Those of you who read the Good Housekeeping article last November, know of the special friendship my neighbor Shelby and I share. For 24 years we have been the best kind of neighbors, sharing keys and alarm codes, joy and heartache, endless cups of tea and talk. By week’s end a moving van will be pulling up in front of her house. I cannot imagine my life without her up the street. I wrote the words below some weeks ago, while she was away on vacation, a dry run for what is to soon to come.
For the last time I went over and organized my neighbor’s mail, culling bills and personal letters, stacking the magazines, segregating the circulars, candidate flyers and Bed Bath & Beyond coupons into their own pile. This is something we have done for each other for years when one of us is out of town. That, in addition to occasionally watering one another’s flowers, and leaving a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread in the fridge so there’s what to eat the morning after arriving home from being away. We never repaid each other cash for these courtesies. “Put it in the friendship bank” is a phrase Shelby taught me early on.
I was over there to measure the rug in the guest room for her. Someone is interested in buying it, but she hoped to take it to their new home when they move next month. I took the necessary measurements, maneuvering around the sleigh bed she was so excited to find at an estate sale a few years ago. On one wall were photos of her and her three sisters, matted in one frame. My husband had snapped great shots of them all at her older daughter’s wedding last fall and she was thrilled to be able to create this sister montage.
To appease the real estate agents and not alienate potential buyers, the house had been swept clear the things that make a house a home: the family photos, trinkets and memorabilia. Cleared from the baby grand were the wedding photos of all three kids and the photo of her son, daughter-in-law and first grandchild. The mantle was wiped clean but in my mind’s eye I saw all the family stockings and the Christmas tree that stood guard each year.
The tray that I gave her for her last birthday was still in the kitchen, holding necessities: two hand lotions and a bottle of liquid soap, a pill bottle, a sponge. The tray is emblazoned with hens. Even if they notice it, her new neighbors will not know that hens were the motif in her kitchen before it was renovated. For old time’s sake I watered the begonia vines although I know a neighbor boy is caring for the garden while they are away. I deadheaded the daylilies, anyway, because even in the garden her touch is so present.
Speared into the soil were a circus of art fair finds: a frog with a crown, a china tea cup, the winged Labrador we gave her the Christmas after their second Lab, the black one named Smudge, had to be put down. Since I have known her, Shelby has made that wrenching compassionate decision a half dozen times. The trauma of putting down our dog and cat within months of each other gives me pause every time I think about acquiring a new one. But Shelby’s love for animals outweighs her heart’s pain. I’ve no doubt that a new kitty will soon be skittering around her new house, taking up to space on the couch where Norman held furry court for a decade plus.
Out the window in the family room birds fluttered at the feeders Shelby keeps perennially stocked. It is a scene in constant motion as the birds feast on seeds and the squirrels below scavenge the hulls. The feeders are always bright with goldfinches, birds we never had until she put out the food they like best. For just a moment or two, I sat on the couch and watched the avian show. Shelby inherited her mom’s passion for nature and backyard fauna. I never knew Mrs. Salmon, but will never forget learning her tradition of placing orphaned mittens on a window ledge come spring so the birds would have soft peckings of yarn to weave through their twig nests.
I’m sure the new family will be nice. We’re a neighborly block and I’ll bring over brownies and lemonade on moving day. But they have teens and our kids are gone. We won’t be trading stories about toilet training, commiserating about the world’s problems, or adolescent angst. We likely won’t mosey over to one another’s homes on quiet afternoons for a cup of tea and talk.
When the moving van pulls away from the curb, Shelby and I will begin writing a new chapter of this quarter-century friendship of ours. Skype didn’t even exist when we became friends. Ditto email. We’ll put both to good use. And since she’s an old fashioned girl like I am, I’m sure we’ll exchange letters, too. We will visit them back east, and they will come to us when we spend time out west. They’ll take us sailing and we’ll take them hiking. A new chapter.
“Do you have good toys?” her daughter asked me in 1988 when I went over to introduce myself and see if our new neighbors needed a hand, or someone to entertain their little one while they directed the movers. Yes, we had good toys. But over the years we came to have something better, rarer even — good neighbors who became family. Our block will be emptier, but not so my heart, nor the friendship bank.