by Jackie Mae
Mr. Somebody, for I do not know his name, was a kindly old man that lived across the street. A quiet sort of man; I never saw any visitors, never saw any celebrations. Like hosting a birthday party, or having a 4th of July barbecue, but nonetheless this man was very important to me in my “informative” years growing up. Mr. Somebody lived across the street, in a home much like mine in some ways, but very different in others.
The size of his home was probably, more or less, much like the home my family lived in. A typical rambler, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small living and dining room, with a very small eat-in kitchen. Our eat-in kitchen meant you could fit the table and still walk around if you had the table up against the wall. When the family was prepared to eat, with all the food on the table and the place settings arranged, my father would bring the table forward toward the middle of the small room, so us kids could scoot in around the back.
No one left the dinner table until excused, with plates clean. I remember on more than one occasion sending my yucky peas to the floor for our dog to happily receive. I also remember having to clean up peas from the floor that our dog didn’t seem to want.
Mr. Somebody’s house may have been the same typical size that we owned but his house was very different. His home’s entrance was grand beside ours. He didn’t have any number of hooks hanging just behind the front door, with hats, gloves, jackets, shoes, and practically anything else one would leave just in case one needed it in a hurry. No, Mr. Somebody’s entrance was impeccably clean and neat. I don’t know where he kept all his things.
His living room, which I only visited once or twice, was where Mrs. Somebody reined. She wore a dress, always, even up until the time she went to bed I imagine. Mrs. Somebody never had anything but high heels on—never. Her lips always a deep shade of rouge. I pondered how she would look without all that makeup. Maybe a little bit like my mom, when she washed her face and had moisturizer on, right before bedtime.
Mr. Somebody and I became friends one day after he noticed that I did not hurry by, as all the other kids normally did, but instead carefully looked at each and every flower he had strategically placed in the bed. The bed ran the length of the chain link fence, but just out of reach of little prying hands, who wanted nothing more than to pluck his treasures and take it home as a present for mother.
I was different. I believe this was the case then and now. I didn’t want to pluck his treasures. I knew that meant it would die. I looked at his treasures with wonder and awe, along with many unanswered questions. Did it reseed itself or were there runners unground that spread out? Some of the blooms were fully opened others were still waiting. I wanted to know how long it took for it to open its blooms. Maybe, if I could remember the position and height of each of the stems, I could calculate in my nine year-old brain how long it took to bloom. That would be cool I determined so I watched its progression each day that I could run across the street to look.
I always missed the bloom part. That saddened me. I wanted to see it bloom. Why did I always miss it? Why couldn’t the flower just let me see one time, just one time, it bloom. But to my dismay, it never happened.
Mr. Somebody approached his fence saying he had watched me watching his flowers grow. I told him I loved his flowers and I wanted to grow up to be a gardener someday.
He should have thought I was silly because our yard across the street was anything but a garden. We had fairly good grass, at least we did in July when all the crabgrass came in to fill all the bare spots. But he didn’t treat me like I was a silly little girl, with silly dreams, instead he said, “You will make a fine gardener I believe.”
At first glance, Mr. Somebody didn’t seem to have very much stuff. He reused just about everything. Old shirts were his rags; old pipe cleaners became a suet feeder. I even saw milk jugs strung up for bird nests. Mr. Somebody simply didn’t have the need for all the things we had and he didn’t believe in just throwing away all the trash. He led a simple life he said. His wisdom extended to all areas of life. “Why have ten balls when all you need is one? And…I have had these boots since I turned seventy-one.” Yeah, he sure did know about worldly stuff I thought.
The other kids, the ones on our block, thought him to be just an old man. Moved too slowly; and didn’t know much either. I felt somewhat embarrassed the first couple of occasions I spent time talking to him. I would sometimes run across the street before us kids had plan to meet. But what was once embarrassment later became, if not somewhat slowly, a shared love.
He did indeed move slower than anyone I had ever met. Even my really old grandmother could move fast when she wanted to. Mr. Somebody was patient, slow, never in a hurry.
Our friendship grew over time. Once he was sure I didn’t want to steal his flowers to fill my mother’s vase he invited me into his sacred domain. It was a wonderland of plush, green grass. Hedges leading the way, climbing roses overhanging the trellises, tall grasses of every kind, even a palm tree awaited me in his yard.
I was only invited to the front of his immaculate garden. Just steps beyond the front gate. Oh, how I wanted to run to the back; the backyard that I had only imagined how grand it must be. I know now he was testing me but back then I was confused. I wasn’t quite sure if I liked him all that much. I wasn’t sure if he was being mean. Something—something kept me coming back again and again until the day he offhandedly asked me if I would like to see his backyard.
“Yes, Yes,” I replied. He just smiled at me. I’m not sure if I had ever seen him smile.
By this time most of the kids thought I was nuts to be hanging out with an old man when I could be playing school, riding my bicycle, or playing freeze tag. It made no sense to them and maybe not even to me, but I kept coming back. Patience had won out, it was a good lesson learned. Now, I would finally get to see his oasis that he loved and cared for every day.
It was the most beautiful garden this nine year old had ever seen. One part of his yard was full of hanging, climbing, and trailing plants. Most of which had no spent blooms of any kind on them. No partially brown or torn leaves. This beautiful spot came together with a wall of plants on both sides to form one small opening that led into the next section of the garden. So it was like walking through a small tunnel, made out of hedge, to reveal the secret garden that lay beyond.
Not even to this day have I witnessed such a splendidly designed space. It was a formal garden that lay behind the “hedge tunnel,” as I used to call it. I spent more and more of my time there offering to help with small chores.
He showed me how to plant a seed; how to care for roses. He taught me why trees and plants are important. His care and attention to the all wildlife touched my heart. His gentle touch and gentle nature was a beacon of light to me.
Sometime later, I’m not sure when, he came out less and less. Around the same time our family decided to move. I became busy. Life is busy.
Much later, after college and kids I came back to see the old homestead. I took pictures of our house from way back when. It now had an attached garage and a new white picket fence. It looked well kept. Something warned me, a small nagging feeling and it was then my attention flew across the street. A silent scream formed in my mind. Tears sprang to my eyes.
Mr. Somebody’s house lay in disrepair, like no one had painted the house or trimmed the bushes since Mr. Somebody had lived there. I knew he must be deceased. I got out of my car. I took pictures, too many I know. I just couldn’t believe it, I needed proof. I could see the Zoysia grass still clinging to life. The short retaining wall in the back was still standing but there were a few missing bricks. A junkie car with parts lying on the ground sat in the driveway. The steps to his front entrance needed to be demolished and replaced.
I cried for Mr. Somebody. All his hard work, his loving and gentle touch, all seemed gone. All for nothing I thought.
Many somebodies have come and gone my way, but Mr. Somebody taught me patience. I really wish I could remember his name.