I have a lot more land now.
I have acres of pasture and woods and a house with so many bedrooms I forget what’s in them if I skip the weekly dusting. I have a family room and a dining room and a living room which my friend, Edie, calls my library, four toilets and ten sinks to clean, and a jetted bathtub deep enough to drown in. When Edie brings me magazines with decorating ideas, we sit in my big country kitchen and look out so many windows that when I hang red, white, and blue bunting for the Fourth of July it looks like a patriot threw up on my house. I have a deck and a porch and a barn and a tree house for Matilda.
But I used to have a neighbor named Miss Jean.
She was the middle of three children, had a sister one year older and a younger brother. When as young girls Miss Jean and her sister Marian read a book about growing cotton, they begged their daddy for one acre to plant their own crop. He relented and as they planted and tended their field, their mother sat on a blanket with their little brother and watched her independent girls.
During their harvest, she suggested that her young son go and help his sisters. “You always say that you want to be a farmer when you grow up.” He took one look at his sisters in a cotton field, pulling bolls and filling bags and said, “I believe I’ll be a preacher.”
The girls sold their cotton and bought matching wristwatches, my favorite part of that story.
Miss Jean and Miss Marian got college educations because their daddy believed they were just as entitled to a degree as their brother and despite being told he was wasting his money, that the girls should get married and tend to their families, both sisters graduated from Catawba College. They would meet their daddy at the depot in Salisbury, the last stop on his route in the mail car of Southern Railroad, before coming home to Claremont for a few days. He would give them their cash for the week, what was left of his pocket money, and the sisters would go back to the college portion of their lifetime as best friends.
Miss Marian lived with her husband, Mr. Charles, right next door to Miss Jean and her husband Wade. I never knew him. The four of them traveled to the Holy Land and Miss Marian to all fifty states. Miss Jean drew the line after a terrible flight to Alaska and never made it to Hawaii. Or maybe it was the other way around. I can’t remember. Either way, she can say she saw 49 states. I get around, but that’s more than me. I forgot to count.
Her husband, Wade, came to Claremont as a teacher and saw her playing basketball because, apparently, Miss Jean was a good athlete, and he was smitten. He asked if he could walk her home. She said he could.
They built a pretty brick house and raised two boys. Wade was once elected mayor of Claremont. For rental property, they purchased the house I would eventually buy and it always tickled Miss Jean to see me ripping out ceiling tiles and paneling to get to the original stuff they had spent good money covering up. Wade became good friends with John Busbee and the two of them spent hours on the golf course arguing over the superiority of the University of North Carolina over the University of South Carolina. It was a battle neither won.
Wade would be missing sometimes and Miss Jean would find him on my porch, before it was my porch, sitting in the swing. She recognized that he was not the same man she married, and rarely let him out of her sight. She told me once that he must have realized his mind was betraying him and found comfort in the swing because it looked so much like his homeplace.
After I heard that story I put a swing on the front porch. It comforted me too.
When she needed more help than sons and daughters-in-law could offer, Wade went to live in the Lutheran Home and Miss Jean spent every day there with him. She would kiss him on the forehead before leaving and tell him that she loved him and go home to sleep alone in their pretty brick house.
Mr. Busbee, his good friend and golfing buddy, came to see him one day after Wade had stopped talking or seemed to recognize anyone. Mr. Busbee came because that is what good men do and Mr. Busbee was a very good man. Miss Jean said that Wade looked up to see his lifelong pal standing in the doorway, looked away, and shook his head and spoke for the first time in six months.
“Gamecocks,” he said, with disgust.
Miss Jean and I decided we would never fully understand the things men choose to care about.
I know these stories and more because Miss Jean was my neighbor. I would sit on her floor as she got out quilts she sewed and afghans she crocheted and told me of life in Claremont before I knew it. She thought it was funny, and maybe a little profound, that I not only went in The Café but that I sat at the Back Table. “My father would not allow Marian and me to go in there. It was only for men and it wouldn’t do for us to be inside.” As of her 90th birthday, she had kept to her daddy’s rule.
But she ate the cheeseburgers if someone would bring them to her.
Kevin Isenhour and I strong-armed the Appearance Committee into awarding her “Yard of the Month” for her lovely garden of perennials, herbs, and tomatoes. We waited until she went to bed and stuck the sign that declared her the winner right in front of her picture window. When she got up the next morning, she thought someone had put her house up for sale, but laughed and had her picture made with the sign, thrilled at having been chosen.
On Wednesday mornings, I would take her empty trash can back from the street, put it and her recycling tub behind the garage in the little spot of worn, red clay in an otherwise pristine yard. She would see me out in the yard and say, “Why, Shari, I was wondering if you had seen any little trash can fairies out and about because some of them are making sure my trash can gets put back every week?” and I would deny any sightings of magical beings. Occasionally, she would call me and say to meet her on the sidewalk, that since she couldn’t properly thank those trash can fairies, she had made a pecan pie for me and hoped I would share it if I saw them. They were roles we continued to play without dropping character. She pretended not to know it was me and I pretended to like pecan pie.
I lost a lot when my house burned. I would have lost more without the solid people of the Claremont Volunteer Fire Department; Catawba, too. I bought new couches and put the family pictures they saved and carried out in new frames. Mike McGraw worked for hours with a soft brush and wax polish on my cowboy boots. I only lost one pair.
When I see Miss Jean, we hug and sometimes we cry, but just a little. If I were a stronger person I would turn down that street and visit her, but I am not, so far, that tough. Haven’t been on that road in more than a year. I asked after her and hear that she asks about me.
If I could have just one thing back, it wouldn’t be the ceramic horse an old man made for me when I was just a little girl and it wouldn’t be the film camera I refused to give up, the one that took pictures of Abbie at balloon races or Walker saving box turtles. I would shrug and give up the Christmas ornaments and the pretty lace dress that an unkind man I had rebuffed said he couldn’t believe I even owned.
If I could have one thing back it would be to know that across the street Miss Jean might be reading one of the many books she gets each week from the library, or canning tomatoes from her garden, and that all I have to do is walk out my door and into hers for a good story, a glass of tea, or a slice of pie I don’t much care for.
The walk isn’t too long and she is there. Maybe this will be the summer I don’t see the flames when I look in that direction, don’t smell the smoke or hear P.J. Stanley say, “I think it’s gone. I am so sorry.” Maybe that corner will just be the place where the Saturday night drunks drive into the privet bushes or the best way to get over the railroad tracks without waiting on a train. Maybe it will just be Miss Jean’s house I am going to and not a terror I can’t quite shake.
I have a lot more land now. I used to have Miss Jean.