I was in the Main Library in downtown Jacksonville early this afternoon and checked out a study room which is a pretty normal occurrence for me.
Opening the door and walking into the room was a completely different story. As soon as I walked into it, I was overwhelmed by a familiar smell that I hadn't experienced in what seemed like years. Instantly I was transported back to my old next-door neighbor's house whom my family and I lived next to for 12 years. I can't quite describe the scent (it's an odd mixture of cats, perfume and maybe a hint of cigarettes) and I can't tell you how happy it made me feel.
Next-door neighbors can be one of God's most greatest blessings here on earth. It doesn't matter if they live in the house, apartment, condo or the shack right next to you. What matters is whether or not you seized the opportunity to get to know the people who physically live near you during any given chapter of your life. You may have become best friends with one of their kids or even fallen in love with the boy-next-door. Regardless of the connection, each next-door neighbor story is unique, including mine.
My mom was the first person in our family who got to know our next-door neighbors, Beverly and Larry. Even though my family moved into that house in June 1988, they didn't meet until 1992 or 1993. (Note that in June 1988, I was resting comfortably in my mom's tummy and wouldn't make my appearance until later that year in December.) Anyway, the story behind it is this: they met by way of my brother. He had wandered into Beverly's backyard one day and started to "play" in her garden. He only was a few years old at the time and was able to play outside by himself for a short time. When my mom came back out to check on him she had to apologize to Beverly what he had done. She had two older boys of her own so she understood his need to explore and get into mischief. They got to talking, though and realized that they had a lot in common: cooking, faith, soap operas, nature, gardening and family among others.
The soap opera interest thankfully didn't stick around for very long (they actually helped each other get unhooked on the junk) but the friendship grew in leaps and bounds each year. Nathan and I did go through a phase where we didn't like her that much. I think it was mainly because she would call my mom on the phone every other day to talk, even though, you know, they lived like 50 feet from each other. Again, this phase didn't last too long either. Soon Nathan was like another son to her and I was like the daughter she never had.
Our families were able to be such blessings in each other's lives. In a way, Beverly might have been the first person who opened my mind to other cultures and planted a seed that has now grown into a full-fledged adoration for foreign countries, languages, foods and international travel. She and her husband at one point lived in Egypt. Larry went on a trip there a couple times during our friendship with them and brought back a couple gifts for Nathan and I. I thought they were one of the coolest people my parents were ever friends with. I also have memories of exploring her basement, playing with her cats, Beverly styling my hair into pigtails when I was in kindergarten, carving silly things into the tree that stood between our two houses, burying and making tombstones for a couple birds and a robin by her deck, playing beneath the deck and using various items in her backyard for hide-in-seek in the dark.
Beverly also did one thing for my family that I will never ever forget. She took her cats to a local vet in Huber Heights, Ohio and inside the office there was a bulletin board. Off and on they would have various fliers tacked up on it stating free kittens/cats. In late 1999 and early 2000, we were finally looking for a kitty. My mom was super picky about finding "the one" but looking back on it, I am definitely grateful that she was so picky. Beverly had said she would keep her eyes peeled for any fliers she might see at her vet's office. It's a good thing she did. In mid April 2000, Beverly told my mom about a family near our house that was giving away five kittens: one male and four females. After my mom got the contact info, I vividly remember her talking to the lady on the phone and writing down some more information on the kittens. She had written "tan and gray striped calico" and before I even met him, I knew that I wanted him. I was only 11 years old at the time, mind you, but still. My parents were set on getting a male cat so after looking at and interacting with all of the cats, we had made our decision: he was "the one."
I often think of my selection process as how God "chose" us, but that's another story. In the end, though my parents actually decided which kitten we would bring home, I had the privilege of naming him Tigger. :) He has been with us ever since April 15th, 2000 and is the most affectionate, youthful, playful, obedient watch-cat that I have ever had. :) It was divine intervention that Beverly saw the flier at the time she did and that we were able to have first pick at the kittens. The other bonus was that we told old family friends of ours about these kittens because they were also looking for their first pet. Funny thing, their daughter, my friend Shannon, picked out one of Tigger's black and white "tuxedo" sisters and named her Buttons. These two cats have seen each other a few times since being separated but they have always lived within 40 minutes of each other.
We liked going over to her house to talk and visit with her but there was one thing about it that bugged us and our parents a lot. You see, Beverly smoked cigarettes; sometimes packs a day. There was no doubt that she was a wonderful person and neighbor. She was a wonderful person who just happened to be addicted to smoking. Don't think my mom didn't try to encourage her to quit many, many times. She finally did more than a decade after we had met her, but it was too late. In 2004 she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Our families were no longer next to each other at that point, as 3 years earlier we had moved 35 minutes away, but the news was still terribly heartbreaking. It deeply affected my mom because she had imagined remaining friends with her through so many more seasons of life. My brother and I were in our mid-to-late teens at the time and were confused as to how to accept the news. She had had one of her lungs removed which got rid of a lot of the cancer but unfortunately the remaining amount of the disease spread quickly. Towards the end her voice got much more gravelly than it had been when she smoked, but I still liked to talk to her sometimes when she called our house from her home phone and later from the hospital.
The last thing we ever spoke about, for just a few moments before I gave the phone to my mom, was about something hilarious. Beverly liked both superficial and deep conversations of all kinds, but she really enjoyed keeping up with the stars. Mostly this was because she liked laughing at the next dumb things they would say or do. That night she asked if I had heard about Paris Hilton's engagement ring. I was 16 at the time but hadn't heard the latest news about her yet. I will always remember that news tidbit though. Apparently her ring was so heavy, that instead of wearing it on her finger she strung it on a chain and wore it around her neck. We both had a really good laugh about the absurdity of it all.
Before she asked me about that, though, she complimented me on my voice. She said that to her it sounded low and sexy and exclaimed that I must be growing up! She also reaffirmed that I was such a pretty girl and that, with that voice, I would attract many boys. I often think of our conversation when I'm feeling self-conscious of my physical flaws, get too much unwanted attention or on days when I just don't feel beautiful.
Sadly, one day after school in October 2005, I came home to find my mom in tears. Earlier that day she had received a call from Larry saying that Beverly's organs shut down that morning and she had passed away. I had lost my grandfather years before and was even younger at the time so this was my first experience being old enough to process grief for the loss of someone close as a young adult. My mom and I were the only ones who were able to attend to her funeral. We saw Larry and her two sons, Cory and Jason--whom we hadn't seen in years. I was 16 and it was the first funeral I had ever attended. I did my best to be strong for my mom but I cried during some parts of it. I can't believe that it's nearly been 7 years since that day. So much has changed since then.
I can just imagine how proud Beverly would be of the people Nathan and I have become and how modest I would be about anything she might compliment me on. A part of me still wishes that I had been able to send her postcard while I was in Spain two years ago. Or invite her to my high school or college graduations. Or one day happily send her an invitation to my wedding.
There are many "if onlys" that float around in our minds after a loved one passes away. In the end it's futile to run them over in our minds countless times because it cannot bring them back. I do know for sure that since Beverly was a believer I will see her again and will have the chance to catch her up on my life and hear her fabulous stories as well.
I'm grateful that I was reminded of her today. Her memory gives me some much needed motivation to continue with my job search and know that she too would not want me to be discouraged. I have come along way since that one October afternoon but, while her life may be over, there is still much more to be written about mine. If I act passive towards the next chapter of my life, a career, I will cheat myself of all the life I could really put into it.
If you're reading this (wherever you are) and are not friends with any of your neighbors, take that first step and initiate contact. If you're lucky enough to develop a good friendship with them, you won't regret it. Besides, not all your neighbors are as crazy as the media likes to say they are. :P