February 18, 2009

Finding Hope

In our early 20s, when my husband and I were newlyweds, we went shopping for our first house. We had quite a list of what we wanted in a home, but we also were getting started in life. We opted for a neighborhood in the city proper versus the suburbs. We found a lovely old Tudor style home, with all sorts of charming details like built-in china cabinets, an eat-in kitchen, double oven, arched doorways, and hardwood floors. Even better was the two car garage.  Everything a young couple could want. The owners seemed especially eager to sell. They were a few years older than us, with one baby and another one on the way. It was the sort of home that in the past, people raised families in, but that somehow along the path of the American dream, bigger indeed became better. They were extremely happy to negotiate with us.

It should have been a warning sign when we asked what the neighbors were like, and the wife stammered; oh they are pretty nice and talked about someone 5 doors down incessantly. We were blinded by the home, the deal, and our good fortune and brushed aside her evasiveness. We moved in. We worked opposite shifts, so our door was constantly revolving. We kept to ourselves and began to make a tidy life for ourselves. We noticed some odd activity next door, but really were never home and outside at the same time often enough to pay much attention. Then one day, a neighbor walking by stopped and introduced herself. We stood on the sidewalk gabbing and she kept glancing nervously at the house next door. She dropped her voice and whispered, "So have you had any problems with...", as rolled her eyes towards the home next door. I had noticed kids crossing the street when they rode by pointing at that house, but other than that, I said, I hadn't really noticed anything unusual. She clammed up and said, "That's good." She refused to elaborate.

Later that afternoon, I struck up a conversation with the neighbor on the other side, trying to dig a bit. He says, "B & R (the couple who sold the house to us), had a lot of problems with Hope. “Hope?" I asked. "Yes, the woman on the other side. You haven't met Hope yet?"

"No, but I've seen a woman from time to time." The mystery deepened.

"Well," the neighbor said, "Hope is a bit crazy and the threatened to kill B & R's baby."

My heart started to race with terror as I tried to keep a calm fa├žade.  Instead I went to the Animal Protective League and adopted a dog. A German Shepherd mix. I figured if I was going to be alone at night with a potential murderer next door, I would at least have some protection.

The next day at work, I was lamenting to a lady I worked with, Annie. Annie was a widow, and very devoutly religious. I was practically in tears at having bought our first home, next to a murderer. Hysterical with fear, Annie grasped my trembling hand and said, "Just be kind to her."

I don't know why her words made such sense nor had such a calming effect, but I thought, what could it hurt? At the risk of sounding crazier than my neighbor, I believe her words to me were some sort of divine intervention. Being kind was the last thing on my mind. When I got home that afternoon, I took the dog out for a walk, and she came outside. I paid more attention to her than I ever had, and actually walked over to her yard, and introduced myself.

Up close, she probably was in her mid-40s, and lived with her diabetic father, who was in his 70s. Hope appeared to have gone to the Joan Crawford School of beauty, and was plastered with thick lipstick and war paint blush and bright blue eye shadow and matted hair. Clearly, the neighborhood crazy lady. But crazy is not dangerous, I kept mentally saying as a mantra. Crazy is ill. I introduced her to my "I swear she will be fierce someday" puppy.

I prayed that Hope would notice my newly acquired guard dog, who was licking her hands and wagging her tail enthusiastically. Hope said wait here, and walked robotically back into the house. She returned a moment later with a milk bone treat for my dog. I stood there and talked to Hope for about 15 minutes while my puppy rolled and played on the grass, and kept nipping at me for that walk. I asked Hope if she wanted to join us and she declined, but also smiled.

We lived in that house for seven wonderful years. We became good friends with her and her father. He was missing half of one of his feet from diabetes so we would shovel their walk in the winter and help mow the postage stamp sized lawn. He would be outside on nice summer days listening to either jazz music or the Indians on his radio, tending his deceased wife's rose garden.

I came to worry if I didn't hear that on a summer day. Hope had her good days and bad. I think the good days were the days she took her medicine and then put on her makeup. She would walk robotically up to the store for a soda and back and people would avoid her and point at her. She would always stop and ask if I wanted anything from the store before she left. She had her quirks, but she never came close to threatening us.

We learned from the "really terrific neighbor" that she was the neighborhood joke and that someone once turned a garden hose on her during one of her rants. The people who owned our house before would antagonize her regularly. How immature and cruel. I'm glad we got that house for a song. But even more, I am glad I listened to Annie.

Be Kind. Just Be Kind To Her. I wonder how many opportunities we pass in life when we are too quick to judge and too hasty to be cruel.

I will always remember Annie's words. They brought me... Hope.

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