The Girls Next Door




With the fully informed consent of my wife, I’ve been carrying on a 20-year “affair” with my next door neighbor. It started shortly after we moved to New Hampshire. She saw me working in the yard and pointed out that the line of trees separating our properties were drooping branches onto the roof of her house. If it wasn’t too much trouble, she asked, would I come over some day and trim them back? Well, they were my trees, so how could I refuse?

When I’d completed the task, she offered me a snack and a cold drink. She seemed so genuinely appreciative of my morning’s exertions that you’d think I had vanquished a dragon in her yard, not simply lopped off a few unruly tree limbs. I left her cozy home feeling good about myself, noble fellow that I was.

Turns out that those limbs, now shorter, still rained bushels of cones onto her tiny lawn, so I offered to use my riding mower to vacuum them up next time I was cutting my own grass. Her gratitude was, once again, disproportionate to the gesture, but you don’t get tired of gratitude, however meagerly earned. Over the years, my neighbor, Evelyn, summoned me over on periodic assignments. She would slip me a few dollars for gas from time to time, but mostly, the payment was the simple sincerity of her appreciation. I’ve never known anyone who could say “thank you” as warmly, or make you feel better with those two words.

Evelyn did not lack companionship. Her sister, Ada, lived with her and they were as close and supportive as sisters can be. Ada was not as spry, so I didn’t get to know her as well, but my kids knew them both as honorary “Aunties” who just happened to live next door. Their home was our first stop every Halloween, and they provided a constant flow of cookies and goodies throughout the year.

If Ada happened to be near the door when I’d drop by to report on an assignment, she would usually eye me suspiciously until she realized who I was. “Evelyn!” I heard her holler once as I approached the house. “That boy is here.”

Sweet music to the ears of any middle-aged guy.

Ada passed away in January at the age of 90 and my family attended her funeral at Temple Beth Jacob in Concord. On the dark wood of her simple coffin was a folded American flag. In the eulogies it was noted that Ada had served as a WAC Nurse in World War II, earning five campaign ribbons. One was for serving Patton’s Army in the Battle of the Bulge, where her field hospital at Normandy was bombed as they treated soldiers from both sides.

Evelyn was there at the Temple to say goodbye to Ada, and in the conversations of friends and family, I learned that she had her own distinguished career of service: 40 years of teaching second grade at Concord’s Rumford School. I bet that was where Evelyn learned, and taught, the power of a simple word of gratitude.

And it occurs to me that, for the past 20 years, it’s really I who should have been saying “thank you.”

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