This is what I know about my neighbors on our street.
The guy with the fluffy white dog introduced himself as the only one with the two-story house on the block. I did not tell him that a set designer in the theatre department at UAB built that addition. He probably knows that. I know this because Julian and Cliff, my dear friends who live around the corner told me, and Julian found this house for us when we lived in an apartment that still gives me the shudders whenever I think about it.
Let’s just say I didn’t know cockroaches had wings until that apartment.
I never met the set designer. He moved away and now the guy with the fluffy white dog owns the house. I can’t remember the dog’s name or the guy, but he walks the fluffiest white dog I have ever seen.
In the house on the corner, there was a woman who lived in what we called “the burned house.” She told me somebody threw a molotov cocktail at her home to “get even.” I didn’t ask for details. She was planting flowers in front of the spot where the burned/melted section was as if to distract from the obvious. She used to walk her dogs past the house. The dogs yanked and pulled at her and she would yell, “I’m 54! I’m 54! I can’t take it. Slow down!” She warned me not to walk alone after dark or she’d tell my husband. I didn’t tell her he was in Los Angeles. I just said I’d be careful and then she moved away and now her house is on the market, all fixed up, no trace of the burned place.
The man next door loves Alabama football. He leaves the house everyday at seven or so. He has never said a word or met our eye at anytime. He backs up into his driveway each evening with speed and disappears inside. His son visits and has a license plate that says MONEYMKR. I wonder how much extra money it cost to get the specialized license plate.
The family next door is lovely and has two sons. They are sweet boys, who let me know when the power is out or “like” my pictures on Instagram. One mows our lawn when we are out of town, and the mom works in the School of Nursing at UAB and sells essential oils, and I’ve come to love the “Wild Orange” kind. They look out for Norah when she’s home alone. They are good neighbors who are kind and easy-going.
Another neighbor gave Norah bookshelves, and they have three Westies who look exactly like our old dog, Sebastian, only much more robust – my friend, Amy, once called our Sebastian “a little pink pig” because of his lack of hair and bright pink skin.
There is a tiny boy across the street from them the family of three Westies who is actually named Sebastian. I think that Sebastian has a new little sister now.
But I never got to know the lady who lived directly across the street, Heidi, or her daughter, Emily, other than to say hello. I learned their names finally after a few years. I always waved to Emily and imagined her to be a graduate student. We talked about my lawnmower once, which was a push-mower, and she was always coming home to take Maggie, the dog, for a walk. I’d see the mom, Heidi, reading on her porch, and she always left early for work.
When she was home, I waved sometimes, but she was always engrossed in her book with her dog, Maggie, next to her, so I didn’t call out, “Hey, what are you reading?”
Once she asked me about Olive when Olive dragged herself over a visit and I explained about her broken back and how she was on the mend and learning to walk again.
Typical neighbor stuff.
I never lingered to talk – Honestly, I talk so much at my job that I love getting into my house as fast as possible to not have to be “on” anymore.
Then last June Heidi was on the porch again reading and I called out to her and said, “Hey Heidi, I’m leaving town to go back to Los Angeles.”
And she said, “I know. You always leave town for the summer, and we’ll wave when you get back like we do every summer.”
I was surprised that she knew our routine, but why wouldn’t she?
Then I thought – have I really lived here in Birmingham, Alabama that long?
So I said, “Yes, I guess that’s true, but I’m leaving my daughter here for a few days until my husband gets here, and if you could just keep an eye out for her. She won’t need a thing. I haven’t left her alone before for this long. She’s learned to drive, and she’s very independent. She has a job and an internship. I’m just letting the neighbors know.”
I am positive that I over-explained.
Heidi said she would be happy to, and then she said, “What do you do?”
I told her I wrote children’s books and taught creative writing at UAB and was going to be teaching at Antioch in LA.
She said, “You’re a writer? What? I thought you were an artist or something. I teach children.” She went onto explain she taught at a elementary Catholic school not far away.
I told her that Kiffen, my husband, taught elementary school.
And I think we both felt this moment of loss – like we could have talked and learned about each other in the last four years – almost five – years I’ve lived in this house.
I offered to do a school visit when I got back and a writing workshop with her students.
Then we said good-bye.
And when we came back in August, she called from her front porch, “Hey, welcome home! Maggie says ‘Welcome home!” Maggie was barking a welcome.
I waved, exhausted, after flying with Olive on a turbulent flight. It had also been a hard summer in LA with our son, and over the days and weeks, I fell into the glumps and hid out in our house, not really engaging much with the world except to take Norah where she needed to be and seeing a few friends.
But I was determined not to let weeks and months go by of just waving to Heidi. She was really nice, and so I left my children’s books at her front door one morning and signed them to her and her students. She waved a few days later and thanked me. I figured we’d have time to talk and I could visit her class.
Then an ambulance appeared a few weeks ago in front of her house. I’ve only been back in Alabama since August 9th. I talked to the daughter, Emily, and Heidi was sick. I got her phone number, and we began exchanging texts. I brought copies of the UAB literary journal PoemMemoirStory by her home and later some essential oils from my neighbor as little get-well gifts.
I was going to visit when the time was right and then yesterday, Heidi passed away, and I’m so sad, so I’m sharing her obituary here. How does that happen so fast? I wish I’d taken the time to get to know her. Her daughter, Emily, is beautiful, and her Emily has a twin, Katy, and a big brother, Jack.
I’m so glad they have each other.
It’s so unfair.
I have three kids – two girls and a boy too. I’m not much younger than Heidi. We had things in common that I didn’t know about.
Nearly every day, I walk by Saint Andrews, her church, on my way to campus, and I’ve attended Al-Anon meetings there too. Once a man stopped me on the street outside Saint Andrews and prayed over Olive whose back legs were in her sling.
He cried, “Lord Jesus, heal this little precious dog. Heal her! I beg you Lord Jesus. Heal her! I beg you! Lord have mercy on this precious baby dog.”
It tickled me to have such a sincere “laying of hands” on Olive who patiently allowed herself to be prayed over.
But this is what I’ll miss about Heidi, whom I did not know well. I loved looking across the street and seeing her reading on her front porch. I took comfort in seeing her sitting on her porch reading. I found that was the first thing I looked for in the morning and in the evening like a touchstone.
Heidi was reading and somehow that soothed me to see her reading.
In her only text to me last week, she thanked me for my special “lagniappes” and I had to look up the word.
It means gifts.
I wish I’d taken more time to get to know her. Heidi was a gift to me by her serene presence and the way we respected we each others’ privacy, but I wish I’d respected her privacy a little less. She was clearly a remarkable woman, and I’m going to miss her being my neighbor.
Olive after surgery in 2014 in the backyard on our street. (She’s healed up great since then and walks with a drunken gait.)