You can’t always know what things mean to people.
As the director of the Mill, a small art centre in a small town, I'm working away at my desk. It’s a quiet afternoon, with wind rattling the windows, and whistling into my old office. A cab pulls up and I see that it is dropping off Hilda, one of our volunteers.
Hilda is a small elderly women who speaks in jerky half sentences. A bit hunched over with arthritis, and missing a few teeth, she is, regardless, a huge help at our openings, looking after the kitchen goodies and keeping the cider hot. Someone will always give her a ride home, along with the leftover treats. There’s one eye that can look askance, and a hairnet tucked around her bun. She lives with her brother in a little house at the end of a laneway. There is no phone, but when we want to ask her for help we call a neighbour, who passes on the message. And Hilda shows up. She will sometimes take a painting class, filling in if the numbers are low. Or paying for it too. She is a fixture at the Mill. We learn later that she is also the oldest member at the bowling alley around the corner.
None of us have ever met the brother, but my precursor suggested some level of abuse, saying “I don’t want to know.”
So we only know Hilda as a loyal volunteer and a member of our little art community. She has come by to inquire about a letter she received from the provincial government congratulating her on her many years as a volunteer. We relied heavily on our volunteer help so no opportunity was ignored to pass out honours. There was a ten-year pin.
She explained that she couldn’t make it to the ceremony. She wasn’t feeling well and was on her way to see the doctor. Then she told me some kind of murky story about her mother and “not wanting to start that again!” A backroom, a mother, and something unsavoury, but again, Hilda’s conversation was hard to follow.
“I’m going up to the bank, so I’ll drop you at your doctor’s,” I offered.
And that was the last time I saw Hilda.
We didn’t know that she had died until we heard from her lawyer. He and his wife had had to clean out her house and handle her estate. Her place was hoarder-full and she had been on a cot in her back porch. Food was only a bit of kibble.
She left half of what she had to the Mill and the other half to her church. It was our largest donation to date.
Later, spooky people claimed to be seeing Hilda at the Mill, but I never did.