Know Your Neighbor

This story is dedicated to all the grandparents in our lives, who give us a sense of our past and teach us to love unconditionally. My own grandfather died last week, and while I am not ready to write about him yet, here is a story about another grandfather dear to my heart.

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When I arrived at our beach house on Shelter Island in July, something seemed different. For the first few days, I was busy getting the kids organized for camp, reconnecting with friends and decompressing. We had just moved out of New York City after living there for sixteen years, and now had a house full of boxes in a Rye, NY, that I was happy to leave behind for a couple of months. At first, I could not quite put my finger on what was wrong. Our new neighbors to our right, with three kids just a few years older than our own, were settling in for the summer, also, and our kids were blurring the property boundaries with frequent trips back and forth for soccer kicks, to pet the dog or just to say hello, much as they had with the previous owner and their grandchildren.

After those first few days of enjoying the feeling of being home in a house that is ours, a house that we love, and a house filled with memories rather than boxes, I went into our yard and looked to the left. Where was our other neighbor, Bob? His normally manicured lawn was overgrown. I waited a day or two, hoping he would reappear on his ride-on mower or come to the property line by the swing set to greet Robert, our oldest at five years, and ask him about school or baseball. Robert and Bob had always had a special bond from our very first spring on Shelter Island in 2010. Bob praised us for our choice in names, and our toddler boy was captivated by this grandfatherly man who seemed to live on his ride-on mower. By that first summer, Robert developed a habit of sitting on the porch off our kitchen and watching Bob’s yard, exclaiming, “Bob Frank!” every time he drove his mower into the back yard, then pausing for a few minutes as it disappeared into the front yard to complete the lap. Each time he appeared, Robert shouted with delight.

Now it was summer 2014 and my husband, Rich, and I were concerned. Bob is not one to travel far from home. This is a man who answered the door when the emergency teams were evacuating the island before Hurricane Sandy, explaining respectfully that he would be staying right here. He had lived on Shelter Island for forty years and he would be just fine. We saw Bob frequently in the weeks and months after Sandy, cleaning up our yards and promising to get together more often.

But our life grew busier when we had another baby, our third. Our paths crossed in the yard a few times in the past year, but we didn’t get out to the beach as much as in previous years. Bob was always a pretty quiet man and our relationship was built on backyard conversations while my older two kids swung like pendulums next to us on a hand-me-down swingset. We absorbed their high-pitched laughter as Bob reflected on his own four children and many grandchildren. I had met his wife a few times and some of his children and grandchildren briefly over the years. Some of them lived on the island. Bob’s son, Charlie, helped him clean up after the hurricane, and was there when my husband and I crossed the property line to offer condolences when Bob’s wife, Sandra, died. Bob gazed off in the distance as he talked about how much he missed her and how they were really a team for forty-some years, even if they drove each other crazy sometimes. Again, Rich and I vowed at that point to be better neighbors, but promises are hard to keep.

While we did not see Bob much in those winter and spring months, we did notice a new addition to our front driveway. Sometime in the winter while we were house hunting and making life decisions, a garden gnome, donning a red coat, a long white beard, and holding a shovel, appeared in the wooded area between our two houses. I was sure it was from one of our friends on Shelter Island. We asked a couple people, who did not admit to it, and had mentally decided that it was a local friend’s doing. We smiled each time we arrived at our house, but gave little thought to this new neighbor. The kids enjoyed it and Robert asked a lot of questions about gnomes and WHY people put them in their gardens. As usual, I failed to provide adequate knowledge and we resorted to Wikipedia to research the history of gnomes. Every time we arrived on Shelter Island in the winter and spring of 2014, we were greeted by this unexplained friend.

The gnome was still in the yard as spring turned to summer, but as I feared, Bob was not. After knocking on his door a couple times, I looked up his number in the bright red, very small and seldom-used Shelter Island phone book. The phone rang and rang, and when I heard his wife’s voice on the machine, I left a brief and awkward message hoping that Bob was okay and letting him know that we were there for the summer and would love to see him. A couple of days later, our home phone rang, also a rare event. Bob’s daughter, Jenny, had heard my message and wanted to let me know that Bob had suffered a heart attack and a fall and was now in a nearby hospital. He was not doing well. We both went out into our back yards and crossed through the evergreen trees that mark the property line, just as I had done with Bob so many times in the past. Jenny and I hugged and shared our thoughts of her father. She promised to keep me updated, and we exchanged phone numbers. After a week or two, she sent me a text saying that her sister, Stephanie, and her kids would be coming from Texas to stay in her dad’s house for most of August. Hopefully they would not bother us, she said. Not in the least.

Suddenly, the house next door came back to life. Stephanie clearly had inherited her father’s landscaping gene, and on her first day on the island, she dragged out a push mower and spent hours returning the yard to its usual well-groomed state. Stephanie’s son, Collin, a soft-spoken, warm-hearted eight-year-old boy, was a welcome addition to our backyard soccer games. He had never played before but was an enthusiastic opponent for Robert and our four-year-old daughter, Eliza. When Robert wasn’t home, Collin happily played with Eliza and even helped our toddler, Ian, up and down the stairs. A few days after Stephanie and her kids arrived, Jenny came over to tell me that her father had died. My heart ached for her and her siblings, who lost both parents in such a short time. Even in our thirties and forties, we feel too young to lose our parents. I shared the news with a couple other neighbors, attended the service and had Jenny and Stephanie over for a drink soon afterward. They showed me photos of their parents when they were first married, and I dug up photos the previous homeowners had given me of our house a long time ago. They reminisced about playing in our kitchen and living room as kids, when the walls were covered in floral wallpaper with dark wood beams across the ceiling.

August moved along, with camps and friends and backyard soccer, and it came time to say goodbye to Stephanie and her family and to Shelter Island for the summer.  Stephanie and I spent an evening together right before the summer came to a close, talking for hours as we looked out at our quiet inlet. We had more in common than I ever would have realized. We were both one of four children and have three children of our own, two boys with a girl in the middle. Our fathers and grandfathers were in the military, serving overseas in wars, and yet returning to be solid, steadfast fathers through our childhood and into adulthood. I saw my dark hair and blue eyes reflected in hers, along with a desire to create a positive change in the world and not always knowing exactly how. Stephanie described Collin’s close bond with his grandfather and her sadness that they did not have more time together. Collin had given Bob his special garden gnome last winter, a symbol of “The Traveling Gnome,” a nickname Bob had for him. The gnome! Mystery solved. Stephanie grew excited as she described how Bob had placed it purposefully on the line between our property and his, facing our driveway, for Robert to enjoy, which is where it remains today. In those weeks of wondering about its origin, we needed to look no further than our own backyard.

Robert walked away from the summer knowing how to shake a grownup’s hand and look them in the eye as Collin does, and Collin left asking his mom if he could find a soccer team in Texas. While we all miss our neighbor, Bob, we welcomed these new connections. In a world full of boundaries and competition, where even friends are quick to judge each other and each other’s children, it is refreshing to remember a man who loved my son simply because they shared a yard and a name.

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