A casualty of the workaday world is the art of neighborliness. When I was younger, before my life became dominated by responsibilities outside of home, I knew something about being a neighbor and about what good neighbors meant to the quality of my family's life. I still have friends who exemplify the qualities of a good neighbor -- availability, informality, warmth, domestic familiarity -- but none like the mistress of neighborly ceremony who passed from our midst last week. My neighbor May Markley was a queen among neighbors who died too soon and left us wondering if the world was not a lesser place for her loss.
May was our first true neighbor when we arrived in Colorado Springs almost ten years ago. I had packed up my children and stuffed away the remnants of my own childhood to move West, and life here felt as lonely as an Oklahoma landscape to this child of the south, accustomed to the constant, unannounced flow of neighbors through the kitchen door. My neighbors here were practical people, I soon discovered, who would introduce themselves matter-of-factly then expect not to hear from me unless I needed something.
May did not fit that mold.
On a summer afternoon ten years ago, tooling down the street on my bicycle in a blessed escape from unpacking chores and a sullen teenager whose life, she was sure, was ruined by our recent move, I waved casually at an auburn-haired black woman sitting in a rocker on her front porch, just across the street from mine. She waved me up to the porch and poured me a glass of wine in celebration of the unloading of her truck that afternoon.
She had moved from Phoenix with her husband and granddaughter. We exchanged particulars, marveled at the cool summer weather and immediately settled into what would become a friendship as natural as a steady breeze.
We traded children unceremoniously and passed many a summer evening on that porch. At first, we shared a sense of exile in Colorado Springs. We loved its beauty and were confused by the seemingly impenetrable social atmosphere of the place. We admired the proud grid of our old neighborhood but wished for curves and a hill or two. We searched out the best greasy spoon breakfast counters, and I watched as May worked the joint, leaving every place we went gathering at least one new acquaintance. We explored thrift shops in search of treasures to fill our new old houses. And in the afternoons, when I began cooking for my large, hungry family, May would slip in the front door, calling out instead of knocking, and would settle on a stool to provide narration and entertainment to the monotony of my routine.
Eventually, my daily life moved to the workplace and May's stayed at home. But even in that new arrangement, perhaps most especially in that new arrangement, I grew to appreciate her neighboring skills. We no longer spent hours gabbing while our kids played in another room, but at the end of many a long work day, I returned home to a covered pot of white beans or vegetable soup -- always something nourishing and warm, something we had treasured together in memory or in fact. Her generosity reminded me not to let the summer months pass without cutting a bouquet of irises for her dining room table, or to cut back the overweight, nodding peonies and leave one of those sweet smelling blossoms on her doorstep. Many evenings I'd wander out to the front porch to see her rocking across the way. She'd gesture me over and we'd sit and talk about the transitions in my life, about her health, about the kids, the town, the world.
Eventually May and her husband moved out of our neighborhood to a gated community on the side of a mountain. She adored her new place but missed the rituals of neighborliness. Our visits took place by telephone now, and no matter how neglectful I was, she always acted as if we had just talked yesterday.
Last week, following complications after a long struggle with a complicated jumble of health problems, she died. I didn't see her at all during her last weeks, but we talked on the phone the night before she was operated on. She was characteristically optimistic.
When I heard she died, I wandered the house looking for signs of her. Here's what I found: In my bedroom closet, two pairs of soft, slip-on bedroom slippers, never worn. May gave me a pair every year for awhile, offering her idea of comfort, refusing to accept the thought of me walking on cold, hardwood floors throughout the long Colorado winter. A glass bowl imprinted with grapes and vines, a thrift shop treasure she thought would look pretty in my china cabinet. A note dated Easter, 1995: "Did you remember to save the ham bone? I like to cook mine in a pot of split pea soup. It's really easy. Here's the recipe." The green glop was transformed forever in my mind. If I didn't like split peas, she reminded me farther down the note, I could throw the ham bone into a pot of cabbage, something she knew I liked sprinkled with red chile flakes.
In my living room, a Christmas cactus, a gift from Phoenix a few years back when her granddaughter boarded with me, for my trouble. Every year it bloomed early, at Thanksgiving, when my family came to visit. Every year, May and I commented on the event. Last year it bloomed at Thanksgiving, and this year it bloomed again, unexpectedly, the week May died.
I don't believe in signs, but this one was undeniable. Those wild, papery, fuchsia blossoms, hanging off the ends of a dusty, neglected cactus provided the perfect metaphor for our friendship and defined the exact property of her unique brand of neighborliness -- she saw beauty everywhere she looked, and her great gift was to never stop sharing it.