With the death of my quarter-century marriage, I left the National-Historic Registered neighborhood of grand Victorian homes where I’d raised my family for a small but cozy Arts and Crafts bungalow. My former neighbors were surgeons and bankers, the new ones cooks and teachers. I was grieving, sorting out what had gone amiss with my marriage and what I was still missing about the man I had once so loved, from an easier sadness at losing the lifestyle I lived then. All I could absorb of my new neighbors was news of the death of the elderly woman across the street, verified by a recent convoy of shiny, black cars arriving at the house, apparently post- funeral. I assiduously avoided meeting her grieving widower. So, when months later, a very old gentleman tottered from that bungalow across the street to mine, carrying a still warm, homemade apple pie, I was not of a mind to embrace my new neighbor. He looked unlikely to live long, and I’d had enough death, real or symbolic, to last a lifetime.
But Henry was relentless. Next came the standing invitation for lunch at his home each Saturday at 11:30 A.M. sharp, to partake of a multi-course country-style cooking extravaganza for three single neighbor “girls”– all in our fifties. I soon became one of the triumvirate whom he plied with delicious, artery-clogging fare. A farmer in his working years, Henry had learned to cook after the death of his first wife. He had kids at home, mouths to feed. After the recent death of his beloved second wife, he’d quit cooking for a time, burrowing inside, blinds drawn, until it occurred to him that we “working, single ladies” regularly needed a home-cooked meal.
Henry wasn’t only a ladies’ man, but a manly one also. One who weekly insisted on mowing each of our yards besides his own. When, at aged 90, he became too wobbly to keep pace with his power-mower, his children hired someone to mow Henry’s lawn. This didn’t prevent him from continuing to mow ours, however. During the progeny-imposed mowing moratorium, we informed Henry that if he had a medical emergency while mowing our lawns, we would carry him back to his property before calling 911. We knew his children would kill us for allowing him to continue mowing. Thankfully, the injunction ended with his kids conceding defeat, freeing Henry to openly follow his passion for taking care of his neighbors.
My only embarrassment with accepting Henry’s help occurred after snowstorms. Until age 92, he was the first neighbor outside, clearing our sidewalks with his ancient snow-blower. On one particularly biting-cold Sunday morning, I had slept in, awakened by the soothing sound of Henry at work. I only later confessed to being home all the while, snug in robe and fuzzy slippers, while he labored alone, in record-low temperatures. He simply replied that he’d have arrived earlier, but he’d had to jerry-rig a repair on his blower, after clearing the third house of the morning, since the machine parts store was closed. Thanking Henry was always answered with his incredulous look and reply, “I have the best neighbors in the world. We take care of each other.”
Once his balance failed him altogether and he could no longer mow or blow, food became Henry’s lifeline. Although he continued to cook big on weekends, giving away the leftovers, Henry ordered Meals on Wheels during the week, because he loved visiting with the regular volunteers who brought them. Last year, after becoming too frail to cook, Henry became vexingly attuned to my comings and goings. The moment I opened my front door on weekend mornings, eagerly anticipating my precious free time, the phone rang, with Henry inviting me to come right away for a homegrown tomato. I felt guilty that his urgent neediness irked me.
After repeated falls at home, Henry lived his final six months at a local nursing home where, on his 95th birthday, a dozen neighbors gathered. His best gift was a homemade apple pie, Henry’s recipe, the first made by the 9-year-old neighbor girl whom he’d been teaching to bake. She smiled sweetly when we proclaimed its perfection. I believe I know how she felt. Whenever I look across the street at Henry’s home, especially at 11:30 sharp on Saturdays, I smile, while making big plans for living in this little bungalow in the neighborhood that I’ve come to love and thank Henry — a fine cook and teacher–for bringing that first apple pie.