Tuesday, July 01, 2008

neighbors and community again – what else

I have a friend who lives within a 10-minute walk of my house whom I have not seen in person for over a year. Clearly, we are not that close, though it's not for lack of effort. The last time I invited her to something she accepted but we were coming from different places at different times and she got lost on the way to the theater and didn't make the show.

To add to the absurdity of our paths not crossing over the less than quarter mile between us, in the last year, she has checked in on my cat numerous times while we were out of town – supplemental visits to our paid cat sitter and garden waterer. After the last time she did it I had phoned her to thank her for hanging out with Emily in addition to expressing some embarrassment and exasperation that she only comes to my house when I'm not in it. “That's okay,” she intoned matter-of-factly, “there's more than one way to get to know a person.”

The comment stopped me. I looked around at the layers of dust covering every flat surface of my abode, the ashes and photo collage of my cat still perched shrine-like atop the tallest bookcase in the living room a year and a half after she passed (certainly where she would have sat had she lived to make the move to our 5th California address in 9 years.); I glanced at what magazines spilled over the edges of the coffee table, at Mike's boyhood teddy bear in a corner of the bedroom, the red felt oval of its mouth faded and coming unglued, and nervously wondered exactly what she meant. Is this just one more weird, modern hiccup? Phantom friends? I'm ready to give up trying to get together. And that makes me sad.


In retrospect, I felt something was wrong right away.

I saw my next door neighbor's friend watering her garden. You might not think this strange, unless you knew my neighbor. At 81, she'd totter out with her hands spattered in paint – just redoing the hallway, she'd explain. Every Monday and Wednesday morning she'd head out to work – caretaking at a mansion in Pebble Beach. Her baked goodies come in a steady stream over the fence to us. We've become her best customers since her husband passed away a year ago.

Like most of us, I set aside my instincts and continued on to wherever I was going. A couple days later, we still hadn't seen Mrs. Johnson. There was no answer at her house, so I left a note in the mailbox.

I got a call the next day from her friend, Rose. Mrs. Johnson was in the hospital – a stroke. She was doing well in physical therapy, but she'd stay there another couple weeks.

Mrs. Johnson has no family here. She is a native of Austria. Her husband has a niece left in Mississippi. They had no children - “unfortunately” as Mr. Johnson once explained to me. (Mrs. Johnson used more bitter language regarding the issue. Apparently, they tried to adopt and were turned down.) I imagine they weren't the most popular couple in 1950, when she, a German-speaker, decided to marry an African-American soldier just after WWII.

When I called, she insisted I not come to visit her at the hospital. (“Oh, Kitty, you never know when they will come and take me for exercises – sometimes 10:00, sometimes 2:00. You'll drive all the way out here and I won't be in my room.”) I was both surprised and glad when she talked about possibly hiring someone to help her with things when she got back home. Those prone to stoicism can often convince those around them of their facade. I took over watering her geraniums from Rose and waited to hear more news.

Many of us live far from our families. And family ties are family ties. But they cannot be all that sustains us. Sometimes they just can't do the job from plane rides away. Phone calls to family become what they must after years of living thousands of miles apart – selective reports or calls of crisis. We don't have each other's everyday. What can we do, but turn to those near us?

The world we live in today is practically vibrating with change. It has proposed to stretch itself so far into globalization that it feels mighty close to snapping back into tiny self-sustaining communities – a post-oil "apocalypse" where neighborhoods grow their own food and share in a balance of trades. Count me in. And this cyber bullshit is just that. Sorry. Mrs. Johnson doesn't own a computer.

I had all these things already swirling in my mind and my journal when I got a call from a social worker at the hospital. Would I be able to check in on Mrs. Johnson regularly for the first couple weeks after she got home tomorrow? Would I follow up with them and let them know if she turns in the applications for emergency medical alerts and door to door pick up on the senior buses?

We live in an era when relationships can have nothing at all to do with geography, unless they have everything to do with it.


Dianne said...

"we don't have each other's everyday" - I love that phrase and I love having neighbors to have everyday with. I have my own Mrs. Johnson and love him.

I cat-sit for a friend I rarely see - I took your friend's comment as knowing your pets is part of knowing you. Perhaps that's what she meant?

bobbie said...

I'm sorry to hear about Mrs. Johnson But she is fortunate to have you as her nearest neighbor, because you care about the Mrs. Johnsons out there, and I know you'll be there for her.

Say what you will about cyber bullshit, Dianne is a cyber neighbor. She's a really good example of one.

We do what we can for whom we can whenever we can.

Anonymous said...

Great piece!
Thanks, Sally

Anonymous said...

Here here!

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