When she was younger, she liked to garden, whiling away the early evening hours deadheading blossoms and sometimes trimming the edge of her grass with a little pair of scissors where it bordered the sidewalk to make sure she go it exactly right.
Her husband used to mow the lawn — not her favorite chore — and fill the bird feeders. Sometimes he’s put out a homemade suet that was heavy on peanut butter and seeds and a little honey. After he developed dementia, she filled the feeders, but the suet disappeared. She didn’t have time to make it, and he no longer remembered how.
Then the precise edging stopped and the occasional weeds began to show in the once-pristine lawn.
They had a tree that grew out over the sidewalk and a couple of the branches drooped slightly. He used to trim them. She never walked over that way and probably didn’t realize they were sagging at all. Until, that is, an impatient soul walking by snapped them off and left them piled partially on the sidewalk, no doubt thinking that would make the owner see it. It was intended, I suspect, to be a slight spanking by a stranger who had not idea that the owner was a frail woman who was underwater in terms of responsibility for her husband. She was growing older herself and could have used some help.
Her city told her they’d gotten a complaint about the yard and the tree — I suspect from the tree breaker — and gave her a clean-up warning. Panicked, she called her daughter who lives elsewhere and the daughter got a hold of the local version of her own church. The clergy sent the youth group over to clean up her yard, with the promise that they’d come back in a few weeks and do it again. They did return again and again over the next three years, before her husband died and she moved to California to be near her oldest daughter and the grandkids.
One of her other daughters told me the story one day while we were talking about community and how it has changed over the last few decades or perhaps even longer. She didn’t live in her mother’s town, either, and heard the story herself after the events unfolded.
What struck her, though, and what sticks with me months after the telling, is that someone complained about a once-gorgeous yard that was starting to look neglected. But no one bothered to knock on the door and ask their neighbor if something was wrong or if they could help her in any way.
If you’re an adult kid that lives three states from your folks, you might not know between your visits that their physical surroundings are starting to unravel, the hint of a deterioration of circumstances that should be cause for concern. But those who lived nearby clearly noticed and perhaps even mentioned it within their own family. “Wonder what’s going on over there. The place is falling into disrepair.” Yet no one asked her if she needed help or offered to call her kids.
It seems to me the individual who snapped off the branches haphazardly in a fit of pique might have as easily knocked on the door and asked to borrow the pruners to lop the two branches properly. Instead of indulging in a little bit of temper busting the tree, he could have spent five minutes helping her and walked away with a feeling of satisfaction from having made someone else happy or lifted someone’s burden.
I’m as oblivious as the next one to the changed circumstances of those around me, sometimes. We all get caught up in our own lives, starring in our own dramas. Still, I’ll go out on a limb here and promise that if my neighbor’s house or surroundings develop features I’m tempted to report, I’ll knock first and see if there’s anything I can do.
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