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One of the Good Ones
When we bought our first house, I worried about living in such close proximity to the neighbors. I had grown up in the country, so living in town was a little unsettling. I found it odd that I could smell my neighbor’s dinner cooking and hear what they were watching on TV. I made a mental note to teach the children where the property lines were, to tell them not to pick the neighbors’ flowers, and not to dig in their rocks. I showed my children which shrubs were NOT ours and told them that it was rude to look in people’s windows.
The Smiths are our closest neighbors. Their yellow rambler sits slightly down the hill from ours, close enough that you could almost jump from our roof to theirs. In the summer time, when the windows are open, the breeze brings in the smell of the Smith’s laundry in the dryer and the sound of Mr. Smith watering his plants on their back deck. I can hear their phone ring and they can hear my children playing.
The Smiths’ children are all grown and their grandchildren are no longer small. When we first moved in, I wondered whether or not the Smiths had forgotten how delightful children could be, and whether or not they would be happy to have five small children living right next door to them. After all, it can be much harder to love children who are not your own, especially if those children have a tendency to look for dinosaur fossils in your front yard.
But as soon as I met the Smiths, and I knew right away that they are not the kind of people who forget how much they like children. They are not the kind of people who worried about property lines or about little hands picking their flowers or digging up their rocks. They are not the kind of people who keep their distance and worry about making friends with small people who might talk too much and come over too often.
They are, in fact, the kind of people who bend down to talk to a child, who remember names, recognize birthdays, and make a note of anniversaries. There are no fences in their yard, but there are about five welcome mats leading to their front door, and they mean every one. They understand that an afternoon spent weeding with a child is worth far more than whatever plant might get dug up or whatever tool might be left out in the rain. They know the value of giving without expectation, and practice it liberally.
In return, my children have fallen in love with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They recognize the gentle sound of their electric blue PT Cruiser as it rounds the final corner and heads up our hill. Like a pack of excited puppies, they run to the edge of our lawn and wave and cheer until the Smiths pull in. Jonathan rushes in to help unload the car while Faith chatters about whatever is interesting to her that day. Kya likes to get right to the point: “Do you have anything for us today?” she sometimes asks, which makes her mother cringe and Mr. Smith smile.
Mrs. Smith graciously dismisses this innocent question. “Oh, she only asks that because Mr. Smith has spoiled them! ”
And this is true. Every Monday, Mrs. Smith calls the children over to get the bananas they haven’t used up the week before. “It’s banana day!” she says with a delightful sparkle in her voice. Jonathan has his boots on and his hand on the door before I even hang up the phone because they have learned that Banana Day is something to look forward to. There may or may not be bananas, but there will cookies and candy and orange juice and eggs and a package of bacon or a few pounds of pork chops and last month’s National Geographic and a black-and-white movie to borrow. Sometimes there’s leftover birthday cake oozing with frosting. “Be careful. It’s rich!” Mr. Smith warns in his deep voice, knowing full well that this is exactly what my six-year-old is hoping for.
One day, the kids were watching the Smiths walk slowly down their driveway to visit the neighbor across the street. Mrs. Smith held on to her cane with one hand and Mr. Smith’s arm with the other. His slow, heavy steps seemed too old for his laugh.
“Mommy, is Mr. Smith old?” Kya asked.
“Yes, he is.”
“Yeah, he’s probably in his 60’s!” Jonathan added.
“No, he’s older than that. He’s a little over 80,” I said.
“Wow. That’s old. Do you think he’ll live to be a hundred?” Faith asked.
“I hope so.”
The kids were quiet. “I should tell him to try to live to be a hundred,” Jonathan said quietly.
Then yesterday morning, we heard the rumble of trucks on our street. My little boys ran to the window, excited to see what was outside. Four big fire trucks and ambulances stood outside the Smith’s house. I ran over and found Mrs. Smith in her house, surrounded by paramedics who jostled past the wall of family photos and moved Mr. Smith’s magazines to places he’d never put them.
Mr. Smith was barely breathing. Mrs. Smith had done CPR on her husband of nearly 56 years until she was afraid she would hurt him.
I watched the paramedics load Mr. Smith on the ambulance. I wanted to tell them to be careful. I wanted them to know that Mr. Smith was one of the rare ones, one of the good ones, one of the ones who didn’t get mad when a helpful boy hauled their recycle bin back up to the house when it was still full. He was the kind who smiled when he talked about his grandkids and called his neighbors to sing them Happy Birthday over the phone.
He was the kind we didn’t want to let go.
But there wasn’t time to say any of it. There wasn’t even time to say good-bye.
Later in the day, as I sat with Mrs. Smith in her home and watched her put Mel’s magazines back where they belonged, I noticed the family pictures on the wall. Some were crooked because the paramedics had bumped them. I straightened one. Then another. A whole lifetime was framed up and nailed to those walls: Mr. Smith on his wedding day, Mr. Smith holding his first child, Mr. Smith celebrating a birthday. There was even a framed picture of my five children, smiling at the camera.
I smiled myself and remembered how I had once worried about whether or not these new neighbors were the kind who liked small children. Now, three years later, I didn’t have to wonder. I knew. The Smiths are not the kind of people who like children. They are the kind of people who love them. You will be missed, Mr. Smith, by all those you loved, and who loved you in return.
In memory of Mel Smith, who died Friday, January 14, 2011, at the age of 81