To the editor:
Three people living on a back road in South Bristol died within two months between Dec. 11 and Feb. 3. Their average age was 90 and the average duration of each person’s only marriage was over 60 years. They lived within shouting distance of each other and set the gold standard for the way they loved their families and a plot of land they had called home for most of their adult lives. Their heartfelt obituaries could not cover all of nine decades and a missing message was how special these three were as neighbors.
In all the years I knew them, we spoke hundreds of times. Never was it said that the world was coming to an end, the Patriots were washed up, or that politicians were right or wrong. We never spoke about what was on the evening news. It was always what the children were doing, what birds were coming to the feeder, how the garden was growing, or how the weather never cooperated. We shared ideas on past generations that lived on our road and how they may have coped with their times. We talked about people we knew who were sick or suffering. These were not prime-time pundits with a ready answer, but hardworking people trying to make their way the best they knew how. They always had a ready smile and wave. On back roads, waves seem to come with eye contact and sincerity.
These three people had one-syllable first names which did not stay as one when affection was involved. Jean became Jean ‘n Bill, Earl became Earl ‘n Dot, and Doug became Doug ‘n Drue. The paired names were inseparable and their homes on the road were described that way. The next step was for children to refer to them as aunts and uncles. It rolled off the tongue and stayed in the air longer. You wanted it to linger, like the lives of people you admire.
Some of these three were told by others that their marriages would not last; others were advised to not move so far away from family. But they all shopped in Scotty on Friday after payday, mowed lawns and shoveled snow again and again, and too soon, 60 years had passed. They raised children who were devoted to them, cared for them, and returned the love when the days got shorter.
Once, when I was was running past Jean ‘n Bill’s house, Jean asked me why I ran so much. I replied that she would run too if she had to eat my cooking. She laughed as I continued down the road and I can still hear what sounded so much like the voice of actress Lauren Bacall following me.
Then, Earl nearly died leaving work when hit by a car and, after recovering from surgery, would walk by our home hand in hand with Dot. I asked him how he was doing and he smiled a peaceful smile and said, “It is so good to be home!” I can still see the joy in his face.
Later, when Doug was trying to catch a skunk that had moved into his barn, I slipped our daughter’s toy skunk into his trap. He covered it and then drove far from our road to where he could open the trap and run. He waited a long time before he discovered that he had been “skunked.” Drue, who was not well, laughed so hard she briefly forgot her pain and, when Doug returned the toy, he too had a smile of hope.
As the years passed, Doug and Earl lost their spouses and lived alone. They would each turn off their porch lights upon going to bed and Jean would wait for those lights to go out every night before she would do the same. Once a mom, always a mom, she got less sleep than her “boys.”
My military career took me all over the world and I worried much less because I knew my family would be watched and helped by those neighbors if there was ever a need or emergency. My sense of gratitude cannot be measured. My work also required a high security clearance and investigators repeatedly came to the neighborhood inquiring about me. An exasperated official asked, “Well, he must have done something wrong!” One neighbor replied, “Well, years ago, he did break one of my windows with a baseball.” The clearance took a little longer, but it did go through.
Over the years, we drive past countless homes along back roads not knowing whether those owners are celebrating or living in sadness. But we often take notice of lace curtains in the windows, flowers on the porches, trim painted, and lawns mowed and raked. We see how others try to put a best face forward, their sign of faith, even when challenges may be overwhelming.
I will be branded as old-fashioned or short-sighted for writing this, but I believe that if there is a day of reckoning, a second coming of Christ, to create the foundation for a new world, he will not go along the highways of pomp and circumstance. He will return to the softer, enduring music of Maine’s back roads and seek out neighbors like those my family has been blessed to share.