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.