Ellen had been going to that same salon for years, where I just recently started going for my coloring and trims. Somehow this stylist, who wasn't even my own, knew we were neighbors.
"It was last week some time," she said, looking perplexed; I should have known, for goodness sakes, we live right next door. Close enough for Ellen's bedroom window to overlook our back deck. When my boys were toddlers, I lived out there in the summer, with their baby pool and sandbox, and I always felt as if she was watching us. Not that I ever saw her spying. Usually the curtain in that window was drawn. Still, I would research what kind large bush I could plant between us. I tried transplanting a forsythia bush and it promptly died.
The first time we met Ellen, she had knocked on our door to introduce herself -- and to find out if we ever heard anybody rustling in the leaves, by the lattice on that side of her house. I had to stand there with the cold fall air whistling past me, as I didn't feel like asking this elderly squat woman in; I remember how large the empty house felt looming behind me, as I stood there in our doorway for an hour. We were trying to conceive our first baby, but for months were rattling around in this house, large enough for a family of four. The extra empty bedrooms, one for each of the two children we'd imagined, made me feel foolish.
Maybe it wasn't a full hour that I was standing there. But it felt like one, as Ellen rambled on in a monotone about how she was sure at night she smelled cigarette smoke outside her window, that she'd called the police numerous times and they thought she was crazy. I remember her laughing nervously, trying to assure me that she wasn't crazy. And I didn't think she was. I guessed that she was just left alone enough to worry about these things.
Our next actual encounter I remember as being some years later, when I was happier, finally having given birth to our first child. Thrilled to show him off, I stopped by with him in the stroller, to thank her for the baby present she'd left on our front porch. It was around Christmas, and she left a large blue Christmas stocking, with a baby rubber bath book inside.
On her own front porch, she had plastic faded geraniums arranged in a metal bin that I imagined had been there for many years. She opened the door suspiciously, her round face a moon against the dark interior. She was in slippers as worn and faded as the flowers, slippers with tiny limp bows. Although she was dressed, she pulled a moss green sweater around her as if I'd caught her too unawares. She didn't let me into her house, either.
And then she noticed the baby. "Ohhh!" She forgot herself, letting the sweater fall open to reveal the mismatched peach house-dress underneath,as she leaned over the stroller. She peered at him buried under this brilliant blue blankets. She didn't say anything, just smiled, and we seemed to share a moment of mutual pride and happiness, though she didn't know me and I didn't know her. Then I left, before she could begin to ramble on.
Over the years, I'd see her come and go in her car, never much more than that, until her daughter gave her a tiny yappy dog for company. Then she would be out walking this yappy tiny fuzzy thing, that inevitably escaped her grasp, his leash slapping madly against the pavement, whipping sharply through the trees. Some neighbor or another would be chasing the thing all over the neighborhood. I couldn't help wondering why her daughter hadn't gotten her a cat for companionship, some pet that didn't have to be on a leash that she wasn't strong enough to hold on to.
On hot summer days, sometimes when she was walking that dog, I was out front with the boys, who could seem just as yappy and wild, running in and out amongst our bushes or digging diligently in the newly spread mulch. I don't remember much of our conversations, except that Ellen liked to remark on how fast they were growing, and about how of course her own children were grown, but she'd raised them in that same house....
Over these past ten years, I never thought much about Ellen at all, except for when she would burn old mail in a metal can in the backyard. The smoke would waft into our yard, and I worried about my son's asthma. I thought about suggesting a shredder, though I imagined she would not rest until she had even burned the shreds.
Now I'm thinking about her, now that she's gone. Now I'm remembering her, rather than avoiding her whenever she'd be walking that dog because I was afraid I'd be the one chasing him all over the neighborhood. And all this has gotten me thinking about when I was growing up, how we used to get on our bikes and drop by the Rays' house, an elderly couple who would give up packs of gum. For me growing up,that was normalcy. For my children, normalcy is not really knowing your neighbors, except for the sporadic child down the block when he might actually be home. I don't know how much it's about people keeping to themselves more than we used to back then, or people just being too preoccupied in general. It's a different world, and perhaps I've adapted to it too easily. I will raise my children to watch out for their neighbors, especially the elderly, and to offer to shovel their driveways in winter, or bring in their newspapers from the rain.
"They'll probably be something in the paper this week," my hairstylist said. I will be looking for the obituary. So that I can finally learn more about my neighbor. At least find out her last name.