When I was growing up, I had a second family. This family lived next door to us for many many years. They had a daughter who was grown but they were only in their forties. This couple married as high school sweethearts. We moved in next to them when I was five. I have vague memories of sitting on their porch with them, visiting as they finished their yardwork. They smoked, and would always have a cigarette in their hands. This was very exotic to me as no one in my family smoked. They would be drinking sweet tea in Tupperware cups, the tall ones that had lids that no one used. They were the muted Tupperware colors, celery green and faded pink, and they would bring me my own glass. I remember the gentle tapping that the ice cubes made in the glasses, and the shick shick shick of the lawn sprinkler at the end of the hose.
One day, the husband fell sick. He had lung cancer. He was sick, and then he died. He was only in his forties. The day of his funeral, my friend and I tried to play quietly in the yard but we were kids and we begin to run and shout. My father came out, grim faced, and told us to come inside immediately; we were being disrespectful. We felt terrible.
The day our neighbor’s husband died, she put down the cigarettes and never picked them up again. She was such a determined woman, her hair always done in a sixties bouffant flip that grayed as she got older. She never colored her hair. She did all her own yardwork, and my friend and I would come help her pull weeds and wild strawberries out of her yard. She paid better than our parents did. For yard work, she always wore zip-up coveralls that had probably belonged to her husband. She mowed her own yard, until I was old enough and did it for her. She amazed us by growing banana plants that grew actual bananas on them.
She always had a big dog in her big chained in back yard. When we moved in, it was Rex, and then it was Bo. Then she finished her German Shepard phase and started with the black labs. Her first one was Inky. They were all sweet dogs and would jump up to the side of the fence to be petted. I know they were a great comfort to her after her husband passed. On the rare occasions that she went out of town, usually to visit her daughter, and later her grandchildren, I would come in to her house and let whatever dog it was into the basement to be fed and petted. She doted on her big dogs and they were inside as much as they were out. They were always well trained.
As I got older, I learned what a dichotomous person she was. On the one hand, she was strong and determined, took care of herself and her house and yardwork. She was raised the youngest of a family of all boys, and she had a boy’s nickname and was a well known softball player in her day. She worked for a concrete company until the day they retired her. But her hair was always perfect, not one out of place, and she spoke in such a soft sweet Southern accent. She always stayed in great shape and dressed immaculately. She stubbornly refused to remarry for almost twenty years.
Lordy, that woman loved a good gossip. When I was a child, it was mostly her talking, but as I got older, high school and college, I had gossip of my own to contribute. She was born and raised in our town, and she knew virtually everyone in it. I would start a story about someone, and she would say, “Oh, that’s so and so’s son. I always knew that family was no good.” I guess as we get older, we begin to see more sides of someone we’ve known our whole life. Some of her gossip seemed a bit mean-spirited, but I figured that was just her. I was more disappointed in her than I have ever been when I was visiting her when I was home from college, and she told me that “Them gays got the AIDS because God was punishing them.” I never felt quite the same about her again, although I realized later that she was just a sheltered woman who had married out of high school and she didn’t know any better.
When she finally remarried we were all surprised. She had been dating gently for years, but stayed out of the highly competitive, catty hair pulling that she said was characteristic of older ladies, whom she said would fight tooth and claw over a man, since there were so few of them available. She said one time she was out to dinner with a man and a woman came up to her and said, “Get away from him, he’s MINE.” She said she never went out with that guy again; she didn’t need the drama.
She finally met a man that was right for her, and he lived right around the corner in our neighborhood. They courted for a while and then married in a small ceremony. I could never remember to call her by her new married name; I had known her by the old one for so long. She didn’t mind. In what I considered an impressive and admirable move, she refused to move in with her new husband and stayed in her old house. They visited back and forth. He was an avid hunter, and as tough as nails as she was, she was an avid hunter too. She went deer hunting with her husband all the time, and brought down many a deer. I remember one Christmas when she was over seventy, her proudest Christmas gift from her husband was a pair of knee-high, camouflaged, snake proof hunting boots. I came to her house to see her on one of my trips home, and there was a huge stuffed bobcat in her living room. I inquired as to the origin of said bobcat, and she said proudly, “I saw him in the woods and I shot me that old cait. Had him stuffed and I keep him in here.”
She went through some rough times. As she and her husband got older, they took turns being hospitalized for more and more serious ailments. She nursed him through several protracted hospital stays. After years of marriage, in a stunning turn of events that blew our minds, her husband’s daughter got to him somehow and persuaded him that his wife was after his money. Never mind that she was still supporting herself, living in her own home. The daughter somehow twisted the knife, wanting her father’s money for her own, and turned him against my friend. He threw her out of his life without warning. We were all stunned. She must have had a premonition, hanging onto her home all those years. She shrugged it off, and after an initial flurry of filling us in on the dirt, she spoke of him no more.
She’s in her eighties now. She’s gotten a bit more frail, and a bit less sharp, but there’s still a lot to her. My parents moved away from her neighborhood, but they still visit each other and catch up on the news. When my childhood friend remarried, I told her and her first response was, “I know his Daddy.” She always knew everyone, and everyone’s business. I haven’t seen her in several years, but we exchange Christmas cards. She’s a tough lady and I think she’ll hang on quite a while yet.