This past weekend I was able to spend time with my childhood friend, Mandy, and her family. Also with some old neighbors – people who were the center of my world throughout childhood. Mandy’s mom has a birthday coming up and her daughters decided to throw a surprise party. I’d been looking forward to it for months. My dad was there, my sister, Mandy’s children (one of whom I hadn’t yet met!), her little sister’s fiancé (whom I also hadn’t met). I introduced myself as the ‘other’ big sister. I told him I was probably her favorite because I was the one who never picked on her. I took the little girls (the ones I like to claim as nieces) little plastic pig toys and told them the story of the secret club Mandy and I had when we were girls.
I had a great conversation with Ladonna – a woman I probably hadn’t spoken to since I was 12 or so. She’s a cousin to my cousins, but not my relative. She lived 1 mile east, 1 mile north, and maybe another quarter mile east from the house I grew up in. Don and Carol were there, parents of my arch nemesis from my 4-H and bus riding days (but he turned out to be a good guy in the end and we remain friendly to this day). I got to reintroduce myself to Mandy’s aunts and uncles, all people I remember as coming in and out of her life through summer vacations and occasional road trips.
In the end, the evening wasn’t long enough, but it was great to get some hugs and see some people who will remain near and dear to my heart forever. Time has a way of putting distance between people, but some roots run deep, like the way I was able to sit down and chat with Ladonna. I was only a kid when I knew her and I can’t say I ever knew her well. She was one of those people in my life – always there, always with a smile on, always greeting me by name. She was someone I could be sure to see at church on Sundays and at Mandy’s house on occasion. I remember playing at Ladonna’s house a time or two. She had a shady yard. She had some sort of screened outdoor room and lots of spaces for playing hide and seek. I have a memory of a neighbor boy getting stung by bees. I think that was at her house. In my mind, at least, she is there comforting him and calling his parents.
But one of the visits this weekend that stuck most in my mind is with a neighbor who wasn’t at the party. My sister has a childhood friend, as well. Her name is Gemma and she lived one mile south and another mile (or more?) west. Since my sister was a near-grown up (13!) when I came along, her friends were always grownups in my mind, as well. It was just coincidence that Gemma was in town (
– we didn’t go all the way home for the party). Her dad was in the hospital
there and she was staying with her brother, waiting for their dad to get well
enough to take him home. Wichita
My sister had been in touch with her online and suspected our visits would coincide, so we went to see Bob (Gemma’s dad) in the hospital before heading home. Bob was maybe as much a part of the fabric of my early life as Ladonna when I was a kid. I didn’t know him well, but I knew him as a good person that I could trust. He was that jolly man who always wore overalls and had lots of daughters. When one of Bob’s girls got married, everyone in my world joined them in celebration. That family threw parties like nobody else in the neighborhood. Even my dad would dance. When I was in college, one of Bob’s daughters was abducted from her job as a convenience store clerk and murdered. I guess it was the closest I’d ever gotten at that point in my life to the terrible, horrific things that sometimes happen to truly good and undeserving people.
Bob was in the hospital for what we hope was the end of an extended stay. I’m not always the best at coping with hospitals, or with people in such conditions as needing to be in hospitals, but Bob was surprisingly perky given his ordeal and the state of his health. His eyes lit up when he saw my sister. She’s one of his kids, by extension, just as I consider Mandy’s mom and dad to be my parents, as well. He knew me and called me by name, even though I was probably somewhere in my mid-teens when I last spoke to him at length.
Bob lost his wife about a year ago. Her health had been poor for a long time and, much like my own father, he had proven himself to be an excellent nurse. There’s something about those old farmer types. Maybe they had so much practice tending the earth in their early years that caring for loved ones in need just comes natural, though they were given little credit as fathers when their children were young. Bob told us about getting up to do the gardening early in the morning so that he’d be back in the house by the time his wife woke so he could help her dress and start her day. She’d lost her eyesight by the end, as well as her memory to Alzheimer’s. He told us about watching deer munch on his watermelons. He told us about his grandkids and what they were doing.
“Getting old sure can be rough,” Bob said from his hospital bed. “But you adapt. You learn to get along.”
And I thought about my aching back, and my response to body growing older, which tends to lean toward grumbling and even anger in my worst moments. I wanted to absorb some of that, whatever Bob has that makes him shrug and say you just make the necessary changes and move along.