11 November 2009

The finish line

It's been 12 years since we bought the house in the 'hood. My children have grown up here; this will be the place they remember when they are older. Though I remain uneasy with the realities (or lack thereof) of much of Orange County, and will never feel completely at home, I am periodically reminded of the length of time we've been here when I walk down the street and a neighbor stops me to chat or a seasonal gift appears on the doorstep or a tragedy galvanizes our little community. I am reminded that I am part of a community.

The 'hood has been here since the mid-1950s. I've looked at historical aerial photos of the area, and originally, this development was part of an orange grove. I've found weird artifacts from those days when I've been digging in the garden, and old orange trees still grace some of the yards around here. An original house, built in 1912, survives a few streets over. This is what qualifies as "old" in bright, shiny, plastic Orange County.

What sets the 'hood apart is not only the families who have lived here for 20 years, raised their kids and sent them off to college, it is that so many of the original owners stayed on, as well as those who moved in within a few years of the neighborhood's completion. A lot of them have passed on in the years we've lived here, their homes subsequently sold to younger families who are growing older alongside us. Thus the cycle repeats.

We lost one of our grande dames last week; she'd just celebrated her 100th birthday.

When we moved here, I. was still driving herself everywhere in her little car: to the store, to church. One of her daughters lived with her, and M.E. would boom out of the driveway in her Corvette every morning, to be followed later in the day by I. on her way to whatever activity she had planned. We'd see her on Sunday, tiny and wizened, stony-faced, brave in makeup and hat. Her hats made me laugh; there was something enormously comforting in seeing this little, feisty woman in her hat.

Every Halloween, I. and her daughter would put out a single decoration: a string of lights attached to some hellish sound-making device that wailed non-stop for the hours it was turned on. Every year, the spouse and Neighbor B. swore they would "de-bark" the thing, complaining bitterly about its awful noise. Early on, the son and daughter worried because they knew the rule: no pumpkin meant the occupants weren't home or didn't want trick or treaters. I told them not to worry. The string of orange lights and the howling were I.'s pumpkin, and she and M.E. would greet the children who came to the door every year.

It was one winter morning, years back that the daughter, the son and I were out for a walk around the neighborhood, and I caught I.--in hat--climbing a step ladder. Few things are more breath stealing than seeing one's 90-year-old neighbor unsteadily mounting a ladder. I called out a greeting, and asked if she'd like some help, making my standard joke that the Good Lord made me tall for a reason. A little querulously, I. told me that she just wanted to replace the front porch light bulb for heaven's sake. It was time, wasn't it? The holidays were over and she wanted things set to rights. I agreed gravely that she was correct, and she stood by to supervise as I removed the holiday light fixture and restored her incandescent bulb to the porch light. She queried me about the children, who were standing uncertainly on her grass, and I told her that if she ever needed assistance with light bulbs or what not, she was welcome to call me.

Over the subsequent years, I. would call me, though generally it was because she saw something going on at my house that interested her. Why were overstuffed chairs sitting in my driveway? she wanted to know. Because I'd donated them and was waiting for the truck to arrive to pick them up. Ah, there were places that would take furniture? That was good to know. And curiosity satisfied, she would hang up.

We noticed, as time passed, that she ceased to drive herself anywhere, though her daughter or a friend would still take her out, brave in her makeup and hat. About a year ago, the firetruck arrived, followed by the paramedics and an ambulance. I saw the flashing lights reflected in the screen of my computer while I worked, and worried, went to the kitchen window. I cursed a little under my breath when I saw the entourage stop at I.'s house. She's too young, I thought, and then tried to figure out exactly how old she was. Still, too young. And I kept watch at the window until I saw the stretcher come out, I. propped up in state, brave in her hat, looking alert and cheerful. The relief was almost enough to make my knees buckle.

But within a short period of time, the firetruck and the paramedics and the ambulance were back. Soon thereafter, a truck bearing a hospital bed arrived at the house, and I. returned home in an ambulance. The firetruck, with its flashing lights, became a frequent visitor, and the neighbors traded news, hoping for the best, joking that I. was bored by her caretakers and needed a visit from the buff firefighters to perk up her day.

On Friday, they came for the last time.

I was out lighting candles in our pumpkins on Halloween when M.E. brought out their string of lights and hung it. The sound was just as awful as it had ever been, but like I.'s hats, a comfort. While I sat out on our porch with the daughter on Halloween night, I watched the groups of little kids run up their walk and bang on the door, as they'd done all the years I've lived in 'hood.

Go listen to some good music: "The Finish Line" from the album Eyes Open by Snow Patrol.

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