My family moved to Texas from Virginia, landing in what is still my mother’s house, on November 3, 1981. As was my wont with all of our moves, I went around to the neighbors and announced my arrival. I was my own welcoming committee.
One neighbor opened the door and freaked me right the hell out. She was old and gnarled, and her fingers were twisted and stained black, and when she spoke it was like she was forcing her voice up through broken glass and barbed wire. The interior of her home was decorated like a 70s Black Angus restaurant. I panicked, but remembered my Girl Scout manners and tried not to look horrified. Then, I got out of there as fast as I could.
Later, I learned that Leeantha (Lee) had undergone a tracheotomy and was told she would never speak again. She showed them–it sounded like every word hurt, but she spoke, and spoke, and spoke. She wasn’t as old as she looked, either, only in her late 60s, and though her fingers were bent with arthritis, the ungodly hue had been caused by dye, not dead limbs as I had feared. She turned out to be a very invested neighbor, and even babysat me for the first couple of years we lived there. You know what I mean by invested, don’t you? You have a neighbor like that, too.
I loved Lee as much as a kid can love anyone who wants to tear her away from MTV and force her onto a dairy farm in the middle of summer vacation. That’s quite a lot, actually.
Lee’s family was interesting in the italicized meaning of the word, and as time went on, it fell into disrepair. Her house was always pristine, though. So was her yard. She razed it of trees in the early 90s, hating leaves, and often insisted that my parents do the same. When she thought my mother’s hand planted St. Augustine grass was too tall (it needed to be 3 inches high before getting its first mowing), she thundered over into our yard on her riding mower and tore it right out of the ground with helpful enthusiasm.
I visited my mother this weekend, and was worried to see that Lee’s yard was knee high. I asked if Mom had heard anything. See, Mom’s work hours and Lee’s waking hours are at odds, so she hadn’t been able to rouse her neighbor to answer the door when she would try to check on her. Mom said she hadn’t, and she was trying to find out what was going on. She had asked a couple of other neighbors who didn’t know anything, but who had seen her son and granddaughter coming and going.
This morning, my mother called me.
Lee died six weeks ago.
I said that her family had fallen into disrepair. Apparently, her son tired of her and asked the State to take over her care. She was taken into a nursing home, where she died.
Obviously it isn’t a block party kind of neighborhood.
My mother was upset that she hadn’t known, though there wasn’t much way she could have. We had both seen family members coming and going from the house, so other than the lawn, there was no reason to think anything was wrong with Lee. I was always a little afraid that Lee would die in the house and no one would find her until her cats had eaten away half her face. (Reason #342 why I will never have cats.)
“Robert had her cremated,” my mother mourned. “She didn’t want to be cremated.”
“Mom, she’s dead. She doesn’t know she was cremated,” I reminded gently, worried that she was going to take it the wrong way and ask me if I was going to have her cremated against her wishes. Then I would have to tell her my plans for her demise. My mother is going to become jewelry. Better than worrying that her grave is being mowed, or thinking about worms.
I also reminded her that in a home, Lee was around people, getting fed, and didn’t die alone. But I am sorry we didn’t know where she was. We would have visited. At the nursing home, there’s always someone there to open the door.