Sunday, December 09, 2007

The day the music died: reflections on the sudden passing of a neighbor

Oh Sweet Home Alabama. We didn’t see this coming. Cancer. Suddenly. Gone.

When we first moved to this North Portland neighborhood 10 years ago, the neighbors weren’t overly welcoming to us. Not like I expected a dang welcome wagon, but it wasn’t as if people came over and introduced themselves or brought us a covered dish. The welcome in this area comes through time, through small talk in passing, sharing of advice and information, and watching out for each other. And that was D. He did. Gregarious and out going, D eventually warmed up to us, the two women across the street, even if a little cautious in the beginning.

D was a hard working blue collar family man, and we could see the economic changes in our community through him. The lay offs at Freightliner hit our working class neighborhood hard a decade ago. Another neighbor eventually lost his house, and the impact it had on D was tangible. He had had a good job, but the lay offs meant big changes for him. He could get an education, in a new field, and so, as a middle aged factory man with a family, he went to school.

I always wondered how that was, going back to school, for him. One semester he was particularly chatty with us. Turned out he was taking a women’s studies class, and through our visits, we heard him use words he was trying on for the first time. Words like feminist and lesbian. (Two things he knew we were.) It was fun to see him all lit up about learning something new like that, and I think he reveled in having someone to talk to about it.

We built a large garden on our lot, and whenever we were tending to it, especially when mowing what was left of the grass, it was a known fact (sometimes we’d place bets on it) that if D came out while we were working, we’d hear, “When you’re done over there, come on over here” shouted loud and with laughter from D, as if we’d never heard that saying before. We’d laugh and smile, and keep working. He’d offer the use of his edger, or blower, or whatever tool it looked like we needed at the time. We didn’t have a lot of power tools, but D had a tool for everything. And he knew how to use them.

If we ever needed to borrow a tool or get advice on a problem at the house, D was the go-to guy. He’d rush right over and look at what was going on, offer up ways to solve it along with the tools to do so. I once saw him help a neighbor chain up an old stump to his truck and try to pull it out by stomping on the gas. When AdRi worked the swing shift, I’d work in the garden by myself. One hot summer afternoon I smelled something odd. Sniffing like the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, my nose led me to the lavender bushes. But it wasn’t the sweet smell of lavender that drew me there. I clapped my hands and shouted to scare the sleeping black cat away, and when it didn’t move, I realized it was because it was dead and the scent I smelled was death. I ran straight over to D’s, completely wigged out. He stopped what he was doing, and quickly went into action, calm as can be. “You got a trash bag?” He came right over with his gloves and took care of the cat for me. Didn’t flinch one bit. He was just like that. No problem.

He watched out for us. One year we had a flower thief. She’d show up periodically in our garden with buckets, and pick and pull up flowers uninvited. Yes, buckets. She drove a van. We found her once, and told her to skeedaddle on along. So we told D about it. And one day, The Flower Thief came while we were gone. D confronted her, told her he knew she wasn’t supposed to be there. She told him to mind his own business, but he didn’t. He shooed her off and got her license plate. I felt safer knowing he watched out for us.

This summer, as I worked from home, the tune of Sweet Home Alabama not only played through my head, but through the soundwaves of the neighborhood. D enjoyed his new hobby of the electric guitar, so much so, that on nice days, he’d plug in, turn it up–way up—and sit out on the front steps practicing.
Big wheels keep on turning
He liked sitting there, playing, and interacting with those who passed by.
Carry me home to see my kin
He’d play that song over, and over.
Singing songs about the Southland
At first, a little herky jerky. Stop and start.
I miss Alabamy once again
But by later on in the summer, he got it going, and could play Sweet Home Alabama right on tempo. It wasn’t speed metal, and it wasn’t twangy country. It was good, classic rock. A good song, played by a good, classic man.
Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin
Singing songs about the Southland
I miss Alabamy once again
And I think its a sin, yes

Well I heard mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don't need him around anyhow

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet Home Alabama
Lord, I'm coming home to you

In Birmingham they love the governor
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet Home Alabama
Lord, I'm coming home to you
Here I come Alabama

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they've been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I'm feeling blue
Now how about you?

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet Home Alabama
Lord, I'm coming home to you

Sweet home Alabama
Oh sweet home baby
Where the skies are so blue
And the governor's true
Sweet Home Alabama
Lord, I'm coming home to you
Yea, yea Montgomery's got the answer


Betsy said...

What a beautiful tribute to your neighbor. It sounds like he'll be truly, truly missed.

Maggie said...

I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. A rosemary plant is a nice way to remember someone.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to read about your loss you have my condolences. It is defiantly neighbors that make where you live a better place to call home. You wrote him a very nice memorial, I am sure you’ll find just the right flower/tree/shrub to plan in his honor.
Take care,

Kathryn said...

I'm sorry about the loss of your neighbor. I remember being at your house one day this summer and hearing him play. Sad for his family.

This was a very nice post LeLo; publishable, very New Yorker. I loved it.

sarah said...

oh, i teared up a bit at reading this. i'm so sorry for his family and neighbors. it sounds like this man brought quite a bit of sunshine into people's lives...great post lelo.

- sarah

Anonymous said...

Oh man. You got me. That was a beautiful send off. Poignant, raw, honest. Beautiful. You are a great writer and neighbor.

Tricia said...

melancholy and sad...

MissKris said...

I came across your blog again and thought I'd revisit! Glad I did, as I truly loved this neighborly tribute. We live in a cozy close-in SE Portland neighborhood where most of us have been here 20 years or more. We have neighbors similar to D. As we're all getting a little older, health issues are causing some serious problems...cancer. Diabetes-related amputation. Colostomy. Just in the past month! Neighbors aren't exactly 'family', but there's such a sense of security when you're blessed with good ones, isn't there? Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones, LeLo!

Monogram Queen said...

I am so sorry for your loss and your neighborhood's loss. D sounds like a fine man.

Unknown said...

what a beautiful post. He sounds like a great man who will be missed. So sorry for your loss.

Anonymous said...

So sad and lovely. I wish I had known him. Your posts always remind me to look close to home for inspiration.

Rozanne said...

Lovely tribute! I'm sure you'll miss D. I am constantly amazed by the friendliness and neighborliness of Portlanders. In Chicago, I never really knew or spoke to any of my neighbors other than a quick "hi" in the hallway (I always lived in apt. buildings). Here, though, people reach out a helping hand and always seem to have a friendly word. It adds so much to the quality of life, doesn't it?

purpletwinkie said...

I've always called people like your neighbor "familiar strangers" because you know them, but only to a point. But you still feel a loss when they are gone. If we are lucky enough to have (and be) familiar strangers, life is better because of it.

rodger said...

This is beautiful Lelo and I'm sorry for your loss.