In February, the subject of love comes up as the valentines appear in stores. There are many kinds of love—for friends and community, for a spouse, for life itself. I learned about all of these from my neighbors when I was a child.
My parents built their house next to Art and Kate’s home, a good 12 years before I was born. It probably never occurred to them that they would be a powerful influence on the little girl next door. I seriously doubt they ever consciously thought of themselves as people of integrity with many life lessons to teach.
Their house was no bigger than a cottage, a snug little place filled with books, garden produce and a welcoming air. I loved visiting there. As a young adult I realized Art and Kate’s way of living was a great example of living simply, a phrase not in use in my childhood. They had what they needed. They enjoyed what they had. They cared for it, kept it in good repair. They did not seem to need or long for more. It was enough.
They were good neighbors and community members. Our small town had a volunteer fire department and Art was a firefighter. When the signal sounded that there was a fire (a whistle from the paper mill), we would instantly hear Art’s back door slam and his car start up. He was off to help someone in great need. Once when I was six, I cut my finger quite badly. My mother quickly wrapped a clean towel around my hand, and took me next door, for Art was, of course, trained in first aid. I sat on a kitchen chair, crying. Art was kind, squatting down in front of me, putting on a powder to stop the bleeding, applying a clean bandage which he had cut to be the right size for my tiny finger. What I remember now is not the pain but Art’s calm cheerfulness.
Most of the people in my small childhood circle were Catholic, but I knew at an early age that Kate and Art belonged to the Lutheran Church. I understood it was an important to them as our church was to my family. They too left early every Sunday morning for church, and their involvement with church activities was part of conversations between Kate and my mother. About once a year, they would have us over for dinner and my parents would reciprocate. Which religion’s meal grace was said depended on which house we were at. I was intrigued to listen to their prayer, and I was very aware of their polite and attentive silence as we said ours. I understood from all four adults at these meals that respect for another’s religion was very important.
Perhaps it was their marriage that had the most influence on me. They were compatible, but quite different from each other. I observed when I was perhaps twelve that they truly enjoyed each other’s company. They gardened together, and then canned their produce together. I saw them mowing their large yard together and I ate meals that they had cooked together.
When they visited our house, they sat next to each other. Art usually put his arm on the back of the couch, comfortably near Kate’s shoulders. After we had talked and laughed for a while, Kate would always say, “Well, Arthur, it’s time to go home.” These were always cheerful visits, and I would think, “When I grow up, I want to have a marriage like Kate and Art’s.” Years later, I told my future husband all about these good neighbors and their example.
After I had grown up, Kate became ill and died. I know her religion was a comfort to her in those difficult last days. I hope it was for Art too. But now he was so very alone. He coped, of course, but his smile was forever sad. When he visited, he sat by himself on the couch, and after he had talked with us for a while, he would say, “Well, Arthur, it’s time to go home.”
Art outlived Kate by many years. When I heard of his death, I grieved, remembering my good neighbor. I thought of the time Art disentangled my brother from the chain on my bike after his jeans got caught when I was giving him a ride. I remembered all the Popsicles I had enjoyed from Art’s freezer. I treasured the firefighter’s hat he had passed on to my children.
But still, I could not be sad for him. He had lived a good life. And I had a strong feeling that at the moment of his death, Kate was there, saying, “Well, Arthur, it’s time to go home.”