On a typical summer’s afternoon when I was a young teen, I might lay out in the sun on our lower deck in a folding plastic lawn chair hidden by the huge tomato plants. As the summer went on, I’d get a tan. Mrs. Oliver, our neighbor, liked to visit with my mother and me once my mom came home from work. Mrs. Oliver would enter the back door of our house about 5:45 once or twice a week, walk through the wash room and down the hall to the kitchen bar. My mother had barely changed out of her work clothes and she’d just gotten home from her office job at Burlington Industries. My mother would begin dinner. I loved it when she called me to eat raw cabbage and crackers as appetizers! Mrs. Oliver would pull out a bar stool and interact with my mother while mother didn’t miss a beat while she multitasked to get dinner ready.
These visits were never planned. Mrs. Oliver would just show up. My mother never acted bothered by this occurrence. These were simpler times. Even as a small child, I would sit on the kitchen carpet designed with green, orange and yellow squares reading a book and listen to the two of them talk. It became a week night ritual. I was always a listener and learned a lot.
As my mother pulled together dinner, Mrs. Oliver would sit on the wood bar stools facing my mom and talk. With the Andy Griffith show playing faintly from the TV in the adjacent den, I’d hear laughter and hear my mom and Mrs. Oliver share about their days while I worked on homework in my room. I would venture down the hall to the kitchen and loved those moments when my mother and Mrs. Oliver would talk to me about my day.
Sometimes, I’d hear words that flavored Mrs. Oliver’s conversation, but were ones that my parents didn’t use. These were the curse words. She used an expletive adjective a lot. I was always astonished at the nonchalant nature of her casually expelling the word from her mouth. She once told me I looked like a “expletive” Indian when I had a dark suntan. She knew my family’s deep convictions about loving God and going to church regularly. Her ability to put all of us at ease and fill our lives with laughter was always appreciated although she was the only grown-up that I knew who used curse words. I didn’t judge her nor did my parents. I never could figure out why she used those curse words, but came to realize she was just a graceful old soul who loved us and wanted to be around my family.
My grandparents lived an hour away so we couldn’t just drop in on them like we could with Mrs. Oliver. Once in a while as a Junior High student, I would miss the bus in the morning. I always ran late when getting ready. My parents would leave for work and I’d have 30 minutes or so left until I had to be at my bus stop down the street. Mrs. Oliver would always watch to be sure I had gotten on the bus and gotten off the bus in the afternoon. Reluctantly, after missing the bus, I trudged up her concrete driveway following the path of cracks. I’d see her already at the door smiling, holding her keys She didn’t mind driving me to school, but I’m glad I didn’t need her to help in this way except only a couple of times. I was embarrassed that I missed the bus. She didn’t mind because we had time to chat on the 10 minute drive to my school. I will say, though, that when another Junior High girl in the neighborhood missed the bus, Mrs. Oliver would not take her to school late. Mrs. Oliver didn’t know that girl’s parents so even when the girl knocked on her door, Mrs. Oliver refused to take her. I guess you could say, she was like my guardian angel. I bet she watched more than I realized when I’d come home from school on the bus to be sure I had let myself in properly and was safe. Now that I’m older, I have an appreciation for the extra set of eyes that watched over me.
After living across the street from her for a decade, we liked to celebrate good news with each other. In the early fall of 1986, my parents and I visited a Chevrolet car lot just to check out small cars in case there was one in our price range. This car would be for me as I was about to turn 16. I remember when we brought home my red 1985 Chevrolet Spectrum for a test drive. In order to drive it and get a second opinion, we took Mrs. Oliver for a ride to see how she liked it. We took it for a spin around the neighborhood with her grinning and sharing her thoughts. After she approved of the car, we went back to the dealer to buy it. Her opinion mattered to our family.
Not only did she help us talk over decisions, she used her talent in the sewing arts on our behalf too. Mrs. Oliver made our Christmas stockings that we still use today. She embroidered my mother and father’s name on their stockings with red thread along with multiple teddy bears and toys in shades of red, green, blue and yellow. On mine, she sewed sparkly sequins showing a child riding the rails downstairs to find presents at the bottom of the stairs. We hung those stockings on our mantle proudly and filled them with treats that we started with on Christmas morning before we opened the big presents. I had not gotten married yet, but Ms. Oliver was getting more feeble and less likely to sew in the late 1980s. She made a stocking for my future husband at my mother’s request. My mother still uses these stockings for us at Christmas. Mrs. Oliver’s presence is felt.
For years, my mother would display ceramic Christmas trees in our house which she and Mrs. Oliver made together. During my childhood, my mother and Mrs. Oliver took a ceramics class at an Art Center. The two large ceramic trees, one green and one white, had holes for lights to shine through on the limbs. You have to put plastic cylinders in each branch so that the light would shine through in assorted colors. A white light was placed in the base of the tree while the branches part of the tree would carefully be placed on top of the base allowing the lights to glow. My mother, alongside of Mrs. Oliver, also learned to paint figurines including a Manger Scene that she still places in the bay window of the living room at Christmas time. Even at Easter, my mother still displays some other beautifully painted ceramic bunnies that she made alongside of Mrs. Oliver. All of these ceramic pieces and the stockings are treasures to me.
As I reflected on my childhood today with my mother, she reminded me of when my parents had to go to the Sheraton hotel for a holiday party hosted by my dad’s company in the mid seventies. Mrs. Oliver lent my mother her mink stole, black skirt and white sequined blouse. My mother never told anyone that the stole was not her own. She wore it proudly all the while feeling grateful for Mrs. Oliver. It was like Mrs. Oliver could help us do anything.
I thought about the legacy of Mrs. Oliver today. She was kind and pleasant. In my mind, she believed in me and loved me. I loved her too, but sadly, I don’t think I ever told her. My parents and I missed her when she passed away around the time I was 21. There were no more visits around dusk from our friend. Just knowing that we were special to her is a memory that I will always treasure. Even when I go back home now, I still think of her house as Mrs. Oliver’s house. New neighbors have been there for years, but her life and legacy impacted me. She is woven into the fabric of my mind and has a part in every Easter and Christmas. Her smile and laughter jolt me sometimes and carry me back in time as I think about those lazy evenings when she’d visit.
As I prepare to thank my Mother for Mother’s Day, my heart is full of so many special moments. Thank you, Mother, for letting me sit at your feet reading in the kitchen as you prepared dinner and for multitasking as Mrs. Oliver talked. I learned how to interact with adults at school and at church, but it was my Mother, my grandmothers and Mrs. Oliver whom I am honoring today. I love my dear grandmothers who are already in heaven. They met Ms. Oliver on earth. Hopefully, they’ve met in heaven and are enjoying each others’ company. I know I sure enjoyed my time with all of them.
There will be other stories about my grandmothers that I hope to share on my blog. I loved the moments spent with them down in the country of North Carolina. I just wanted to share how God allowed a special neighbor to weave herself into our lives.
These are times when people don’t seem to have time to spend time with each other. There’s a lot that will be missed if we don’t take the opportunities to weave into the fabric of each others’ lives. I hope I won’t miss these opportunities. I pray that I will be open to moments to build up others, laugh and share like my mother, my grandmothers and Mrs. Oliver did with me.