Tuesday, February 28, 2006
The French were right: To say goodbye really is to die a little.
I learned, or re-learned this lesson after dinner last night. I was all set to work on the computer when there was a knock on my side door.
No one comes to the side door so I figured it was my neighbor John coming to ask me for favor. I was close; it was my other neighbor, who lives in the rear apartment of John's house.
This man's name, I believe, is Fei, and he is the father of my two little buddies, Kelly and Maggie, the Chinese girls who like to drive me crazy whenever they see me coming.
Fei doesn't speak English very well, but the message was clear: they were moving. He, his wife, the grandmother, and those two lovely girls who have given me so much joy over the last year or so are packing up and moving to a place about 20 blocks from here.
Yes, it's not that far. And they really intend to come back because the new tenants are actually members of their family, so they'll have a reason to visit.
But I'm so bummed. I realized just how much I love those two little girls. I just figured they always be there for me to play with. I feel like I should demand visiting rights.
It wasn't always that way. They used to be afraid of me; they'd run and hide when they saw me coming. But things improved last year when I was out of work.
In the Beginning...
I'd hear them in the morning when their grandmother was taking them out in the stroller and I'd pick up some trash and walk out, pretending I was throwing out the garbage.
"Hello, ladies," I'd say, as I walked by them.
Gradually they started to greet me in their limited English and I stopped pretending to throw out the trash. I didn't need any fake reason to go out in the alley; I was saying hello to my friends.
Oh, the pleasure they gave me.
We'd play all kinds of silly games, we'd run up and down the alley, or hop back and forth on the steps to the opposing side doors, or look for stray cats (these guys love cats).
Over the summer they found a perfect way to torture me: they would run up on top of my cellar shed and refuse to come down.
I was always terrified they'd fall and hurt themselves and I tried to explain to them, through body language and facial contortions that they should get down before something terrible happened.
But they didn't understand English and all they saw was that by doing this they could make the bald guy hop through his rear end in frustration. So let's keep doing it!
"What is the Chinese word for 'dangerous'?" I lamented.
I tried to be tough with them, stomping my foot and saying forcefully "You come down here right this instant!"
Oh, yeah, that worked. I sounded like Miss Crabtree from the old Little Rascals show and Maggie and Kelly cheerfully ignored me as I tried to put the fear of God in them.
It was the highlight of my day, seeing those two. After they left, I had to go back to job hunting, which became more and more discouraging. So a few minutes of acting like a child helped me get through the day.
To the girls I was an adult they didn't have to obey, an over-sized child, really, which is a fairly accurate description.
It must have looked strange, this grown man running around with little kids. But I liked being with them; it had the same effect as admiring beautiful flowers or watching a perfect sunset. These are priceless moments that do nothing but make you feel good.
Gradually, the girls started coming into the house, much to the delight of my father. I loved hearing the patter of their little feet in our home and I realized how empty the place had become.
My parents had four kids, so at one time the place was packed, and now it's just me and my dad in this huge house. Having these girls running the same rooms where I grew up was very satisfying.
Tony, our Dominican repairman, told me once that it's good luck to have children running around the house. Inwardly I scoffed, but later on I started to think he was right. I felt lucky whenever I was with these two.
Unfortunately, the kids' parents put a stop to visits. I'm assuming they didn't want to impose upon us, at least I hope that was the reason.
I never had any children of my own and for the longest time I didn't think I was missing anything. But after these times with Maggie and Kelly have got me thinking otherwise.
Obviously there's more to being a parent than a few minutes of silliness. You've got to be able to lay down the law, point the child in the right direction, and be there when everything falls apart for them.
I convinced myself that I couldn't do that, that I didn't want to put out that kind of effort. I think I was afraid and I had so much trouble getting my own act together I didn't think I could be a very good example to any child.
But you don't have to be Neil Armstrong to be a good parent. Some rather boring, run-of-the-mill people do a great job as mothers and fathers.
Back to the Future
I remember the day I moved out of Stroudsburg, Pa. back in the early 90's. I had lived there, at 500 Scott Street for five years while working as a reporter at the Pocono Record.
I lived next door to an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Strunk, two of the loveliest people I have ever known.
They were in their 80's when I knew them and they always had a nice word to say. Mr. Strunk liked to talk about the Great Flood of '55 that ravaged the Poconos in 1961.
He once worked as a delivery driver for the Record and he knew Jimmy Ottaway, who owned the chain of papers that included the Record.
I went back to Brooklyn a lot on weekends and I had given the Strunks a key to my apartment in case they needed to get in for some emergency. Well, God bless her, Mrs. Strunk started going in my apartment to tidy up--a very brave woman, facing that toxic dump--and sometimes washing my clothes.
"Oh, boy," one of my co-workers laughed. "It's like you never left home!"
I was miserable at the paper and the Strunks were one of the few bright spots in my life. They had their troubles, of course, like all of us. I came home one day and found the Strunks getting into their car. Mrs. Strunk was sobbing as she was getting into the car and I asked her what happened.
"My daughter died," she said.
That poor woman. She was Mrs. Strunk's only daughter and now she was gone. I felt so helpless that day. I went to the service, naturally, but that seemed like so little for the people had been so good to me.
Then the day finally came when I got a job at another paper and I had to move on.
Moving is always such a nightmare. You've got to gather up all your property, put it in boxes, and look at your life all stacked up in front of you and you think, this is it? This is all that I am? It can be very sobering.
I finally got all my junk together and stuffed it in a U-Haul. The Strunks came into my now empty apartment, and as Mrs. Strunk said goodbye, her voice cracked a little.
That was all it took. I started crying, Mr. Strunk started crying and then all three of us where wailing in the middle of this barren studio. I kept crying all the way to Connecticut, going through a whole box of tissues as I drove along I-84.
I eventually lost touch with the Strunks and the last time I was in Stroudsburg, about a year ago, I went by my old apartment building and found different names on their buzzer. I know they must be gone by now, but I don't want to think about that. I can still believe they're still around, looking after me.
And So Goodbye...
Now I'm the one who's staying still while others move. It's funny, I used to play with my neighbor John's daughters, too, until they got older and I hardly see them any more.
That happened with my niece and her little friend, who are both 18 now, and I'm sure it'll happen with Maggie and Kelly. I feel like Puff the Magic Dragon.
The alley is quiet now, no sounds of my friends running up and down or giving their grandmother a hard time. Their apartment is dark and it feels so empty around here now.
My dear friend Desert Wench once gave me a great piece of advice: some people are only meant to walk on the path of life with us for a short time.
That is so true and sometimes that walk can be painfully short indeed. But with Maggie and Kelly or the Strunks, I thank God for every step.