Reflections On A Life Well Lived

Our next door neighbor died just a few days before Christmas.  Last night, when Jim and I returned home, I said, "I just can't believe Joe is gone."  Jim agreed.

We have lived in this house for about sixteen years now, but it has only been in the last few years since we retired that we really got to know Joe.  Before that, we were gone much of the time and never had time to get to know our neighbors.

Joe and I neighbored a bit back and forth from the first summer on.  He would be out puttering around the outside in the evenings as I dug in the dirt in the front yard.  When we first moved in, there were no flower gardens in the front of our house.  There was only rock and ground cover.  Slowly, shovel, by shovel, I began digging and planting.  As I dug and planted, Joe puttered next door.  I became accustomed to knowing that my house and yard was always safe under Joe's watchful eye.

Nothing in the neighborhood ever escaped his notice.  Once, he came over and told us the garage had been left open during the night.  Another time, he warned that thieves had broken into his garage and other garages and were stashing the goods in his back yard.  He found the loot and called the police.  We installed chains and locks for our back gates.

Another time, we had to have some foundation work done to the house.  I was out of town when the work began.  Before leaving, I had discussed with the workmen how they could dig up my flower beds. Joe had no idea that we were having the work done.  When workmen began digging up my flower beds and pulling out plants, Joe came over and asked what they were doing.  He said, "Sally is going to be mad as hell when she gets home and sees what you have done to her beautiful flowers."  I still smile over that.

Once we retired, we got to know Joe better.  My husband and Joe would visit quite a bit as Joe tinkered on his old car or worked about the yard and house.  They would even share a few books.  We had time to finally get to know our neighbor.  Whenever we went on trips, it was nice to know that at least one neighbor was looking out for our house.  Joe and his wife would graciously pick up our mail and newspapers whenever we were out of town.

Joe, born just two days after I was born, was a wiry, short man who at one time managed the local Furr's Cafeteria.  He then prepared meals for the Meals on Wheels program.  A quiet man, unassuming, humble man, he married young and worked hard all his life.  He treasured his wife and family.  He adored his two grandchildren.  He honored his Catholic faith and his Hispanic heritage.  He was a hunter and fisherman.  He seemed to be able to fix anything.  He was truly one who could be described as "the salt of the earth" or one of great worth and reliability.

Over a year ago, we noticed we hadn't seen Joe recently.  We remarked that we worried that he was ill.  Then, we saw him one day and were shocked to see how much weight he had lost.  He had colon cancer.  He seemed to rally.  This summer, when we got up every morning and went out on the back deck to drink our coffee and read the paper, Joe was already out working.  He was fixing things around the house.  He was up on the roof.  He was painting.  He was always busy.  Even though he was fighting cancer, he went about his lifelong habit of being industrious.

One day this summer, as I was out working in the garden, Joe hoisted himself up on the fence between our yards.  He asked what kind of flower I had growing next to the fence.  I told him they were hollyhocks and related the story about collecting the seeds at a farm in Grand Junction.  I told him I was shocked to see how much they had grown since it took two years for them to come up and bloom.  He said they were just beautiful and said he'd never seen prettier.

I planted zucchini and tomatoes this summer.  I took some of the zucchini and tomatoes to Joe and his family.  His wife said that Joe enjoyed eating them.  She said he loved zucchini bread.  She even baked some for us.  I like to think that Joe really did get some pleasure out of eating those fresh vegetables from my garden during the last summer of his life.

Sadly, in the end, cancer claimed Joe.  He only weighed 84 pounds when he died after suffering so much during most of the fall.  His devoted wife took care of him everyday until the day he died.  He was surrounded by his grandchildren and his sons on a nearly daily basis.  One is blessed to have such love and care in one's life.

On the day of his funeral, I smiled when I saw his beautiful new red truck, driven by his son,  pull into place in the procession headed toward the cemetery.  Joe was so proud of that truck.  Then, I had to wipe  tears from my eyes as I thought how he would not be able to enjoy driving that truck up into the hills to go fishing or hunting.  He never got a chance to retire and do all the things he loved to do.  He didn't get to watch those beautiful grandchildren grow up.  He was too young to leave us so soon.

Joe's life was a sterling example of love and faith and hard work.  He lived his life well.   He left of legacy of how to be a good husband, father, and neighbor.  He exemplified la familia in the most positive of all traditions associated with his heritage.  We will miss him greatly.

Back Fence Neighbors and Conversations

The backyard of my childhood home is enshrined in a special place of my memory.  Mostly, I have happy memories of that place.  I visit it often when I think of simple times and happy, carefree activities.  After all, it is in this place where I formed my fundamental beliefs about life.  It was there where I established how I thought the world should look, and how it should function.  It was not a dull place, nor was it unexciting.  I think I mostly had an underlying feeling of curious expectancy each time I went into the backyard to play or to observe life.

Life was pretty much self-contained  within the neighborhood of my childhood.  The city block where our home was built was just one block from my grandmother's home, the place where my father and his siblings had grown up.  Across the street from my grandmother's home was the church that we all attended.  Next door to the church was the elementary school where we went to school.  Across the street from the school, at the end of the block where my grandparent's lived, was a small neighborhood grocery where we bought a loaf of bread for our mother and couple of pieces of penny candy for ourselves.  As I said, as children, we seldom ventured far beyond the fun filled few blocks where we lived.

Our neighborhood block was configured in such a way, that sections of the block were more conducive for particular types neighborhood interaction.  The block must have contained about 19 homes that had all been constructed between the years of 1900 and 1924.  Some homes were small bungalow types, while others were large Victorian types.  Some had small lots with no garages or sheds in the back. Other homes were built on large lots.  All of the lots on the block could be accessed by an alley.  In fact, the block had a total of four alleys.  As children, we named each alley in order to have a frame of reference for where to meet if were going hide from the younger kids.  

I noticed that while the kids loved playing in the alleys and observing life from the alley, our parents rarely ventured across the alley to see what was going on in another quadrant of the block.  My mother mostly connected with the neighbor who was her closest confidant on the block.  She was her "back fence" neighbor.  

In my memory, Gordon, that is what we called my mother's "back fence neighbor," forever looms in my mind as the model of what a neighbor should be.  When I was very young, she lived in the house on the west side of our home with her son and daughter, who were twins, while they were in high school.  Her husband passed away when I was an infant or young child.  After her children left home for college, she moved into the small cottage behind the large Victorian house on the east side of our home.  She spent her days teaching home economics at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind.  I still remember her coming home after work, driving her car into the garage, entering her little cottage.  Not long afterward, she would emerge from the house into the yard with her hose (the type of stockings her wore!) rolled down around her ankles laced up shoes.  (I'm sure she must have removed her garter belt as soon as she walked in the door!)  She was ready for some backyard fence talk.  

Or, I remember Saturday mornings when my mom and Gordon were each in their own backyard hanging out the laundry.  Before long, laundry time also became a time for sharing some back fence talk.  They talked about everything.  I know this because I used to try and listen in.  Mostly, I was just shooed off out of earshot distance because it was grown-up talk time.  

I love those memories of a time when life seemed so much more simple.  I know there were problems in the world.  World War II was just over.  Money was tight.  Gordon was a widow trying to make it alone.  My mother, an only child, whose parents had died before I was born, must have really appreciated this older woman in her life.  For me, as a child, I saw the importance of having a friend who was a neighbor and neighbor who was a friend.

Now, we live life so differently.  Few of us have backyards, and if we do, the fences are six feet tall!  We no longer hang our clothes out on the line, thank God! Times have definitely changed.  With all of the progress that we have made in the last forty or fifty years, I can't help but think about how much we have lost from those days when we spent time in the back chatting over the fence, or on the porch chatting with the neighbor from next door who stopped by by lemonade on a hot summer afternoon.  I think mostly the art of knowing how to connect to one another in a real live conversation is being lost.  I worry that our grandchildren could start to believe that being shut in the house connected to technology is a good substitute for having a real conversation.  

I love technology and the way it allows me to connect to so many people in a myriad of ways.  I would be lost without my BlackBerry.  I check FaceBook several times a day.  I love my blogging friends.  I love reading their news.  I love learning new things from them.  I delight in their stories.  I laugh at their humorous rendition of what is going on in their sphere of existence.  I am grateful for Skype when I visit with my son in Bangladesh.  I love communication in any form.  Having said all of that, I must say that I am most grateful that I learned the importance of community connections and conversations while I was still a child growing up in my beloved neighborhood in the Shook's Run area of Colorado Springs, Colorado during the '50's.  Those were the days...

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