Before her son took her to live with him in Macon, Mrs. Ciccarelli often sat on the back porch of the little house next door worrying about the black locust trees that hung treacherously over her fence from a neighbor’s backyard. “Lightning magnets,” her husband Frankie had called them, but I suspected the trees, so common in Maryland, came down in storms because they had shallow root systems, not because they attracted electricity.
Still, when storms were rumbling in the west, I’d sit with Hilda on her concrete steps and listen to her describe her house and gardens as they had been fifty years ago before Frankie died and her son moved south. Pink tea roses, false dragonhead, and patches of mint had all disappeared because Hilda was no longer able to weed and water in the summer heat. Hilda in a blue gingham housedress, me, in sandals and a yellow sundress, gazed together at all that remained — an ancient lavender butterfly bush and some robust ruby four-o’clocks by the back door.
Hilda’s son thought she should no longer live alone, but she didn’t want to leave the two-bedroom, white clapboard cottage she and Frankie had built as 19-year-old newlyweds. They had lived there her entire adult life, although he’d been gone fifteen years by then.
Inspired by Hilda’s nostalgia and moved by her loneliness, I imagined secretly planting new rose bushes and mint patches for her. I suggested trips to the library, book groups, and classes at the Y. I imagined that I could drive her myself, attend events with her, but I had three children, a writing career, a house of my own, and I don’t know that she’d have wanted my help.
I was reminded of the time I offered suggestions to a rather brusque woman complaining about her life at a baby shower. She had finally turned to me with undisguised annoyance and snapped, “Oh, I get it. You like to fix things.” That was exactly what I was trying to do, and what’s worse (don’t judge me), I was confused by her disdain. Is that so wrong, I wondered? passing a onesie as pink as my face to the next guest.
Rest assured that I now know that, yes, it is so wrong. I was supposed to just listen …right?
…Because you actually don’t know anything the complainer doesn’t know …right?
And the baby shower lady did have a point. Hilda appeared happiest when we just sat on the porch theorizing about which way those black locusts would fall, talking about everything from pizzelle recipes to the probability of life after death. She was 84 at the time. Frankie had died of a heart attack on the kitchen floor of that house, and she was convinced he was still with her.
I had reason to think so, too.
Hilda’s mind seemed sound to me, but when her son took her away a year later, he told her they were going on vacation, and she didn’t seem to find it odd that he was loading her entire life into a U-Haul. When they pulled out of her drive and turned right on Westwood Road for the last time, I could just make out Hilda’s tiny form peeking up above the seatback.
I wondered if she would be bewildered as this vacation became the remaining days of her life. I waved from my living room window, but Hilda’s concentration was on the road ahead. She had bonded with her kidnapper.
The little house sat empty for the next year, but I knew Hilda would never be back. She was going to die in Macon in the in-law apartment of her son’s big house. At some point, I’d be walking the dog or enjoying a glass of Sauvignon Blanc on the patio, unaware that between one sip and the next, Hilda had slipped away to join Frankie. She would find out before I do if there is life after death or we get second chances. It grieved me that I would never know of her leaving.
When we first moved into the grey shingled house next door to Hilda’s, we were consumed with unpacking, painting, establishing new gardens, an English trellis fence in the back, a stacked stone wall in the front, meeting other young families, and months went by without meeting the tiny elderly lady next door. She was so quiet. She rarely left the house. The curtains were usually closed. I never glimpsed her in the yard.
But one afternoon, entering Trader Joe’s, on impulse, I bought a huge bouquet of locally-grown zinnias. Scarlet, sunshine yellow, creamy white, vibrant orange, they were just the brilliant, happy, workhorse flowers of summer.
I thought I’d bought them for myself—for the kitchen table– so I could enjoy them from the family room as well. But when I got home, I suddenly felt I was supposed to take the flowers next door. To the quiet, little house with its eyes closed. I wrapped them in tissue, tied a ribbon around the stems, and headed over. Was I trying to fix something? (That’s not a real question.)
I stood on the porch knocking; it was white-hot July, and I couldn’t even tell if anyone was home when the door opened and a tiny woman, even shorter than I, with white curls and a wistful smile, looked up at me expectantly from the other side of the threshold.
“I’m your next-door neighbor, Laura,” I said, “and I just wanted you to have these.” Her face lit up as she reached for the summer-bright abundance.
“Oh, my goodness, thank you,” she said. “I was sitting here feeling a little down. You won’t believe this, but it’s my birthday.”
While this could have been a coincidence, I don’t think so. I imagine when Hilda reached for those flowers, the ruby 4 o’clocks opened in joyful acknowledgment of divine timing, and a complicit Frankie grinned in delight.
“Happy birthday!” I exclaimed, and I gave her a happy hug. As I turned to go, she thanked me again, and I called back, “You are so welcome!”
Anyone watching would have thought I was addressing only my lovely new neighbor. Anyone watching would have thought I was speaking to Hilda alone.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.