I’ve been thinking a lot about new and old lately. Nostalgia and progress, pulling back and pushing forward. The boy in this story is a character who’s been in my head for a while, having something to say that I couldn’t quite understand. It took a new place, and old friends, for me to figure out how to say it. Something about being in such a tight, compact city like New York brings my mind to the open spaces and tiny towns where I spent my childhood vacations.
The new Mrs. Delancey was not like the old Mrs. Delancey. Maybe Mr. Delancey didn’t have a type, or maybe the old Mrs. Delancey wasn’t his type and that was why she wasn’t there any more. The new Mrs. Delancey liked to bake. A lot. She was baking all the time – pies, cakes, muffins, scones, the bready aromas floating out the kitchen window and onto the street.
On weekdays, the children of the neighborhood would follow the scent like cartoon characters chasing a visible cloud of sweet-smelling steam. They congregated at her window, where sometimes she shooed them away with a good-natured scolding. Some days she anticipated them, and made enough extra to go around. Those were the good days.
The old Mrs. Delancey had never baked, so at first it was a shock to the neighbors to see smoke coming out of that long-dead chimney and steam fogging up the kitchen windows. The mothers of the families living near Mr. Delancey sent their children to bring by housewarming cookies, and were startled when their sons and daughters returned with more food than they’d had to begin with.
Still, they got used to it quickly. Some people said that the old Mrs. Delancey had moved away, others said she had died, and still others refused to believe she had existed at all. But of course it was out of the question to ask Mr. Delancey.
Once, when fewer children than usual had showed up to scrounge baked goods from Mrs. Delancey’s window, one little boy, who didn’t know not to be curious, asked the new Mrs. Delancey what had happened to the old one. She began to cry, which scared the boy a little. He could tell she was happy, though, so he stood his ground.
“No one’s asked me that before,” she sobbed. “I was beginning to think no one had noticed Mr. Delancey got remarried.” An older child might have wondered why the new Mrs. Delancey did not refer to her husband by his first name, but this boy was too young to realize anything was strange. Perhaps it was her way of calling attention to the fact that everybody called her by her last name, too. “The other Mrs. Delancey didn’t give me cookies,” he replied, and went on his way.
By this time, all of the other children were long gone, so nobody else saw the exchange between the two. But each went away a slightly, imperceptibly different person than they had been before. Later, when the boy was older, he would forget the details of the conversation, and would not remember that the new Mrs. Delancey had cried. He would simply remember that she had seemed happy, and that he had made it that way.
As for the new Mrs. Delancey, she would never know, as the years passed, which of the older boys that still came to her window was the one she had spoken with that day. She would never even be sure that he was among them. But she would continue to hope, and he would continue to visit.