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.
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