Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas in the Neighborhood

Today's Guest Blogger is JoLynne Lyon, a friend and fellow writer.

We moved to our little farming town when we were newlyweds. The first time I went out of my new door and took a walk for exercise, two of my neighbors popped out of their homes as I walked by.

“Are you stranded? Do you need a ride?” The two old gentlemen said almost exactly the same thing, as if the only reason I’d be out walking was because I could not drive. The important thing was that they wanted to help.

Now, thirteen years later, they are both gone, leaving holes in the neighborhood like gaps in a smile.

I knew Henry the best because he was out the most. He walked an old springer spaniel while his wife, Amanda, busied herself in their home and garden. After the dog died Henry walked alone, or rode an ancient bike. His energy was astounding. To this day I am not sure how old he really was. He was a retired teacher, and in his retirement he began pursuing the things that a career and seven children had kept him from doing. He tutored the neighbor girls next door. He learned to paint. He continued farming the field across from our house, and the view changed every year, from wheat to alfalfa to corn. One year the harvester could not get to the wheat on an uneven piece of his land. Henry and his grandson threshed it by hand.

I was salvaging lumber outside one day when I noticed a longhorn cow in my garden. “Hey!” I yelled. I let the hammer’s handle fall into my free hand and glared at the cow. She shook her two-foot horns at me and glared back. I had decided she could help herself to our red ripe tomatoes when Henry appeared and matter-of-factly guided her back to her pasture. She was not my cow. She wasn’t his, either.

I told Henry’s relatives how much I admired Henry and his energy, and they would hesitate, nod and leave it at that. Perhaps by then they were already getting hints of what was to come. Those of us outside the family did not realize he was losing his memory until the process was well underway. One bitterly cold night Henry appeared on my doorstep, asking for help because he was locked out of the house. We persuaded him to wait for his family at our place. He did not want to at first, perhaps because he was embarrassed. He chatted quietly while his expression asked how this could be happening to him.

I don’t know the details of his illness, and I wouldn’t tell them if I did. The weight of that story would crush many, many more years of vitality and health, of learning and determination, of fatherhood, of a whole long line of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that turned into decent people. Still they gather across the street at Christmas, crowding the circle drive in front of his son’s house and the driveway to the side of it. I don’t know most of them. I knew Henry, and this Christmas I can only remember our last holiday visit to his home while he was still in it.

We brought our children and ate toffee made by Amanda, and chatted. Henry was subdued and quiet, but he talked to the children at their level, and I was relieved that my whole family was content to sit for a minute instead of rushing off to deliver the next treat to the next house down the road. Henry showed the kids the trinkets he and Amanda had collected over the years: some tiny skaters that glided over a pond; a penguin and a Christmas tree that danced. The kids were delighted.

Eventually we did go, and two houses down the road was Grant’s home. It was his last Christmas there, too. On past Christmases I had delivered treats during his and his wife’s family party, when their little living room had been so packed that the air was steamy and the windows dripped. This night, Grant’s wife, Bernice, greeted us alone. Grant, the man who had come out on his front porch and offered me a ride some years before, could not make it to the door that day.

“I hope you have a good Christmas,” Bernice said as she took our plate of goodies. “But you will, because you have children at home.”

That Christmas season had seemed like one endless checklist, and delivering treats had been one more item to mark off. I hadn’t planned on having an epiphany that night. It just came, thanks to my neighbors.

“I don’t want to be stupid,” I told my husband after the kids were in bed. “I don’t want to wait until the good times are over to realize we were in them.”

One of Grant’s grandsons lives with his family in Grant’s house now. Amanda lives on in the house she shared with Henry. His paintings hang on her walls, and on a wall in their son’s home, too. Amanda still chats with us when we bring treats by. Her collection of singing, dancing decorations has grown, but the silent one with Henry’s picture on it touches me the most.


Candace E. Salima said...

My goodness, you really choked me up. What a powerful piece. Thank you.

Carole Thayne said...

Thanks for sharing a wonderful and touching story.