Edna, Next Door

On loving your neighbor
“Every spring she hand-washed and line-dried her linens, window dressings, and undergarments so they would last another hundred years beyond her” (Pxhere).

She was not patient. She was not kind. Edna was not the neighbor ready with a warm welcome when we bought the house on Harrison Street next door to hers.

She was not interested in warm welcomes because she was not interested in change. A four-foot-tall woman in her nineties, Edna insisted on everything remaining precisely as it had always been, and as it had always been meant 1942, the year she moved into her house. When I asked if I could install a gate across our shared driveway to keep our small children contained in the backyard, she scrunched her small, wrinkly face and said, “It’s never been a problem before. Why don’t you just watch your kids? That’s not a gate’s job, that’s your job!”

She was not gracious. She was not merciful, especially not to children whose wiffle balls flew over her fence. Edna was not amenable to my idea to remove two feet of fence so that our kids could pass between our yard and their friends’ yard behind us. She insisted that it stay exactly as it was—no gaps, no gates, no holes. The fence is there, she said, because one day back in the 1980s a man just walked right through the yard, and he looked suspicious. There hasn’t been a problem since the fence went up, and the fence has now been there for a long time, and why would we want to go and change things? Why do you insist on changing everything?

She did not change, although she did adapt to the seasons. Every spring she hand-washed and line-dried her linens, window dressings, and undergarments so they would last another hundred years beyond her. (Stoic as she was, at least once a year, Edna’s underwear flew over the backyard like a pirate flag.) One day every May, a slim man in his sixties would arrive in his red pickup truck, unload his mower, and spend a full eight-hour day mowing the lawn and trimming the edges of the yard until it looked like a golfing green. She would watch vigilantly from the porch all day, letting him know when he missed a spot. In late June, another handyman would arrive in his white service van to climb a ladder and install a single air-conditioning unit in the window of her dining room, where she would sleep during the summer months. In late August, the same service man would return, take down the AC unit, and put the bars back on the window.

She did not want to leave the house, the porch, or the backyard garden where her irises and roses bloomed every year for more than half a century. Until the day she could no longer drive, Edna left the house on Sunday mornings, backing her 1985 Buick down the driveway and slowly cruising to St. James Catholic Church two blocks away.

How do you love someone you just don’t like much?

She refused to go to the hospital. Even when she was living full-time on an oxygen tank, she insisted on a back-up plan that would prevent her from needing a trip to the hospital. She hired her handyman to anchor a gas-powered generator into the concrete in the backyard. He covered the generator with a fake doghouse to protect it from theft. In case of a power outage, the generator would keep the oxygen tank running. It would provide enough power to keep her alive and out of a hospital bed and the hospital gowns with the open flaps in the back that would diminish the dignity of any woman born in 1927 at the outset of the Great Depression; the dignity of a woman who lived her childhood through a world war, moved into this house in 1942, and never left; whose teenage fiancé was killed in war, who chose never to marry, who asked her sister to move in instead. Those hospital gowns would diminish the dignity of a woman who did not like the changes she saw happening around her as she peered through the bars on her windows and doors. And now a young man born yesterday in 1982, who has never nearly drowned in the deep end of heartache, insists that everything change. No. She was not to be diminished.

She was not easy to love. How do you love someone you just don’t like much? Here I am, talking about all that she lacked in the ways of love, as if I know a damn thing about it. I am not patient. I am not kind.

She was not canonized after she died. She was not memorialized at the Vatican nor eulogized by a bishop. On a chilly March morning in the nave of St. James Catholic Church, a mediocre choir sang hymns, and a disheveled parishioner read Scripture, and an unremarkable priest told a few dozen people in the pews what he knew about Edna. Every Sunday morning, he said, she would arrive long before Mass began, gathering with a few other women in the center aisle of the church. They would whisper softly to one another for twenty or thirty minutes before Mass. The priest, relatively new to the parish, said that he finally asked Edna what they were whispering about.

Her secret, said the priest, was that she and the other women whispered prayer requests back and forth—not for themselves, but for other parishioners who were sick or homeless or hungry or going through great trials, and they would make quick plans for how to care for them in the coming days. Every Sunday for twenty minutes, the priest said, Edna whispered a small web of love into being.

She was not always patient. She was not always kind. And yet her small web, hidden and mostly unremarkable as it was, still stitched itself into a greater web of love—a love that is not diminished, not at all diminished, by all we are not or have not yet become.

Andrew Johnson is the author of the essay collection On Earth As It Is. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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