Elder Loneliness in the Era of Pandemic
My Medical Aid in Dying Drugs

A TGB READER STORY: Love Thy Neighbor, Over the Fence

By Barrie Levine who blogs at Into the 70s – 72 is the New 72

When our children were grown and my husband Paul and I moved to our current home, our new neighbors welcomed us with a huge tray of homemade eggplant parmigiana.

Carmela and Tony (not their real names), a brother and sister in their early 80s, had never married. Tony, a retired engineer, loved Italian opera videos and made his own red wine. Carmela had formidable expertise in the traditional domestic arts of cooking, baking, and sewing. She knitted colorful afghan blankets for each of our four granddaughters.

Tony confided in us about the hardships he endured as a prisoner in World War II. They emigrated from Italy to the United States after the war and loved their new country with every fiber of their being.

Befriending neighbors was in my DNA. In my childhood, my mom Rose and her neighbor Madge waved through their kitchen windows while washing breakfast dishes. After sending the children to school, they met outside in their aprons and spent the morning chatting over the picket fence.

My husband tended a prolific garden and regularly took over baskets of vegetables and herbs for Carmela’s use. She returned the favor by sharing a platter of antipasto or a jar of homemade spaghetti sauce.

But one year we were plagued by woodchucks who invaded the garden and ruined it often. On an August afternoon, Paul went outside to survey the rows of corn, his pride of the growing season, to find them massacred, the cobs torn off the stalks and strewn on the ground, half-eaten.

He researched his options and bought a Have-a-Heart cage, with the intention of relocating the culprits to a distant wooded area. When Carmela spotted a woodchuck trapped in the cage, she called and screamed into the phone - branding us killers - and that she wanted nothing more to do with “people like us.”

After she slammed down the receiver, I stood there with the phone in my hand, speechless.

Early the next day, a crew appeared to measure the property lines. I knew what that meant - a spite fence would go up along the three hundred foot boundary between us. Whenever the panels blew down in snow or wind storms, Carmela sent for the fence company to repair the damage or replace the sections, keeping the wall intact.

When I heard that Tony passed away, I sent her a condolence card. But Carmela held her grudge and never looked our way to say hello.

Four or five years later, I received another surprise phone call from Carmela - she no longer wanted us to be enemies. I welcomed her kind words and the feeling of connection I had missed.

But by then, my husband was gravely ill. I was his caregiver, trying mightily to keep him out of a nursing home and simply did not have the energy to pursue a neighborly relationship. She may have thought that I didn’t care, but the truth is, my life was in shambles. I had no emotional reserves to welcome anything or anyone into my life - or even to explain.

And our garden suffered from neglect. My husband could no longer figure out how to handle his tools or equipment. We had to sell his tractor with the rototiller attachment. I remember that unbearably sad day when I wrote up a bill of sale and the buyer drove the Kubota onto his trailer and hauled it away.

Last year, I saw Carmela’s obituary in the local newspaper. I mused on both Tony and Carmela, brother and sister immigrants from Italy who lived their American dream together in a brick ranch house on two acres in Massachusetts after losing everything under the Mussolini regime.

I’m sad to lose my next door neighbors, and for my aborted friendship with these good people based upon a silly misunderstanding.

But not everything is possible in life and I had to let it go.

* * *

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Reader's stories are welcome. If you have not published here or not recently, please read submission instructions. Only one story per email.]

Comments

Such an example of the waste and destruction that happens from making assumptions. The older I get, the more the Zen "don't know mind" seems the epitome of wisdom.

Thanks for this.

This is a sad but all-too-familiar story among us. We think we know and we act accordingly and, no matter what comes after, the fence was built and will always have been built.

This is a sad story and understandable in some ways. Some things in life can't be fixed due to life's timing, the personalities involved or whatever...and then we have to let it go. Life changes; we change. Yes, Zen. No guilt.

Karin

i strive to keep a Scriptural perspective on things - any other path leads to ... a really bad place.

Sad, yes. Do we ever truly know or understand the mind and soul of another?
I do not think so. Yet we long for that all the same.

As much as I enjoy Barrie Levine’s writings, this sure was a sad reminder of something from many years ago, around 1971 on a family vacation to Virginia Beach. My younger sister & myself had saved a small bundle months in advance, for spending money. Our older brother didn’t have a cent, and soon hit me up for $5.00. He asked our sister next, she said nope. He said “Someday when I’m a rich & powerful attorney and you’re a streetwalker, don’t come to me for bail.” She was so outraged over his remark, stopped speaking to him. He in turn stopped speaking to her. And that’s the way it’s been between the two of them for 50 years.

(He did become an attorney, but our sister never became a streetwalker—thank goodness.)

A nice friendship lost by misunderstanding. Maybe there was more you were unaware of? Who knows what goes through our neighbor's mind. You told it well. I felt bad when the tractor drove off also. Great writing. Thank you.

Two unexpected gifts this week=2 essays by Barrie Levine! This & AUGUST BIRTHDAY. Both are so descriptive of experiences shared by all of us so we totally relate. Love your writing. Thank you!

Even though I believe in the concept and am glad this is an option for you, somehow it makes me sad. There are a lot of upbeat comments here, but I can't make mine that. It reminds me of how very much I'll miss your column and you. This particular column drives home the point there is an inevitable end to everything, slowly or quickly, accidently or on purpose. You, me. Thank you for making me ponder so many things in life/culture, but most of all for showing me such strength in honesty.

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