I returned to the TV to watch one of my favorite shows and was taken again by one of the characters on it who, this time, reminded me strongly of an old neighbor. Perhaps it's a night for nostalgia, so I gave myself over to the bittersweet memories.
Back Down Home
As a child living in a little country neighborhood, we knew everyone and everyone knew us, and I had carte blanche permission to visit those who surrounded us. In some ways, I was like Scout in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". I innocently ran around the neighborhood, tomboy that I was, shy that I was, but comfortable in my own skin and with my own people; that to include those who flanked our property.
I'll never forget (I hope!) those hot, humid summer days when I took a break from play to visit the lady next door, Ethel. Sometimes I'd ask if I could go see her, sometimes I'd just go. I'd run around the fence line and up their drive, sometimes pausing to pick up a pine cone or other interesting artifact to present from the enormous pine tree that graced their front yard. The gravel crunched under my feet, ending at the faux grass runner that finished the walk up to the permanent screened porch addition that graced their trailer.
At first I would knock on that outer door and Ethel would answer, but over the years (or so it seemed to me, being so young) that eventually went to a verbal invitation from far inside to a permanent invite to come in to the cooler shade to knock on the inner door and receive the formal invite to bask in the air-conditioned inner sanctuary. We didn't have air conditioning and it was a treat to be invited into such a cool, refrigerated place in the height of the Illinois summer!
Ethel would be sitting in her favorite chair and always exclaim over my visits. She'd ask about my day, how Mom and Dad were doing, how my brother was doing (before I was in school) and sometimes he'd even be with me. Most often, I think I went alone, although my brother might tell a different tale. He may have his own to share.
In any case...
She'd always offer a piece of candy from her ever-present dish, so much like our Grandpa, and the same kinds: root beer barrels, cinnamon candies, butterscotch, chewy Neapolitan coconut candies, chewy caramel swirls, strawberry candies with a chewy inside, or fresh hard peppermints or spearmint. We'd never ask for a candy, because Mom taught us that this was rude, and Ethel knew that. Sometimes she'd offer right away, sometimes she'd wait. If the day was hot she'd offer ice water or lemonade, if it was a cold winter day, she'd have hot chocolate with marshmallows. But we never left without a piece of candy there and a piece to take with us "to remember to come back to visit me."
Ah, she was a dear lady! Sometimes her husband Abe was there, too, but as I recall he sickened and died. After that, although we didn't understand death at the time, Mom encouraged us to go visit Ethel when we could because "she could use the company."
And always, always, she was happy to see us. Sometimes she would see me out playing in the summer as I ran alongside our house, and she would call to me through the screen to "come on over, I have something for you!". And she'd have a doll or a trinket and always a piece of candy from her dish and perhaps something to take to Mom. Or maybe she'd ask me to get something from Mom to bring to her.
In looking back, I see now that what she was really seeking was the joy of childhood, because she remembered being a child, too. She recalled playing in the yard, the bright days of summer, and lived in her later years partaking vicariously through us and our own tales of adventure. I know she watched out for us and we knew their house was always a safe one if we needed help.
Ethel never failed to scold if we'd done wrong, and never, ever stopped loving. Most of what I recall about her is her love and her joy.
I don't remember saying goodbye to her. When we moved, we didn't understand permanent goodbyes, and sad to say, I don't know when she died. I don't even know if I ever so much as sent a postcard to my dear friend.
But I do know this: I know the happiness and friendship Ethel brought to my life and my family back then, and I'm beginning to understand the happiness that perhaps my brother and I brought to hers, especially after her dear husband Abe passed away. I understand why she so welcomed us into her home and her life, and why she always kept the candy around to offer as part of her regular sense of hospitality. We never let her be lonely, and she repaid the favor as best she could to everyone around her.
My brother and I traveled back to our old neighborhood last summer, only to see Abe and Ethel's lot taken over by the same people who bought our house. I didn't expect anything so different, but am sometimes still overcome by the sadness from knowing that one can never really go back and reclaim those beautiful days that live on in our memories. The people we love pass away in this lifetime and we often live with the regret that comes from knowing we let a friendship go, maybe out of necessity or circumstance, but it never stops hurting. Nor should it. Not really.
Tonight, the simple task of cutting celery for egg salad took me back to a happier time in my life, perhaps because of the deprivation brought to me by being sick in the past week. When we are deprived of what we are accustomed to enjoy, we tend to take it for granted. Tonight, for the first time in a week, I could finally taste real flavors, but instead of ruminating on food, God has taken back to a memory of love and sacrifice "down home".
When it comes down to it, food and flavor are NEVER really about food, but about the love that sets the food before us and which we share together out of that very same love.
Rest in peace, Abe and Ethel. Thank you for your love and your friendship. And the candy!