Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Loss in Our Community

I started writing this piece over a month ago but the grief was too raw for me to finish it. Today I was able to complete it. I am sharing this story because I think it's a beautiful example of the connections we can make with the people around us. 
I sat down to write about baby chicks, planting potatoes, and conserver finances today. But I just can't do it. What my heart really needs to write about is community, specifically a loss in our own little community this week. Our dear neighbor, Ms. B, passed away on Saturday. I've mentioned her before on this blog when those two stray dogs attacked our chickens. She called the sheriff's office for us and gave them a piece of her mind. (I only wish I had a recording of that phone call!)

When we moved into our house Ms. B was a largely homebound widow who had lived in the house across the street for 33 years. Our other neighbors had known her back in the days when she got outside more but we caught only the occasional glimpse of her, usually clad in her housedress and spreading corn for the deer behind her house. I can remember waving to her from a distance but she was rather grumpy-looking and had no smile to match her wave.

For nearly two years it went on like this. I had met and talked with every other person in the neighborhood except the elusive Ms. B. I felt awkward about marching up to her house and announcing our arrival in those first months and I certainly wanted to respect her privacy. To be honest, she looked really cranky.

Finally, about two years after we moved in, Ms. B had several of her family members over to pull down an old shed on her property. Mr. Chanclas and the kids went over to see if they could help and to salvage some old lumber from the building. I followed them over and there was Ms. B, standing in her driveway in a gray sweatsuit smoking a cigarette. She had long gray hair and big, round granny glasses. She had a low, sweet smoker's voice and she looked each one of my children in the eye and committed their names to memory. She treated them like real people. And she generously offered any usable lumber from her shed to Mr. Chanclas and me. I liked her immediately. I could see that my distant, initial impression of her was all wrong.

I remember telling Mr. Chanclas a few days later, "I'm going to make friends with Ms. B." It's hard to make friends with someone you never see, though, and I didn't have another opportunity to talk to her for several months. Finally I called her to ask if she had seen what kind of animal had made off with my guinea fowl. She didn't know but she was so sad to hear that we had lost our birds. Then she wondered if I might know anyone willing to help her by cleaning her house and tending her yard. She had paid a neighboring family to do it for years but their kids had all grown up and had full-time jobs now. I said I would do it and that was the beginning of our friendship.

Over the next few months I scrubbed toilets, vacuumed carpets, trimmed trees, dusted furniture, and fed the deer for B. Mr. Chanclas cut her grass with her big riding mower, which she then generously let us use to cut our own acre, too. (We have a little push mower.) I enjoyed every minute of it. It turned out that Ms. B had an enormous heart full of love for animals and children and people and all tender things. She could swear like a sailor, wield a firearm, and cut a person down to size with words (all while smoking an unfiltered Pall Mall), but her eyes would tear up at the thought of an animal in pain or an ailing child. She had never had children of her own but loved her extended family and always spoke very lovingly of them. She was extremely generous, always ready to loan us a tool from her collection for whatever project we had under way at the moment.

Ms. B had amazing stories of a pretty adventurous life, even though she had been mostly confined to her home for the last decade. She had been a police officer back when women didn't do that sort of thing and she had spent years riding motorcycles with her late husband. Her stories and observations kept me in stitches. One day she told me how, after twenty years of marriage, her husband had pulled out an accordion and started playing. She had no idea that he knew how to play the accordion and thought that it was one of those things you should know about a person after that many years of marriage. She told me about the time Mrs. M's husband had a medical emergency and the Life Flight helicopter landed in the road between our houses to pick him up and carry him off to the hospital. When I invited her to go shopping at Target with Little Sister and myself she refused, as she always did. I tried to entice her, telling her she could ride on the electric cart with Little Sister. She hooted and agreed that that sounded fun and told me that she calls those things "drunk carts". Of course, I think of that term every time I see one in the store now.

At Halloween we took all of the neighborhood children trick or treating at her house. She had set up an extensive and elaborate candy buffet in her living room. Every ghost and goblin in the neighborhood trampled through her living room and went home with scads of Tic Tacs and chocolate kisses and God knows what else. She loved it. And so did we. I think it was the first time she had had any trick or treaters at her house in over a decade. My children felt like they had gained an extra grandmother, someone else to love them and spoil them. I had gained a friend.

At Christmas time I set up B's artificial tree and decorated it and the rest of her living room. We played Christmas carols on her boom box and she smoked and watched me struggle with all of those damn plastic branches (insert Branch A into Slot A kind of thing). She had an astounding quantity of Christmas decorations (filling a dozen plastic totes) and I only made it through a few but the living room looked truly festive.

My plan all along was to do the cleaning and the yard until my children and the other neighborhood children were old enough to take over. I thought we could keep it in the neighborhood for a very long time. Then, in January, Ms. B got sick. She ended up in the hospital with double pneumonia, breathing with the aid of a ventilator and heavily sedated. It was scary to see her like that in the hospital. But when she woke up she was glad to see me and I knew she knew who I was. Over the next month she improved and got off of the ventilator and was able to breathe more easily. She was moved out of the ICU into a regular room. I visited her once a week and kept her up to date on the neighborhood happenings and my children's antics. Another neighbor and I fed her cat and her deer and watched out for her house while she was gone. My oldest daughter and the oldest son down the street washed all the windows of her house so that they would be nice and clear when she got home.  But Ms. B died before she was able to come home again.

We wish we had reached out to her sooner so that we could have been friends longer. But I know we are all grateful for the time we had to enjoy her friendship and company. The day after she died I came across a saved message from her on my answering machine. She had called me from the hospital the week before and left a long, rambling message, sending her love to each of us by name and ending the call with a gentle but strangely final-sounding goodbye.

We still miss her. But I bet the motorcycle rides are awesome in the afterlife.


  1. Oh, that brings tears to my eyes. I'm so sorry for your loss. What a wonderful gift you two shared, I wonder if her husband greeted her playing the accordion before they took off on their motorcycles.

  2. I'll have you know, I started the day in big, ugly tears because of you and this story. What a beautiful friendship you cultivated with this neighbor. You've painted such a colorful and detailed picture of her that,after reading it, I feel like I know her, too -- like a neighbor. Though her life has ended, I'm sure you made it richer for her -- and she made yours richer, too.

  3. I'm not gonna say anything to detract from the gravity of what you wrote. I'll just wipe my eyes and send you a virtual hug. What wonderful things in this post. Just without words. Peace, my friend.

  4. That's a lovely story Karen, community is so important and it sounds like you have some really good neighbours that look after each other, I'm so sorry to hear about Ms B. Thanks for your comment on my blog.

  5. For me, this is the best post of this whole wonderful blog. Thank you for sharing. I will not hesitate as much as I have in the past in trying to connect with my own neighbors. It's hard sometimes when they seem 'different from me' , or too busy, or too cranky or what have you. But it is so important. Maybe the most important work of all.


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