An elderly neighbor of mine passed away last autumn. I didn’t realize this until the following spring when I saw people pull up in front of her little green house on the corner to carry away her things. First it was the chair, then a couch and a tall lamp. This came as a surprise as change tends to do. Abrupt and unexpected. She was old and frail and we’d seen less and less of her over the years. Her son Lenny lived with her and tended to the maintenance of the house and yard. He was a shy and gentle soul who never let anyone get to know him except for the neighborhood cats, which he attracted in droves.
As neighbors go they were my favorites. I like shy and gentle people, the elderly and cats. I was a bit pissed at myself for not knowing what had happened for almost 6 months.
MM suggested we go over and take a look at the obvious to us now, estate sale that was happening at the little green house on the corner. I admit I was curious as I had never been inside. I wondered where her son was as I got on my shoes and we headed over.
Half the neighborhood was there sprinkled among the other shoppers. I was stricken at first at how cramped it was, full of people pawing through Angie’s things. I felt funny. I didn’t know her all that well but now I felt sort of protective of her stuff and her memory. I took a quick tour of the downstairs bedroom. I saw her hairbrushes and clothes for sale. It seemed all too intimate, all too strange and all too much.
Oh I had spoken to her several times over the years exchanging cards at Christmas and the like. I knew she had lived there for over 40 years and had raised a family, watched most her children move away and start lives of their own. I know her husband had died there. I know that she seemed somewhat hard and no nonsense. I know that my preconceived notions about her had allowed me to keep her at arms length like I do with most people.
But now it was so different, so final..
The rooms were tiny and jam packed with various things. It was overwhelming right away: there was so much. It was difficult to take it all in. The first thing I zeroed in on was a set of commemorative dishes priced at $650 dollars next to a tin of cocoa marked “new” and on sale for one dollar. Along with old dishes and salt and pepper shakers shaped like Minnie and Mickey, there was a package of paper towels for sale and paper napkins. Who buys this stuff? I wondered to myself and more importantly who sells this? I was tempted to open the refrigerator to see if there was some old milk for sale but decided against it.
MM beckoned me up the flight of steep creaky stairs that led to the upstairs bedrooms, all small and filled to the brim with stuff. Old holiday decorations and kids toys neatly arranged in boxes. It was hard to believe they had hung on to these items for so long.
The atmosphere was oppressive, it was thick with oldness and stagnation. I could feel the 40 years of history there. This was once a place of life and hopes and dreams and now only lost memories remained. It was as if the remains of a sweetness had stagnated and turned acrid; buried under the heaviness of the years.
It wasn’t long before I had to get out. Needless to say I didn’t buy anything, I wasn’t planning to.
Time passes so quickly. It’s too easy to just go with the flow and let circumstance carry you along. I am in the midst of that and I sensed my neighbor was too but only she had floated farther than I…and stayed too long, accumulated too many things with too many links to the past. So many that there was scant room for anything or anyone else.
So much stuff with so many memories attached to them. It’s easy to do; hang on to things. I too have that pack rat mentality. Sometimes you never know when you may need something.
More importantly, these cherished bits of happiness; intangible memories encased in tangible objects enable us to hold a piece of the past. It seems holding on to these things brings us closer to what we miss. It’s a little silly when you think about the significance we give to objects, it’s not logical. But who is logical? Especially not when we love someone. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I truly understood how important mere objects can become.
I have limited myself a few items, tokens of memory, attached to a person not so much as a time. A few items: a Buddha statue of my father’s and his namesake tree in the front yard. A tiny doll my teenage daughter played with when she was younger, The blue striped blanket my son came home from the hospital with. I have kept the odd concert ticket, a tiny figurine from when I was 4. There isn’t much.
I’ve been ruminating on this experience all summer. It’s prompted me to re think the way I’m living my life. How I hang on to needless things. The tangible and the not so tangible. Outdated stuff, old baggage, outgrown ideas and ways of thinking. How possessions can possess the possessor and how little by little all this stuff we accumulate weigh us down… keeps us from flying.
Perhaps my neighbor missed her chance to fly, maybe her son being thrown out of the nest so late is in flight now. At any rate we all must go someway, somehow. I ponder this as I watch my neighbor’s tree come down foot by foot until it’s gone and I realize it’s been blocking what I see now is a great view of the mountains.
“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh
I have mentioned my neighbor Mrs Wheatgrass in the past and have whimsically called her my nemesis. This was probably due to the fact that my plans included this being temporary. I have always wanted to win her over. I am a big believer in “turning the other cheek.” And that everyone can be “killed with kindness.” This is something I have preached about and I really do believe it but let me tell you; Mrs. Wheatgrass is one tough nut to crack.
She and her family moved in next door about seven years ago. It was late August just before the onset of another school year. My son and I were taking a walk around the neighborhood. We were engaged in some sort of conversation when we spied a moving van in front of the beige house next door. My son was excited. He wondered if the new people moving in would have a son his age. We saw a blonde woman in brown shorts exit the front door and we immediately went up to her. We introduced ourselves and welcomed her to the neighborhood. My son who was about 10 or 11 at the time, had been working on his handshake and extended his hand. She asked him what grade he was going into. When he told her, she looked at him doubtfully and then me. She informed us in no uncertain terms that as an educator she knew he must be a year younger. “I can vouch for him, I’m his Mom” I said half joking. She seemed to doubt me too. I thought this strange at the time. My son was a little upset. His fragile preteen pride was damaged somewhat but I saw it as a teachable moment.
“Maybe this is all a misunderstanding” I told him. “She she could have misspoke or we could have misheard her.” I advised that we should give her the benefit of the doubt and so we did.
Whenever I saw my new neighbor I would smile warmly and say hello. She seemed about my age. She had a friendly husband and a sweet little daughter who was a baby at the time. I thought we could become friends. Most of the people in my neighborhood at the time were elderly and I was looking forward getting to know her.
She seemed wary of me and I just chalked it up to shyness. I am shy myself. It has been a lifelong handicap that I fight to this day. So I kept it up. I would smile and wave. I would say hello and try to engage her in small talk but to no avail. MM joked that she was afraid of me. I could be coming on too strong. I tend to overcompensate for my shyness by being “over friendly’ so I backed off. I would smile and say hello but that was it.
Time passes as it does. She added to her family with another cute daughter. I would hear them in their backyard whenever I would be working outside. Back then I was able to spend more time on my yard and I have to say it looked nice. Green, well-manicured and full of colorful flowers. I was working this time in the front yard, carefully weeding around our newly planted Yoshino Cherry tree when Mrs Wheatgrass approached me.
A-ha! Obviously my friendly vibes were winning her over, I thought. “How can you stand that?” She asked and gestured to our crazy neighbor who was parked in front of his house blaring his radio and yelling “Yeah!” over and over. I laughed. I agreed it wasn’t easy putting up with him but at least his taste in music was good. “Aren’t you going to call the police?” she asked. I said no. I told her that I liked his music and frankly that was not a good reason to call the police. She said that he scared her. I told her that he was loud but harmless. “Just try to ignore him” I replied. I said the wrong thing I suppose and she walked off in a huff.
I think back to that time now and I regret not being more sympathetic. I admit I was a bit put off. If she was so concerned why didn’t she call the cops herself? Why ask me?
I wrote about this exchange at the time and that is when I actively set out to kill her with kindness. I will win her over I thought. Maybe her life isn’t so rosy. Maybe she needs to feel understood.
One day about three years ago during the onset of the “great recession” I was again walking in the neighborhood, this time with MM when we saw her out walking too. This was surprising since we had never seen her do this before. She approached us with a worried face. MM asked her what was wrong. She told us she had just lost her job. We said how sorry we were. She thanked us and wisely mentioned it could be a blessing in disguise because now she’d be able to spend more time at home with her daughters. Tragedy has the capability of bringing out the best in people. I thought of Mrs Wheatgrass and her two adorable daughters and how they would benefit from being able to spend more time together.
But there it was, Monday morning and like always there they were at seven a.m. like clockwork, lunch pails in their tiny hands waiting by the van door to be let in. Daycare again, but why? I thought it was almost like she was still working. She would dutifully take her daughters off to daycare and then return home and stay inside until it was time to pick them up.
I knew it was none of my business, but my heart ached for those little girls and for Mrs Wheatgrass. Being a parent I know all too well how fast children grow. Every moment is precious. How could she just send them off like that when she didn’t have to?
I suppose it is not my place to judge I thought…and I remembered a quote…
“Never judge others. You both know good and well how unexpected events can change who a person is. Always keep that in mind. You never know what someone else is experiencing within their own life.”
― Colleen Hoover
More time passed and Mrs W and I had many more interactions. I’ve gone over them in my mind, trying to figure out where I went wrong. What could I have done differently? Maybe it was the times I weeded the side yard we both share, maybe it was when I didn’t have the time and stopped the weeding. It could be that that I worked at home. She did snidely call me retired from time to time.
It was as if we had this undeclared competition between us with the yards. I would be out working in mine. This was my hobby. I enjoy it. I love plants, this makes me happy. I am not trying to outdo anyone. Every time she’d see me out in the front yard she’d send her husband out to work on theirs. He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself. I sort of felt bad. It was as if it was my fault he had to dig up dandelions. What can I do? I thought and just kept on keeping on… it is what it is…or at least it was what it was…
…until our home business started to wither and slow down to a crawl and I returned to the workforce. This changed things at home, inside and out. Our well manicured lawn turned brown and the backyard went wild. I am not proud of this but again, it is what it is. My weeks are full and my weekends are even fuller. My beloved hobby took a backseat to the more pressing matters of day to day life.
It was a sunny Saturday a few weeks ago. The Wheatgrasses had just removed a mature tree from their side, a tree that provided shade for much of our yard. Big branches fell down on our side and onto our tomato plants. MM asked the men cutting down the tree if they could please remove the branches when they were done. The men were very nice about it and cheerfully did as MM asked, obviously this did not sit well with Mrs W because when MM came in from the yard he had just had a heated exchange with her and was visibly upset.
“She said our fence is rotten, our yard is an overgrown mess and there is ivy growing everywhere.” She yelled at me and said we better do something about it.” I hardly ever see MM like this. His face was red and he was shaking. I admit our mutual fence is weathered-looking but it is sturdy and frankly we don’t have the money for a new one.
“I’ll talk to her” I said and went over to see her. I knew that if I explained the situation she would understand. It was if she was waiting for me. Before I could get within two feet of her she smirked and said in a condescending tone “You’re upset about the tree aren’t you?” Before I could answer she yelled to the workmen who were taking a break on her lawn. “I bet you get this all the time!” I could tell from the looks on their faces they wanted nothing to do with the whole thing. I instantly felt sorry for them…and me.
“I would have liked some warning about the tree. It’s removal did change the whole micro-climate of the backyard. I will have to move some plants but I know it was an old tree and it needed to be done. No, it’s not that…”
She cut me off before I could finish….”I don’t have time for this.” she said and looked to her van parked in the driveway.
At this point I admit that I was getting angry. I am very protective of the people I love. She had upset MM and now she was working on upsetting me. I am a small person and it takes a lot to get me going but once I do I am like a mighty lion and my roar can move mountains….
Knowing this I backed off. I could see it was going nowhere. I said we’d talk later and I went back inside. MM was worried…I told him that she had no power to make us pay for a new fence…I jokingly referred to one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies The Wizard of Oz…when Glinda The Good Witch says to the The Wicked one…
“You have no power here! Begone, before somebody drops a house on you, too!”
A couple of days went by. I asked my son if he could help by cleaning up the ivy next to the fence. As he was working he overheard Mrs. Wheatgrass talking in a nasty tone to someone in her backyard. “They’re having their long-haired son doing it now.”
That was it! He was hurt, MM was hurt and I’d had it! The lion was ready to roar when Glinda took over and asked?
I had my answer. I simmered down and thought for a while…
Why does this bother me, I ask myself? So what if she doesn’t like me or never did? So what if she is prejudiced against my family? Is it this rejection or is it something deeper? Is it a rejection not just of me but my ideals. I set out for her to like me, when she didn’t I tried to win her over. I thought surely she’d like me after she found out how nice I am, but she didn’t. There is a lesson here…
I ran across the following quotes which fit the bill…
“About all you can do in life is be who you are. Some people will love you for you. Most will love you for what you can do for them, and some won’t like you at all.”
~Rita Mae Brown
“Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.”
I’m taking a page from Glinda, Ann and Rita, putting on my Ruby slippers and going for a walk around the neighborhood, It may not be Kansas but it’s pretty nice here too….after all there’s no place like home…