Neighborhoods are funny things.  One minute you’re buying a home in the next up-and-coming Atlanta suburb (at least, that’s what your realtor tells you…), the next minute you’re the new kid on the block, literally.  When we bought our home in 2006, we were met with a mixture of intrigue (WHO are these guys?!  Where did they come from? How is the ginger’s hair & skin so perfect?) and hope (the good-old “Thank you Lord, the gays have finally arrived!  Our property values will be restored by flower-filled window boxes, updated color schemes & the promise of Farmers’ Markets.  Which one of them do you think feeds the backyard chickens?).

Here’s the real deal…change in our neck of the woods is coming, although not on the timetable we anticipated.  The upside of buying a home on a block with retirees is that it’s quiet and with nothing to do between The Price Is Right reruns and Fox News, they have had years to hone their skills as amateur Gladys Kravitzs.  Case in point, the first neighbor to introduce herself (read: work me for information while I’m just trying to retrieve my mail), Elizabeth Burton.  Our oldest resident, having bought her home new in 1950, she looks like Harper Lee with a blue-grey bob and glasses and could easily be spotted driving her old black truck at top speed of 15 MPH to Kroger & back several times a week.  Our Staffordshire knows no boundaries & jumped on her the first & only time she made her way across our lawn, almost knocking her over, which would have certainly broken at least one hip.

It’s no surprise that Mrs. Burton kept her distance after that.  Harper Lee types aren’t fond of sixty pounds dogs, no matter how well-intended they may be.  We stayed connected from afar–a friendly wave, a nod of the head.  Because of her age & tenure on the block, everyone deferred to her.  It wasn’t uncommon to her other residents bragging, “Well, we’ve been here since the early 80’s but Mrs. Burton, you know she’s seen it all.”.  She knew every other house and chatted up every single city worker that would stop to entertain her for a while.  With a gentleman caller almost as old as she, showing up weekly in a faded & battered Jeep to perform his handyman duties, before collecting his weekly home-made supper, she was assumed to be a feisty spirit. At least, that’s the narrative we wrote for her.

This went on for years.  We rescued more animals, had grandchildren, remodeled a bathroom, painted the house inside & out. We settled into our lives.  We got older.  All of us slowed down.  It wasn’t long after we noticed we hadn’t seen Mrs. Burton around for a while that we found out she had been placed in a home.  Even though this woman is still as much of a mystery to us as she was when we first moved in, we were sad.  Our lives overlapped for almost a decade just because of the proximity of our homes.  She’s played supporting character to the story of our lives and probably has a lot of really great stories that we will never hear.

So, with what is likely misplaced nostalgia, we say an official goodbye, hoping that she lives many more years in comfort, with folks taking care of her, the way she took care of her little part of the city for so many years.  Hopefully, the next generation is soon to follow. Lives will always intersect in subtle & surprising ways and, perhaps, the next generation of Elizabeth Burtons will continue to inspire shy Southern poets.

Neighbors

I was thinking about the straight-back

plastic chairs that line the porch next door,

of the blue plastic tarp stretched across their roof,

and of the way the chronic wafts across the yard

at night, smelling vaguely like cat piss

and my first apartment;

of how Miss Carolyn across the street lost her husband

late one night while I was up watching Mad Men

and fighting sleep on the couch,

of what it must feel like to make it through

a whole day and then lose everything

when the other houses on the street

are going dim and quiet,

of how she retreated into her house for weeks

and how a heart can ache with loss;

of Mrs. Burton with her blue-white hair

and gentleman caller in the old Jeep,

of how she ties kerchiefs around her head

like it’s still the 1950s and he’s still some shell

of a man that went to war and never came back;

of the morning that the cat got ran over in the driveway

and I stroked his back, sobbing  and praying he went quickly,

of how I woke the neighbor’s baby

and how they weren’t mad at all, of how they tried to help,

of Mrs. Burton’s gentleman-caller parking

his battered Jeep at the curb the next day,

leaving her sitting alone while it idled, shook my hand

and said how sorry he was that I’d lost a little blessing,

of how I should have done the same.

-MH 2012

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