We are fortunate to live among some of the best people, and one of them died a little over a week ago. Our neighbor J lived in the low-slung, well-kept ranch in front of our house with his wife, a couple so sweet you first questioned if they were for real, but then after your teeth ached because of their sweetness, you gradually accepted and appreciated that they were, in fact, the real deal.
When we called the number to ask about the property where we eventually built our house, J answered the phone. After determining that we were not developers, interested in parceling out the acreage into a subdivision, J invited us out to take a look. J, his sister (our other neighbor) and the rest of their siblings gave us a really nice deal on the family's farmstead. He took a slice of the property to even out the edges of his lot and we promised to be the best kind of neighbor.
Instead, J proved to be the best kind of neighbor. When the big trucks came to dig our basement he took pictures and mailed them to us. When we moved in, he and his dear wife brought a plate of home-baked goodies and dandled Mr. T on their knees. They welcomed us into the fold and helpfully watched Mr. T and his brothers during the occasional parent-teacher conference or school program.
J is the reason I have a raspberry patch, he brought over enough canes to grow the berries to make all the jam I ever want. He and his wife also gifted us our entire slope of day lilies, in every wonderful shade of burgundy and orange and red and yellow. A fellow gardener, we watched J shape his own back yard, planting apple trees and picking tomatoes for home-made salsa. He was generous with his garden, always ready to talk about the finer points of keeping slugs away and what birds were frequenting his bird feeders.
We have a standing joke in our neighborhood about the night the cops showed up because a neighbor heard gunshots. Of course the police came straight to our house, we were the new people on the block. Mr. D told the police it wasn't us shooting a gun, and after he was pressed to point a finger, he reluctantly pointed it towards J's house. The next morning a sheepish J stood on our front stoop with a bag full of fresh picked beans and an apology. Raccoons were fighting on their back deck, he'd shot at them to scare them off. We laughed for years about the original Pa Ingalls, killing varmints and someone even gave him a taxidermied raccoon as a gag gift one Christmas. J never lived that down.
He was quick with a joke, he had a deep and rumbling kind of laugh and the biggest, whitest smile. J was a fit man, always busy with a project, enjoying fishing and hunting and his garden. He and his wife would often walk the trails, Mr. D mowed them a little access path to encourage their enjoyment of the prairie and woods. J and his wife rounded out our little neighborhood of four families, the oldest on our block. With them at the helm, we four couples had every stage of life represented--retired, new empty-nesters, married with children and newlyweds. At our annual Christmas gathering, J would always have a sly joke up his sleeve, delivered with a twinkle in his eye. He doted on his wife, putting every husband on the block to shame with his chivalry.
One winter Mr. B and Mr. G shot a rabbit and they brought it to J, who said he'd use it to make stew. The following summer they brought him another rabbit, not knowing how nasty a rabbit smells and tastes in summertime. J kindly chopped off the feet instead, and sent our young hunters home feeling satisfied anyway.
But the most special thing about J was how he and Mr. G cultivated a friendship. Mr. G would often detour to their house after school, hanging out with J in their garden, playing ping pong with him in their basement rec room. I worried that we was under foot and annoying, but J assured me that Mr. G was a welcome visitor any time. They liked having him around to talk to and dote on and Mr. G LOVED J. He became a surrogate grandfather, handing down wisdom, advice, and gentle affection. On one particular day Mr. G asked J for help on a book project for school. J drew the most amazing horse, wall-sized on a sheet of butcher paper. Atop that horse, he helped Mr. G draw a headless horseman. That project graced the school's hallway, then Mr. G's bedroom wall and now is curled in a roll in his closet, a wonderful reminder of J's artistry and friendship.
When Mr. G's picture appeared in the paper, J would clip it out and send it over. J and his wife mailed Mr. G birthday cards and celebrated him like their own grandchild. J always had time to visit with Mr. G, his wife would stuff Mr. G full of cookies and together they gave my youngest child a place to feel alone and cherished and special.
We're going to miss our neighbor--his deep rumbling laugh, his slightly stooped figure dipping between the pepper plants to fill a bag with produce, his friendly face at the town hall where he volunteered on every election day. J was a class act, a gentleman with a gentle, kind heart. We ache for his wife, alone after being by his side since high school when they became sweethearts--a marriage that lasted almost 6 decades. We count ourselves lucky that we have a small piece of his legacy, though, held in our memories, growing in our garden and rolled up in the corner of Mr. G's bedroom closet.