In honor of my neighbor

On Memorial Day eve, a dear neighbor died. He was a World War II vet, the anchor of this neighborhood, and a consummate gardener. In his honor, I'm posting a short piece I wrote several years ago during Holy Week.


The man next door to where I live is kneeling on the ground from which hostas will emerge alongside his house, clearing out the clutter that the melted snow revealed. A retired electrician, Bob wears jeans and a gray t-shirt as he works. He is tan and fit. His appearance has changed little in the fourteen years we’ve been neighbors. Handful by handful he removes the dead leaves and debris and places it in a plastic bag; its top ripples in the breeze. Bob is 84 years old, yet he rises and kneels again before a spirea bush, repeating the cleansing ritual, like a man half his age.

Now Bob stands alongside his row of weigela bushes. Their fuchsia flowers are still weeks from bursting; the green buds new last week. He fertilized them on schedule and so their springtime resurrection proceeds. With shovel in hand, he aims at the ground around each base, places a foot and steps down. The roots need space and fresh air. The blade pierces the ground. He pushes on the shovel’s handle to lift the dirt and turn it over. He repeats down the row, topping with mulch.

When Bob wants a break, he sits in his lawn chair of white and brown woven webbing on a foldable aluminum frame. He sits in the shade in his driveway or next to the bush or plant he is tending. Sometimes his wife, Leatrice, joins him and they sit together in matching lawn chairs. I’ve seen him bring the chair out for her, unfold it, and set it on the ground with an extra jiggle and push to make sure it’s grounded before she sits. Once, sitting with them at their kitchen table, she told me that they are as happy together now—even happier—than on their wedding day over fifty years ago.

Bob’s attention will soon turn to his roses and day lilies. The two trellises of violet clementis. The hyacinth and lilacs. The peonies. When the maple tree launches its whirlybird seeds later this season, he will patiently pluck them up one by one, again on his knees. Sometimes he sits on the lawn chair and reaches down to remove them with a vacuum. The whirlybirds that cross our yard line get no such special treatment but take their chances with the breeze, the thatch, and the lawn mower. The lawn he sees across from his own—ours—has bare spots, residual effects of a dog and two boys. “Don’t worry,” he once told my husband, “the kids are more important.” He has no view here of trellises wrapped in violet bouquets, and our uncultivated ground offers no hope of return on the tomatoes and cucumbers he grows and leaves at our back door.

One day several summers ago, along the fence at the back of my yard, a yellow day lily bloomed where there had been no bloom before. It caught my eye through the window. In secret, Bob had knelt on his grass, dug into his soil, and lifted the lily by its roots. He rose and crossed the yard line. In secret, he knelt on our grass, dug into our soil, and laid the roots back down. Springtime is only three weeks old and the perennial blossoms are not yet splashed across the back fence. The green base waits, however, ready and full. When the yellow blooms come, they will be new every morning.