- The crew of college-age kids who swayed up to my door belting out Sweet Caroline with fabulous emphasis on the Bum-bum-bum! parts.
- The little girl across the street who explained every part of her costume to me in great detail and with fantastic enthusiasm.
- The middle schooler at the end of the night who came back for a second handful after I said he could take as much as he wanted. He asked with a please.
- The two teenagers who came up without costumes and sheepishly put out their hands while staring at their shoes. They put their candy in their pockets. I said, "You're doing this wrong. If you're going to hit this neighborhood, you need big bags because you're going to score." Huge smiles and thank-yous and have a nice Halloweens.
- The lady who came up with her toddler and an infant in a Bjorn carrier, who reached out for a Reese's "for the baby." Life is short, Mom. Take the candy.
- The two teenagers who dressed themselves in moving boxes to go out for the night. "Do you know the difference between big kids and little kids," I asked. They looked nervous. "Y'all meander. Little kids run. They know where it's at." We decided next year calls for smaller boxes so they can run too.
My favorite moments from last night:
We went to Lowe's yesterday for bathtub caulk to tackle one of those never-ending grown-up projects nobody tells you about before you grow up. This particular Lowe's is quite literally plopped between corn fields and dairy farms in a little town just outside a tourism district, with equal parts beauty and making-ends-meet in a county with 12 total traffic lights and 55 mph as far as you can see--watch out for tractors and buggies.
We find our caulk and get in line at the register behind a guy wearing a maintenance uniform from one of the nearby home rental companies. He's got a lock set he's flipping around in his hands to pass the time. We all nod and go back to staring off into space, waiting our turns.
And then there's a flash of red. Another guy, same age as our maintenance friend (but looking 10 years older) in a sleeves-cut-off red flannel and disintegrating white jeans, materializes in a whoosh and starts talking--Dude, how you been? Where you working? Where? Where? You like it? Hey dude text me sometime--bobbing and weaving and fidgeting. Even his eyes are twitching faster than the speed limit. He is strung out--I mean strung out beyond any hope of anything happening reaching comprehension in his brain. Hopped up on something not at all good and frying as we watch.
Our friend in line avoids eye contact, answers in single words, and gently dismisses the guy. Then he turns to us as if he owes us an explanation and says, "It's terrible what drugs will do." And we start talking. They went to high school together, the maintenance guy and the flash of red, and haven't crossed paths in years. It's a beautiful area but tough to make a living here, and the meth situation is getting worse.
"I've never done anything but work," says our friend, and shakes his head. "The elevator only goes up, you know?" he says. "You either get on it or you keep walking around where you are, but that doesn't go anywhere. Just keep working up."
Then it was his turn to pay and he chatted with the cashier, grabbed his bag, and turned to us again. "You all have a wonderful day," he says, pointing at the rain outside. "Hope you can enjoy some of this liquid sunshine." And then he was off, I'm guessing to install locks in somebody else's house to pay the bills in his own.
Ninety seconds, maybe. Unbelievably sad and very hopeful at the same time. Best motivational speech I've heard in a very long time. I have never been so glad to have dragged my kids to Lowe's in my life.
We found her by accident early on a Sunday, back when the for-sales and the open houses were in the real estate section of the paper (and only in the real estate section of the paper). The listing down the street we'd come to see in the pouring rain wasn't our style and on our way out of the neighborhood whose streets we didn't know, she and her little for-sale sign caught our eyes. The listing agent had forgotten to submit the ad that week and she was Godawful ugly, with Army green shutters and an Army green porch and an Army green picket fence around the back, but she had great bones--anybody could see that--and so we rousted our agent out of bed way too early, took our shoes off to leave the mud outside, put in a bid against three other people and thanked the Lord for that forgotten ad, and found out while Christmas shopping three days later that she was ours.
The first project was removing painted-over wallpaper (pink and gold stripes...lovely stuff) from almost every room. After that, the walls were skim-coated and painted again, carpet was replaced, locks and toilet seats were changed, and then we moved in. A week later, we adopted our first dog and met our first neighbor, whose 10-year-old son wanted to come and play with the very hyper, very nervous rescue lab. It worked out well for everybody.
We met the next neighbors when they walked over mid-project to thank us for painting over all the Army green outside, and then another while trimming an overgrown tree at the corner of the house; that neighbor had a better saw and sympathy for people who obviously had good intentions but no clue what they were doing. We met more when five of us on the block were pregnant at the same time (five boys--the mailman was sure we were pranking him that summer), and the people behind us when their birdhouse fell behind our shed in a storm.
Nine years went by. New countertops to replace the ones with the burn marks, a new kitchen floor to replace the one that was torn, new cabinets to replace...well...ugly. Joe built me an office off the playroom and behind the hot water heater in the basement when I started freelancing, complete with a tiny built-in bookshelf and French doors, and then we added a bathroom down there because who wants to deal with stairs and toddlers all day long? We cabled the trees, built a shed, swapped out the old windows for new ones that didn't need painting, enjoyed our friends, raised a family. Wrote our names in the sidewalk when the county poured fresh concrete out front. Nine Christmases with way too many people in way too little space. I met the woman who'd grown up in the house, two owners before us, and then the man whose mom dropped her green Woodward & Lothrop charge card behind the cabinets one day for us to find decades later, with a family photo. Black and white, Polaroid, mom, dad, three kids--the youngest kid was past retirement when he rang the doorbell. Found the spot where the builders dumped all the rocks from the lot, too, exactly where we wanted the fishpond to go.
It got tight. We met with three design/build firms and learned the only way to expand was to destroy the character we loved and to tear down the trees. Couldn't do it. So we looked and looked and found the next dream home six doors down the street.
Today, the bulldozers came. Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood and I drowned out the crashes and the booms so I wouldn't have to listen. There's a pile of bricks and wood and metal, shreds of carpet and mangled appliances and gutters where she was, all dumped into the basement. There's no sign of the towering maple trees we cabled or the two smaller ones we planted, or the fishpond we built despite all those rocks under the ground. The basement door is still locked--that made me laugh. Their dream, their happiness; I'm sure the new house will be beautiful and I wish them many happy years there. But I walked over and stood in the rubble after the bulldozer guys left, and ran my hands over the bricks and had a few tears for the old girl. Met another neighbor, too--lady from down the street who saw me, asked what was up, and then stayed so I wouldn't be there by myself. People are good.
She had a good life. She wasn't mine anymore, but I will miss her.
1949 - 2018
Betty started spending Christmas with us 18 years ago, when we looked out the window of our loud, sparkly house and realized the old lady across the street was alone. Her nephew was supposed to come, she said when Joe knocked on the door, but had the flu. And every year after that first one, long after she sold the house and moved to a retirement community, one of us would call her shortly after Thanksgiving and make sure she knew what time to come for Christmas dinner. She reciprocated by always sending a box of Swiss Colony meats and cheeses and a fruitcake the UPS guy tossed on our porch--"Love, Betty B."
Betty had Miss Clairol-yellow hair and smudged, arrest-me-red lips, was trailed by a palpable cloud of sticky-sweet drugstore perfume, and told wild stories nobody believed: She was high up with the CIA; she sang in the church choir with the Clintons--both of them;she still worked L&D at Sibley because they begged her, edema-swollen ankles and bat-poor vision aside. She sometimes swept herself into a southern drawl despite living in D.C. her whole life and she talked every year about the daughter who died in infancy and the husband who didn't waste time leaving after that, and then told us we were her family. We who saw her once a year.
Last Christmas, Betty told us she had breast cancer. She was starting chemo soon, though, she said, and it would be fine. She had to be 90 years old. A few months later, when the air just started to warm and tiny leaves began unfurling on our trees, I stumbled on a very short notice online. Betty B lived and died, it said. Nothing else.
Life went on. It does that, you know? And then at noon on a scorching July day, my doorbell rang. It was Rafael, who always drove Betty to and from our house (we didn't ask questions). "I wanted you to know that Betty died," he said. But it was so much worse. She'd met a man at church, he said (at church!) who'd befriended her. It wasn't hard to do--she didn't have anyone else--and nobody knew about him until she died. That's when the will came out, where she'd given him power over her estate, because he was her friend.
You've heard this story before but here's the ending anyway: The guy, this friend Betty made at church late in life, claimed what was left of her money and washed his hands of her. The morgue, Rafael told me, held onto her body for quite some time before consigning it to a paupers' grave over in Suitland. The obituary was written and paid for by the retirement-property manager. The bank foreclosed on her condo and her car rotted where it sat in the parking lot. Rafael saved a few photos and sent them to Betty's brother (Betty had a brother?) but everything else, he guessed, was destined for the dump. Legally, he couldn't touch it.
We sat on my sweltering front porch for the better part of an hour. I guess I was the only person he could think of who might care. "I just wanted you to know," he said. "She deserved better. Anybody deserves better." He was right.
I was behind an elderly woman in the grocery store checkout this morning who handed her entire wallet to the cashier when it was time to pay. I knew exactly what was going on. She doesn't understand numbers anymore and all her defenses are gone, so she hands everything over to a total stranger to help. The cashier, thank God, was honest and decent. This time. But I wanted to yell, "Where is your family? Where are your people? Why are you here alone?" Why are so many of the people who raised us just out there on their own?
My favorite Facebook page belongs to a cop I've never met. He ends every post the same way: "Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people's things alone, and be kind to one another. " That last part is the one we forget. I do, all the time. I wish it didn't end so badly
I'm a common-sense writer. Can't diagram a sentence to save my life but believe firmly in writing by feel. It's served me well through more than 20 years as a successful professional writer. It's the more natural way to write!