main and Buckeye streets. With the same mischievous grin the man from the TV Clinic sported, Mr. Peters wheeled a mini washer and dryer combination through the front door and into our living room.
He smiled when we quizzed him, saying only that a woman with white hair and a black raincoat asked him to have it delivered to our family. We could tell he knew who our mysterious benefactor was, but his lips were sealed in a good-natured grin.
We puzzled this time over who could have known Mom and Dad were spending one night a week at the local Laundromat, and again gave up the mystery as unsolvable.
A few years later, my younger sister and I climbed into the family car to go to the grocery store with Mom and Dad. “I’ll just grab the mail before we go,” Mom said, heading around the house to the front porch. Our older siblings were away at college, I was getting ready to attend, and money was tight. Mom had already said she had no idea what we’d get at the store but we’d make our budget stretch by seeing what was on sale.
My sister and I were settled in the back when Mom got into the passenger seat. Among the bills and junk mail was a plain white envelope, no return address.
“Wonder what this is,” Mom mumbled as she tore open the envelope. To everyone’s dismay, she pulled out a twenty dollar bill. Then another. And another. Five of them in total.
In the early 1970s, this was a lot of money. More than enough for one trip to the grocery store. For the third time, our anonymous friend had read our minds, understood our needs, and had answered our prayers. Though the first gift had been a luxury, the last two were perfectly chosen and precisely (it seemed) timed.
That was the last we heard from our secret benefactor. We surmised it was a good-bye gift or perhaps we’d been written into someone’s will. Whatever the reason, we were — and still are — grateful to have been thought of in this way, even if it meant The Mystery of the Little Old Lady would never be solved.
©Copyright Ellen Behrens. All rights reserved.