Written Winter of 2012
Essie lived next door to us and was similar to Mrs. Dubose in To Kill a Mockingbird in that she faithfully yelled at my brothers when they played football on the open lot between our properties. She seemed to be constantly grouchy yet she had her own special flair. She was an elegantly slim woman in her 70’s who never made a public appearance without finely tailored clothes and bright red lipstick. Her hair was plentiful and my dad claimed it was a wig, but regardless of its authenticity, it was dark black with her eyes lined to match. She must have appeared very worldly to this little, protected Mennonite girl in the 1960s, but I admired her from afar. She was scary and more than intimidating to me.
Essie had rumors circulated about her. She was a bit scandalous even in the 60’s and 70’s in that she was living with two men, one her husband that had been injured in the Battle of the Bulge whom she waited on hand and foot, and the other, a kind-hearted, broad-shouldered gentleman named George that provided constant companionship. By any stretch of the imagination, Essie and George were people from a different walk of life, yet my parents were quick to assent to a visit when Essie inclined an offer. On these visits Essie was most engaging and talked incessantly about her husband’s brave encounters in WWII. After the visit, my mom seemed bothered, not that my dad had taken the glass of wine offered, but that he had taken a second. My mom invited them to our house for a meal on occasion also, but of course Essie was quick to return to her bed-ridden husband.
She kept her house and property meticulous and we tried to measure up. Steve and I always tried to tow the line, but inevitably, especially when our neighbor Jimmy was around, we saw the dreaded back door open, then the big black hair and the slender legs, then the tedious walk to where we were caught motionless, followed by the unforgiving finger wag. It could be relied upon every time we stepped out onto that open lot. It was not her land, but she patrolled it with a legalism that only she could muster. She usually didn’t see me as I was sitting off to the side watching the neighborhood boys play. I was glad she never saw me, but when I got a bit older and joined in on occasion, she usually added a lilt to her voice at the sight of a girl.
Robert Frost uses a quote in his “Mending Wall” poem of a neighbor that says “Good fences make good neighbors.” I don’t abide by that. I believe it’s good to get to know our neighbors as well as they allow us to and to be on hand when they are in need. Sure they may be kind of grouchy and unapproachable at times, but I’ve found that generally, a plate of warm muffins on a Saturday morning has a way of removing the “grouchies.” I hope Frost would agree… I know Atticus Finch would. -BBM