It’s funny how one little item might trigger a special memory sometimes … a person, place or thing that you’ve not thought of in many years. First it was that old willow tree that was damaged in one of Mother Nature’s many fits that she’s had this Summer. I guess we are all worn and weary from being immersed in our COVID-19 woes and Mother Nature’s miseries, a bad combo that has likely shaved a few years off my life and likely yours too.
I’ve had a few instances this year where I remembered a person from my past. I dreamed of someone or happened to think of someone from years ago – it was a strong premonition to find out something about them. In both instances they had passed away recently. It was a little unsettling.
Sandra, a fellow blogger who is an avid photographer, recently did a few posts showcasing Cosmos … no, not pictures of the universe, which would not be surprising as she often features shots of the moon. Sandra was experimenting with macrophotography and had up-close pictures of a pink, dainty-looking flower. I recognized that bloom right away – thirty years ago this Summer, there was a sea of Cosmos in the yard next door.
A little backstory – The Mystery Man.
In the 1980s, we got a new neighbor. He never said a word to my mom nor me … in fact, he’d be sitting out on his front porch at night, or on the weekends, and, if I was doing yardwork, or my mom and I came home from an outing, he would promptly turn his chair facing the opposite way. Smart women that we were, we quickly figured out he wanted nothing to do with us … so we did not exactly welcome him to the neighborhood with a tuna casserole and a chocolate cake. Furthermore, we certainly didn’t lose any sleep over his strange and unsociable behavior.
In 1988, the City tore up our street. We got letters from City Hall telling exactly what the project entailed and how long it was projected to last. The easement in the backyard was City property and we could expect it to be torn up as part of this undertaking and possibly the City sidewalk as well. I was upset as I’d spent the Summer of 1985 re-landscaping the front, side and backyard. It was a humongous undertaking and my poor AMC Pacer had to have its springs replaced from lugging home landscape ties, 2 X 4s, mulch, dirt, lava rocks … yes, I could have hired a landscape company to do that work, but I thought “how difficult could it be anyway?” It was a job for much younger legs, but I digress ….
This neighbor left for work before I did, never had people over at the house and, if he and I happened to be closer than twenty feet away from one another, i.e. doing yardwork or shoveling snow at the same time, he scurried into the house before we could make eye contact … he was a bit of a mystery man.
Our good friends/neighbors across the street had a double lot and it was here the construction crew chose to park their heavy machinery in the backyard at the end of each workday. The lady of the house, who prided herself on her longstanding and beautiful perennial garden, tearfully came over the first night and asked if she could park her perennials in our yard until the project was over? We said “of course but what if they likewise rip up our easement area?” She and her husband purchased multiple five-gallon buckets, filled them with dirt and carefully “replanted” each of her clumps of Coneflowers, Daisies and Black-Eyed Susans, then nestled the buckets on the mulch in my backyard between my plants. I had the same exact flowers – it looked like a nursery back there. She promised to water them – I told her not to worry, I would take care of them like they were mine until she reclaimed them. I guess my motives were selfish – all the time I figured my good deeds may mean my backyard was spared.
The construction project was in high gear in August, in the Dog Days of Summer. The dust flew as heavy machinery tore into the easements of neighbors across the street from this house. The casualties were not just to gardens brimming with produce and perennials … a neighbor on the corner had a heart attack when he returned home from work, only to find his prized rock garden, perennials and veggies had been ripped apart. He dropped to the ground and died on the spot.
A little miracle.
A few days later the City sidewalks across the street were munched by the heavy machinery. I cringed when I saw the mess and how the metal jaws came perilously close to tree trunks along our tree-lined street. I was in the backyard watering all the flowers, when the mystery man stalked over to the fence. He didn’t introduce himself, no niceties here, but he pointed at the buckets of flowers and said “where did you get those flowers?” I explained the situation and he gave a little grunt and said “I don’t care for flowers – you spend time and money on flowers, then they die off.” Being raised to be nice to my elders, but also gritting my teeth a little, between clenched teeth I responded “well they brighten up my yard anyway.”
Half expecting him to walk away after my curt comment, he stood there looking at me. It was awkward to be sure. A long moment of silence passed. I felt the need to say something … like maybe introduce myself or welcome him to the neighborhood. But before I did so, he blurted out “they’re doing that sewer replacement job all wrong – I work in construction and you watch … we’ll have flooded basements and all the trees’ll die. Look how they plowed into the roots!” He was all wound up and I said “well good thing you and I don’t have a tree on City property and they must’ve forgotten to work in our backyard for which I’m grateful.” He just kind of grunted, turned and walked away.
Well, as he strode toward the house, I was tempted to say “by the way, my name is Linda and my mom’s name is Pauline … and you are?” But it was too late for that.
Flash forward a year, give or take a month.
The mystery man drove an old, rather beat-up, light-blue, nondescript car. He always parked out front and that vehicle leaked like the Exxon Valdez. In Winter the car never moved, but I now knew it was because he worked in outside construction. There had been no conversation since that day when he spoke his mind. I’d be outside, nary a hand wave, mouthing “hello” – none of the niceties that you do to at least attempt to be polite and neighborly.
But as Spring finally sprung, there was another element added to the mystery man puzzle, when suddenly I noticed a compact car and a stranger, a young man who owned that car and I saw him going in/out of the mystery man’s house. It was Springtime by now and orange barrels were everywhere and construction had started up for the year, yet I noticed the mystery man’s car never budged week in and week out. My mom and I discussed this and wondered what was afoot, but we weren’t going to ask.
I was working in the back garden when the young man came to the fence, introduced himself as Nicky and said he’d come to live with his father, Nick, who had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I said I was sorry and told him that in all the years he’d lived there, I never knew his dad’s name and told him the gist of our conversation back in 1988. What had just been a rather solemn moment after Nicky relayed his father’s medical diagnosis, suddenly he burst into hearty laughter. He said “Dad never spoke to you since he moved here – no way!” I said “no” and added “he turned his chair around the other way so he did not have to look at my mom and me when he was outside.” Once again Nicky roared with laughter. He then said “please don’t take it personally” then explained that his parents divorced and afterward his dad declared he was “taken to the cleaners” and swore he’d never talk to a woman again. The exception as to women was Nicky’s sister who lived in Indiana with her minister husband.
Nicky told me he was going to law school in Cleveland, Ohio but had transferred to Wayne State University Law School in Detroit to attend classes there while taking care of his dad. He had hoped to do a clerking internship that Summer to help get (and perhaps guarantee) a job with a firm after graduation, but when he moved in with his dad, he realized that was not going to be doable, so he’d just see what was available after he graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. He concluded by saying “family always has to come first – Dad has no one else and my sister has to be there with her husband.”
So, that was the first of many over-the-fence talks Nicky and I enjoyed that Summer. We also argued in a friendly way, as we debated the fate of Lawrence DeLisle, a local father who drove off the pier at Bishop Park, Wyandotte in August 1989, taking his wife and four little children with him. Lawrence DeLisle’s “story” was his gas pedal stuck and thus the car plunged into the Detroit River. The four children drowned, but his now ex-wife, survived. Lawrence DeLisle’s trial was in June of 1990. There was friendly banter across the fence for the duration of the trial, as Nicky, the third year law student and Linda, the litigation legal secretary with a decade of trial support experience already under her belt, debated – each of us had our own opinion. It was a lively nightly discussion as we watered and weeded our gardens. In the end, just as I predicted, DeLisle was found guilty and is still in jail thirty years later. The sordid and sad story can be found by clicking here.
Oh yes, by the way did I say gardens … plural?
Gardens and flowers at Nick’s house? Nick, that mystery man, who hated flowers? Yes, indeed. In the Spring as I gently uncovered my perennials’ tender shoots and removed the yard debris, Nicky said he had had been admiring my perimeter gardens since moving in. He told me he decided he would do the same in their yard to cheer up his ill father. Gulp! Dare I tell him about Nick’s disgruntled comment about flowers or keep that to myself? I decided on the latter. I said “oh, that will be nice Nicky – he’ll appreciate that.”
[A little white lie never hurt anyone.]
So, Nicky worked his butt off to create similar perimeter gardens as mine. He spaded away the grass, lugged home bags of topsoil and packets of seeds. Lots of packets of seeds. He decided on Cosmos flowers because they were fast growing and colorful. Nicky had method in his madness … he aimed to have those Cosmos up to the top of the cyclone fence as quickly as possible. He told me he wanted to surround the yard in color to cheer his dad up.
The seeds were planted and tended by Nicky with TLC and lots of Miracle-Gro. Secretly, I hoped the bunnies would not seize the opportunity to eat those tiny shoots as Nicky was hell bent on creating this garden for his dad to enjoy in the time remaining as cancer ravaged his body.
I caught glimpses of Nick in early Summer – he was a slight man before, but now he was gaunt, bent over, barely walking and one day he shuffled to the chair in the yard, prompted by Nicky to see the flowers. I was pulling weeds and glimpsed this out of the corner of my eye. Nick clung to Nicky’s arm, then lowered himself slowly into the chair. Nicky pushed a table close to him, then said he’d be back in a minute with a cool drink. While Nicky was gone, Nick rested his forearms on the table, then laid his head down and wept, long racking sobs that I was sorry to have heard and witnessed. He did not see me there, so this time it was my turn to scurry back into the house to give him some privacy. I burst into tears once inside the house … the scene really stirred my emotions.
Despite Nick’s initial attitude toward Mom and me, things changed that Summer.
My mom had surgery that Summer. It was a hip revision, a complicated procedure wherein the original hip prosthesis was removed and a new prosthesis put in. In my mom’s case, the stem of the prosthesis had come loose. It required a long operation and a ten-day hospital stay. Every night after work I’d go up to the hospital. On the weekend, I’d spend the day there. On several occasions, I’d come home and Nick was sitting on the porch and in a wavery voice asked: “how’s your mother doing today Linda?” I’d give a brief report and then as an afterthought he’d ask “how are you doing?” I was touched and a few times my eyes welled up from the stress and worry and answered in as calm and steady of a voice as I could and said “I’ll tell her you asked for her Nick.” I had never called him by name before, but yes … it was time to do so. And no, I could not bring myself to ask how he was doing … besides, I got a daily report from Nicky.
When Mom came home from the hospital, I took a leave of absence from work, using personal time and vacation time to stay home with her for three weeks. Nicky took it upon himself to make dinner for us every night. He’d come over near the kitchen window and yell out what he’d cooked that day and ask me to put on my oven mitts and meet him at the door in a few minutes. He was an excellent cook, having spent each of his college Summer vacations working at a resort. He quipped that he was afraid my cooking might send Mom back to the hospital.
Meanwhile it was late July and Cosmos filled the perimeter of the yard.
The Cosmos grew taller by the day and soon they were grazing the top of the cyclone fence. The blooms were a riot of hues in pink and purple, bobbing their delicate heads in the breeze. I told Nicky one night, as we watered our gardens and chatted companionably over the fence, that his sad mission was accomplished. He nodded, unable to say anything and tears filled his eyes. My eyes misted up seeing him.
Nick passed away a few days later.
The estate was wrapped up quickly. Nicky, a weight lifted from his shoulders, awaited taking the bar exam, but not for Michigan, but Florida. His heart was not there for studying for the exam, but he had to move on, without the advantage of having clerked at a firm in conjunction with school. He was able to get into the Prosecutor’s office in Miami and left for Florida a few weeks later. On moving day, he came in the house to say goodbye and hugs were exchanged and tears flowed freely.
I pass by the Cosmos you see in the pictures above every time I walk to the Park. I snapped these photos, not really thinking about Nick or Nicky and that Summer of 1990. But oddly enough, just a few days after I took these pictures of pink Cosmos in the ‘hood, fellow blogger Sandra posted her pink Cosmos photos and it was while gazing at those flowers, the memories came flooding back. I told Sandra how her post had triggered those sad memories and she urged me to write this post. Thank you if you’ve read to the very end.
Postscript – I finished proofreading this very long post and switched on the radio to hear the news – Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed away from the same type of cancer as Nick. I have always admired her. She was a fighter in many ways. May we please find a cure for this horrible disease sooner rather than later.