On Saying a Final Goodbye to Lucille

            In the South, as I hope elsewhere, neighbors are important. There are the ones next door, the ones across the street, the ones in the next block. But for us, for many years, the most important neighbor we had was our back neighbor.

            Her name was Lucille. We shared a driveway. Ours circled from one street to the next, the short part being akin to her straight in one. At first, to be honest, we weren’t too sure about this arrangement. What if she blocked our part? What if she really meant to use that farm tractor parked in her back yard?

            It didn’t take long for us to see the error of our ways and ideas. Her family had moved her into town from her farm after her husband’s death. She was in her 70s, an age which seemed miles away and quite old to me then, but, alas, isn’t any longer. She watched us from her side door as we struggled with an overgrown yard, a toddler and a baby. And soon she was out that door, into her metal tool shed (we’d had an opinion about that as well), and over to us with the appropriate tools and advice: “What you two need is a grandmother.”

           Needless to say, we never looked back. She adored our sons, taught them a bit of art, overindulged them at Halloween, made their birthday cakes from her Wilton stash, hid the Christmas I bought for them in her closed-off living room.

           She listened faithfully to the 700 Club and her police band radio. In stormy weather, I was guaranteed a phone call to take “those babies” and go to our basement. I answered that the back door was unlocked for her to join us. Oh, no, she said, tornadoes never came through town. Were we in the basement yet?

            She died twelve years later of unknown causes, a lonely time in a nursing facility. We didn’t think to purchase her home.

            Her house, a white frame built in the 1920s, had once been the property of our house, a brick number a few years older. When my husband and his family had first moved to town, they’d actually lived in that white frame house for a while.

            When we didn’t purchase Lucille’s house, it fell into different hands, some of them quite entertaining. There was the rocket scientist and his wife who used it as a weekend home while they struggled to open a winery. There was their wine maker and his bikini-clad French Canadian girlfriend who fascinated two teenage sons. What did not fascinate me was finding his houseguests “watering” my back fence crape myrtle tree very early one morning. I turned off the headlights of my car and by afternoon had received, as I should have, a proper apology.

            The house next made its way into rental property. Residents came and went fairly quickly but some stick out in our minds. The adorable six-year-old who we allowed to ride her bike on our basketball court. By this time, my sons were past talking to me as I gardened and so I enjoyed her company. Until, that is, she plucked up all my baby tomato plants and laid them neatly beside their holes. I knew who the culprit was. Her parents offered to pay for the plants. We refused that. Instead, she lost her biking privilege. They moved shortly thereafter.

            More renters came and went and one day there was a fire and Lucille’s, which is what we always called it no matter who was in residence, became uninhabitable. The owner started fixing it back, but quit and eventually he accepted our offer and we bought it.

            It was charred. One interior wall was down. The floor in the living area opened to the ground below the width of two wood floor planks. It didn’t take long to realize that while it wasn’t a home for humans, it was a home for the neighborhood cats. Plus, when I set the game camera up and photographed for a night or two, raccoons, possums, squirrels, and cats I never saw again. It was like a way station. If it was cold, everyone bedded down. In the warmth, only the two feral cats, a mother and daughter we trapped and neutered, were permanent residents.

            Charred as it was, the windows were new courtesy of the previous owner’s wish to redo it. It didn’t leak. My husband informed his dad that he was receiving the same amount of pay for mowing the yard that he had received when he was eleven: nothing. Over the next ten years, it became a storage building for us, the answer to the question, “Where do you want to keep this?” “Lucille’s.”

            I had wanted to tear it down from the start. I foresaw a garage apartment where our kids and their families would come and stay for a visit. My husband didn’t see that. So we maintained the status quo of storage at Lucille’s until a month ago when he decided maybe it should come down.

            And come down it did. There’s a big muddy spot there now, an open view to our new back neighbors, a perpetual question from friends: “What are you going to do?”

            We don’t know. The drainage has to be fixed before anything more than a fence can be built. Perhaps we’ll garden there. Perhaps. . . I don’t know. I do know that the last vestige of Lucille is now gone and we have had to say our final goodbye.

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