I grew up in a quiet neighborhood, on a pot-holed dirt road, with retired people and sea creatures as my neighbors. Mostly, anyway. Gretchen and I – my perfectly-named neighbor across the street – were the only children in the immediate vicinity. We had a couple other friends down the road in either direction, but right on our street, it was just us and the retirees.
Our immediate neighbor to the right was an empty lot. He never threw loud parties or complained about Mom and Dad’s loud classical music. Abutting the lot on the far side was a retired science teacher from Seattle. She never married, had two loud and slightly scary dogs, and seemed to have endless supplies of cash to pour into her beautiful garden. At least in my childish viewpoint she did.
On the left side of our house was another single lady, a widow, who had lost her husband decades before in the Bataan Death March during WWII. I still dream about her house sometimes. She had this winding staircase up to a tiny loft that I adored.
Both of these neighbors were more than kind to me. They didn’t mind me playing in their yards, they loved when I’d knock on their doors just to come over and visit and they had endless supplies of candy.
Which I appreciated very much.
The neighbor with the dogs, however, had a special deal with me. She would read out loud to me, do science experiments with me, and spend time with me as long as I continued to come. “But,” she told me one day, “if you don’t want to keep on coming over, just tell me. Don’t just quit coming. Tell me you’re too old for this. Tell me you want to do other things. Don’t just stop. Keep me informed. Don’t just ditch me.”
I didn’t understand the intensity of her plea.
I remember thinking at the time, “Why would I not want to come over here? Why would I not want to visit your National Geographic room where every single issue of the magazine lines the walls like yellow wallpaper? Why would I not want to lie on your fainting couch and gaze out your circular window at the ocean while you read Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories to me and I learn how, exactly, the camel got his hump? Why would I not want to walk along your pebble-lined garden paths and admire your gorgeous roses? Why would I not want to measure your amaryllis day to day and see how quickly it grows? Why would I not want to learn how to use a slide-rule? Why?
I am ashamed to say that I stopped wanting to do those things all too quickly.
But I didn’t have the heart to tell her so.
She had asked me to warn her. She had told me about other children who had just ditched her, just ignored her, just quit coming. And I became one of those kids because I didn’t know how to tell her I didn’t want to visit her any more. I didn’t know how to tell her that I wanted to ride my bike, to go shopping, to fix my hair.
So I just stopped showing up. I stopped opening the gate and crossing that empty lot. I fell into the pit-fall she had feared. I was growing up, entering the self-centered years.
My sister tells me that this neighbor is still alive, still living in her same house. It’s funny, because to me she was elderly then and I can’t imagine how old she must be now. I wonder: how many shelves does she have in that magazine room by now?
Maybe I could visit her this summer, when I go back to Orcas Island for a visit? Maybe I could bring my kids and introduce them. Tell them that she is the reason we measure amaryllis every year, that I know how to use a slide rule, that I like shrimp cocktail and round windows.
Tell her that, because of people like her, I am who I am.
I am everything I have ever done. The good and the bad. What makes me who I am today is a combination of all of the things I have ever been, done, seen, heard, felt, experienced, tasted, smelled, accepted, rejected, believed, enjoyed, loathed, loved.
There are so many people in my life I need to thank. Not blame. Thank.
Who can YOU begin to thank today?