|Posted by Paul McCall on February 2, 2013 at 11:55 AM|
Paul J. McCall
In the nineteen fifties, my family lived in Natick, Massachusetts. We had a small house on the shores of Jennings Pond. Neighbors in those days were mostly friendly, but one pair of neighbors stand out in my memory the most, the Flannerys. My parents were good friends with Jack and Blanche. They were older than my parents, and I wouldn't call them "close friends" because they seldom invited anyone into their home.
They were hard drinkers, but of the happy sense of the term. To me, they were the most beautiful people I may have ever known. Jack was a retired hard-working railroad man. I remember him and his distinctively deep, raspy voice. He was a tall, medium-built man with gray-white hair. I never saw him without his old beat-up oil stained railroad hat and the ever-present red rag hanging from the right rear pocket of his worn coveralls.
His love and extreme skill for farming, gardening, and growing things are what impressed me the most about him. He raised every kind of fruit and vegetable I can think of on his relatively small piece of property. Old Jack grew apple trees, peach trees, a huge cherry tree and next to his garden, was what appeared to be one sizeable thick grapevine that covered a sturdy wood frame that was large enough to park a car inside and made from sturdy four by fours. Where he grew three verities of grapes, his white grapes on one end, red grapes in the middle and blue on the far end.
In the shade of its interior, Jack set up a medium-size picnic table that he built himself. It had two bench seats, upon which on hot days he could escape the sun. He even installed a small stainless-steel sink with running water fed by a garden hose where he would wash his freshly picked vegetables.
On the opposite side of the grapevine was his large, impressive, well-kept vegetable garden. How I wish I’d taken pictures, it was so beautiful. He also grew strawberries and mint leaves. Mr. Flannery introduced me to the knowledge that the mint flavor in my chewing gum came from the leaves of this small plant. One day when I was visiting when old Jack handed me a little leave and said, "here Pauley, chew on this and tell me what you think?” When Jack saw me hesitate, he added, “They're delicious!" and he popped one in his mouth and began chewing. I trusted Old Jack without question and popped the small leave into my mouth. When I tasted the mint, I felt as if I had discovered something no other kid in the neighborhood knew.
Then the letdown, Jack made me pledge never to tell the other kids in the neighborhood. He warned if I told even one friend, the word would spread, and they would come and pick all his mint plants to the ground, and there would be none for me! Keeping that pledge was like having an itch that I couldn't reach. It killed me; I was dying to tell every kid I knew the little something that I was sure they didn't know. Mrs. Flannery once gave me a glass of ice tea with some of those Mint leaves crushed up in it, and it was the best ice tea I ever tasted.
By July the Flannery's entire property looked like something out of a hobbits landscape, his whole yard was green. His wife Blanche was one of the sweetest ladies I ever met. She planted flowers everywhere. Blanche was petite; her long thick white hair had occasional streaks of jet black; she wore bangs in the front, and the rest was all pulled back into a ponytail that she tied with a huge, typically, black or red ribbon. She regularly wore bright red lipstick. Her heavy smoking contributed much to her deep heavy raspy voice. Her overbite with receding gums made her tobacco-stained teeth look longer than usual, which often caused me to catch myself staring. She seemed to favor wearing black slacks with a brightly colored printed blouse. She had small feet, and her shoes looked like they were little girl shoes.
Whenever she would hold something up to show me, I couldn't help but notice her heavily stained fingers from all those cigarettes. She once told me that Jack and she had a daughter, though I never saw her or was ever shown any photos of her. I never was invited into the house, but I noticed from outside that there were real butterflies pinned to her curtains. I asked her "are those real Butterflies?"
"Yes, they are," she said.
"Where did you get them"?
"I catch them in the garden" I couldn't help but feel bad for all those creatures and to think, what a shame to kill all those beautiful Butterflies.
My younger brother Drew once told me how Mrs. Flannery invited him into the house on one occasion and gave him a tour, and even showed him the upstairs. All the neighbors thought that the Flannerys did not invite people in because the house was a mess. But Drew told me Blanch kept the house like a museum, all nice and clean.
Drew's hair was very light and very curly blond and may have reminded Blanche of her daughter in some way? Drew later told me that Mrs. Flannery showed him their daughter's upstairs bedroom.
Drew asked, "Where is she?"
"Away, in school" Blanche replied. But Drew told me, judging from the smell of the modest size room, it hadn't been occupied for a long time. Drew was amazed at all the cool stuff in that room. Though Drew was young, he instantly surmised that Mrs. Flannery's daughter must have died because the room possessed all the signs of a shrine. There were all kinds of toys, knickknacks, stuffed animals and crayon drawings, and rubbings fastened with thumbtacks on the walls. All little girl stuff, nothing to indicate a teenage girl ever had occupied this bedroom.
Mrs. Flannery then asked Drew, "If this was your room, Andrew, what would you like the most about it?" Unaware of the reason for such a question, Drew carefully scanned around the room and saw a scruffy looking, very used beat up little teddy bear lying on the bed. Unsure why Mrs. Flannery would ask such a strange question he hesitated and studied her for a moment. Once he realized that she was scanning the room with him and not mainly looking at him, he relaxed, and he pointed out the Teddy bear. Mrs. Flannery's lips formed an instant smile as if she knew what he would choose. Then she looked at Drew with a half-smile. She walked slowly over next to the side of the bed; she stood for a moment as though to pray or maybe try to make up her mind about breaking a promise she made to herself, never to move anything since that tragic last day?
Drew heard her take a deep breath, she bent down and picked up the bear, she held it for what seemed like a long time, long enough for Drew to notice the tiny dust particles stirring in the beams of sunlight coming through the window. Dust that had been disturbed after she had picked up the bear which must have been laying there for who knows how long? The dust particles swirled and danced around in the beams of sunlight. Blanche stared into the worn little face, then she broke her silence, her deep voice cracking, "he was her favorite, that's why he's so beat up" she then turned her back toward Drew facing the window and paused.
Regaining her composer, "she played with him all the time"... Drew could hear her swallow. "His name is, Sooty, they were inseparable, I think she would want him to be played with again, after all, that's what he's for isn't he?" Then she turned her head and looked at Drew with a smile on her face; her eyes were welled with tears as she turned and slowly walked toward Drew from the other side of the bed. Then she handed the bear to him. "Take good care of him, won't you?"
"I will Mrs. Flannery. Thank you".
Blanche didn't know it then, but that little Teddy bear would become a treasure to my brother, not merely because Blanche gave it to him but because Drew knew how hard it was for her to let go and what it meant to her.
Drew, literally adopted "Sooty" the dusty, little worn-out bear. Drew kept his word and loved that little Teddy bear. It became a part of our family throughout our childhood. My brother had Sooty until his premature death at sixty years old. Sadly, the original Sooty was lost in a fire.
Blanche also gave Drew a pencil box that day that looked like a small golf bag; the plastic top cover looked like golf clubs were sticking out of it when the top was on.
Jack Flannery would sometimes allow a few of us neighborhood kids to pick his apples and peaches but his one rule was we must ask first. So, whenever we wanted a couple apples or peaches, we would either look for him in his yard or knock on his door. Still, sometimes if Jack was not there we could not resist the thrill of sneaking up on his garden or grape vines and taking just enough so it would go unnoticed.
Jack and Blanche were terrific people and great neighbors. It's hard to find people like them in today's drive up window world; most people today are living too fast, they don't even know about Roses, let alone take the time to smell em. It seems the more intelligent humanity believes itself to be the more impaired it is too vital elements of life. People like the Flannery's are going extinct. In today's world trust in your neighbor can be a risky business at best. Make sure you take the time to smell the roses, the ocean, and the fresh cut grass.