With sudden inflow of money from a successful business my husband and I started in 1971, we were able to move to a gorgeous neighborhood where the lawns were groomed and the cars in the driveways brand-new. We had two funky old clunkers, and raking every last leaf that fell from every last tree wasn’t our priority, which is what I had to tell one neighbor when she showed up with plastic leaf bags, saying, These are for your leaves. No one had welcomed us with the traditional pie or the backyard wine spritzer meet-and-greet.
There were three houses tucked away in the back, up the leafy lane behind ours. The woman directly in the back was in her 90s. Her husband had written my husband’s college nuclear physics textbooks. We became fast friends, and I would visit, bringing one of my ridiculously hyper-healthy, gluten-free red lentil or vegetarian spinach and millet or, God forbid, quinoa and kale vegetable soups.
She would offer me warm chocolate chip cookies her helper had made that morning, and I would eat to my heart’s content. Apparently my heart needed a lot of content because, hard as I tried to maintain my sugar-free diet and love my free-range vegan and nine-grain reduction of everything meal plan, I looked forward to those visits with Ruth. Not just because she was delightful, but because unlike my poor children, I could get a break from my rigid, sprout-growing, tofu-marinating, brown rice stir-frying life.
The woman who had brought me the leaf bags also called me at three in the morning to tell me my basement light was on, and whether I cared or not, that we were in the middle of an energy crisis. She was the same woman who called the labor department when I had a tag sale, and reported that we were running a boutique business out of our home.
I was trying to think of how I could respond without a weapon when someone I knew told me they had met her at a fundraiser. My friend said she was describing the new “Eyetalian” neighbors as “the filthy people on the corner.” Did you at least tell her we aren’t Italian? My friend said, “No, I pretended I didn’t know you. Besides, Jewish would have been worse.” We both laughed.
But the laugh stayed stuck in my throat. The filthy people on the corner? Because of my leaves?
A few days later while I was visiting Ruth, Helen walked in. I froze and dropped out of the conversation completely. When I got up to leave, Helen followed me out. “Well,” she said, “you’re not your usual cheery self.” I stopped, turned and said, “Helen, I heard what you said about us at a party recently.” She gulped and said, “I certainly admire your candor.” And I said, “I think you ought to come for a visit so you can see what goes on inside my house instead of judging us for our lack of landscaping.”
Helen arrived at four the next afternoon, and asked for a glass of wine, which turned into three glasses of wine and a two-hour visit. The two-hour visit became a four o’clock daily ritual. She had been in a loveless, childless marriage to an older man who had been gone for 15 years. She told me she had wanted to be a fashion designer, but her overbearing parents had practically arranged the marriage, and she was forced to give up all of her dreams. She was 88, had graduated from Radcliffe, and felt she had been educated for no reason other than to attract a successful businessman. She was amazed at how cozy my house was. She loved my Sister Corita posters and my life-size cardboard cutout of Marlon Brando. When the kids would run through the kitchen, she would say, “Have the children removed, dear.” And I would say, “Remove yourselves, children.” And we all cracked up. When she saw in her church bulletin that I would be doing a reading on a Thursday in February, she said, “How will you wear your hair, dear? All my friends will be coming, at my behest.” I said, How do you want me to wear it? “Off your face, dear,” she said.
One day, about a year after we had fallen in love with each other, she came over with postcards addressed to herself at 11 different hotels. I will be traveling for two months, she said. Please have these postcards meet me throughout my itinerary. My arrivals and departures are listed.
So of course I wrote her notes and mailed the cards at the precise correct dates so she would arrive and be greeted by a familiar and welcoming voice.
The week I expected Helen’s return and she still hadn’t come home, I asked Ruth and the other neighbors if they had heard anything. It turned out the plane Helen was on had to force-land because she had died enroute.
I drove the two elderly neighbor women to the funeral. The congregation was almost empty. The minister said, We all know Helen Haines was a difficult woman, but she lived a good life, an honest life. And that was it.
On the way home, I said, I can’t believe the guy didn’t say one nice thing about her except that she was honest, and why wasn’t anyone there! Ruth said, “Nancy, no one really liked Helen very much. Except you. You were the only one.”
I cried silently in the car. I cried for the loss of my odd friend. I cried for all the lonely people. I cried for a minister who couldn’t come up with one kind thing to say about a difficult person.
And that night when I told the kids Helen had died, they said, “Oh good, we don’t have to remove ourselves anymore.” And we had one of those bittersweet laughs.
And now once in a while one of us will say, “Remove yourselves, children,” and we crack up and it reminds us how a little love can turn a lot of difficult into easy.