A Back Door Friend

My mother had a sweet, funny neighbor named Theresa who’d regularly cross the yard and enter our house through the back door calling “Ro!” in a singsong voice. They’d sit at the kitchen table and talk, whisper, and laugh for hours over several cups of coffee and a few cigarettes. Occasionally, I’d see Theresa pound her fist and drop her head on the table in a fit of giggles. I’d get a snack and leave, hoping to have a rich friendship like theirs someday.

When I became their age, my neighbor Ellen might be outside first waiting for me in her driveway across the street. For 22 years we regularly walked a three-mile loop around the neighborhood. In every season we hoofed it side by side, bundled in winter gear, carrying an umbrella, or wearing shorts, a favorite t-shirt, and baseball cap.

As a self-appointed beautification committee, we decided which house needed painting or a new roof and whose plantings looked lovely. We consulted each other on our own home improvement projects. What color should she paint her front door? Which curtain rods looked better in my master bedroom?

Topics of conversation marked life phases: careers, growing children, the school system, menopause, retirement, and caring for aging parents.

I saw Ellen teary-eyed when her son left for college, shared her joy planning his wedding, and gushed over photos of her adorable granddaughter. Ellen cheered for my two daughters, too. She rejoiced in all their accomplishments, attending graduations and visiting first apartments. She particularly delighted in their fashions. She’d jog over when spotting them emerge from the car or leave the house all dressed up and give her signature “Darling!”

When my elder daughter’s delicate high school years coincided with my mother’s failing health and my stress level rose to an all-time high, Ellen was there. My daughter would cross the street and soon I’d see the light on in Ellen’s living room. Ellen, a retired high school principal, patiently listened to and counseled her. I never resented this. Rather, I was grateful to have Ellen part of my village, helping my daughter cope through rough waters.

She became a second mother. One tender time that stays with me occurred after my mother died. Ellen helped both teenagers pack for the funeral while I was away in New Jersey planning it. A week later she hosted my family for Thanksgiving dinner when I was still numb. Recently, Ellen comforted me while I sobbed on her couch during my father’s final days.

Besides stories about our children and parents, we related tales about our fun-loving and sometimes annoying husbands and siblings. She’d make a witty remark and I’d stop in my tracks, bend over in laughter, and slap my thighs.

After three miles, we’d go for coffee, taking turns driving to a local café. There, sweaty and exuberant, we’d gab for another hour.

Back home, I’d see Ellen adorn her front door with seasonal wreaths, a Halloween witch, and winter skater boy. Whenever on vacation, we’d collect each other’s mail and newspapers and retrieve box deliveries.

I knew Ellen was home when I saw the outline of her Toyota through the windows on the side of the garage. Then I’d frequently go over with a batch of soup, cookies, or leftovers. Ellen didn’t cook much. In her youth, she swam competitively and played tennis. I grew up with a dust rag in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other.

Last year Ellen told me she was moving. She and her husband wanted one-story living and were done with lawn care. It pained me to see the “Sold” sign on their front lawn.

I miss waving to my good friend. I miss seeing her car pull in and out of the driveway. Mostly, I miss our walks and hearing her call my name when coming through the back door to chat.

Ditch It!

It’s week 3 of my “Ditch It” program. Now that the nest is empty, I’ve decided to get rid of one large item a week.

This week’s item from the basement, aka the warehouse: an Ikea chair.

“Mom, you’ve been trying to pawn off that chair for years,” said my daughter. “No one wants it.”

She’s right. Although I donate to the local thrift shop and consign items seasonally, some things should just go to the curb.

Such as the upright Hoover vacuum cleaner I bought for my first apartment in 1982. It’s been in my husband’s workshop serving as a hook for his “yard clothes.” Gone!

Or the 30-year-old bicycle hanging in the garage. Its handlebars have held the heavy duty outdoor extension cord for at least a decade. Vamoose!

I’m feeling lighter already . . . and scouring the basement for next week’s relic.

When the Last Child Moves Out

The house feels tilted. I sense it more at night and early morning because no one sleeps in the bedrooms across the hall. The doors remain open and the bed covers stay evenly spread.

My daughter moved out a few months ago. (Her sister had moved out a year earlier, so the nest is completely empty now.) She’d been talking about it for a while, but living at home for couple more years had its benefits: the ability to save more money, her own bathroom, a fully stocked kitchen, private parking, central air, and easy access to laundry facilities, to name a few.

Her bedroom is unadorned. She did, however, leave her large out-of-season wardrobe in the closet.

I see fewer TJMaxx bags around the house and fewer boxes from retailers at the front door.

There’s no daily fashion show anymore. The answer to “Is that new?” was always, “Oh, I bought this a while ago.”

The phone doesn’t ring at 5:00 p.m. with her asking, “Do you want me to pick up anything on my way home?” (Code for “What’s for dinner?”)

No longer do I hear the sound of a high-pitched beep when she locks her car.

I miss the jingle of keys at the front door and her upbeat, sing-song “Hello?” when she arrived home.

Gone is the sound of high heels clacking upstairs while she prepared for a night out. (I’d have to turn up the volume to hear Alex Trebek on Jeopardy!)

Her signature laugh doesn’t echo throughout the house, especially when she’d talk on the phone with a muffled voice in another room.

On Sunday nights, the kitchen island is clear where she used to prepare a week’s worth of salad lunches with an assembly line of reusable containers.

I don’t need to move her empty insulated lunch bag on the counter when pouring my morning coffee. Nor do I collect half-empty water bottles throughout the house.

Edamame, Special K protein shakes, and Halo Top ice cream have vanished from the fridge and pantry. So have the occasional doggie bags.

The dishwasher doesn’t run as frequently. And I expect the water bill to be reduced now that she’s not showering up to three times a day.

The dining room appears stark. She’d claimed it as her office, filling it with a laptop (whose cord I had to step over whenever passing by), stacks of neatly piled papers, stationery and supplies, tote bags, and up to four pairs of sneakers, lined in a row.

When I close a book and turn off the light in my bedroom, I don’t hear the hum of the clothes dryer and wonder when she’ll finish her laundry.

A floral whiff of her perfume no longer scents the air before she hugs me and says, “Bye! Love you!”

She still gets mail here. It gives me an excuse to go into her room and place it on her dresser. Other times, I simply stand in the doorway of her and her sister’s bedrooms and stare, like I did when they were away at college. I think about my young daughters under the covers where I knew they were safe and warm. And then I wonder what they’re doing and pray for their safety.

I purposely refer to their living quarters as their apartment, because this will always be home. At only a 40-minute-drive away, they fly in and out of the nest. They haven’t cut a cord. They’ve simply stretched our elastic bond. And when they both decide to stay the night, the house feels balanced again.

My husband and I have shifted our seats at the dinner table. We sit in our daughters’ designated seats now. Even though the arrangement feels lopsided, it makes us feel closer to them.