Arthur is...was...what I want to be when I am old. He was a family man, a farmer, a businessman. He grew tomatoes every summer, and he shared them with his neighbors. He had a wife, Ethel, who will be alone now, and I don't even know how to tell her how sorry I am, or what he meant to me.
Arthur was the first person to welcome us to North Carolina several years ago, when we made the move 4 hrs south and three cultures removed from the mind-numbing effects of Northern Virginia's D.C. suburbs. He and Ethel came over and knocked at the kitchen door, basket of fruit in hand. Arthur taught us the history of the house we'd moved into, gave us the stories of the neighborhood, and made me feel as if we weren't really Northern invaders in this quiet, genteel N.C. neighborhood.
As the weather turned warmer, and the gardening duties of spring befuddled me, Arthur dragged out tools and talked to me about the trees and bushes and flowers Mrs. X, who'd owned the house originally, had planted. He advised on how to keep the birds and squirrels happy, and helped me save the cherry tree from what I can only call "black ook disease."
He introduced my boys to his grandchildren, and he kept watch over us.
We had a party when Derby Day arrived, a way for such anti-social homebodies as we are to say, "Thank you for letting us come here." to the neighborhood at large. Peggy, the dominant wife-half of the couple across the street, put out the word, and we met lots of neighbors for the first time. It's not a young neighborhood, the average age of our visitors that Derby Day was probably 65 or higher. Most of them just stopped in to see what we'd done with the place, and to get a look at the Jewish-Catholic oddity that had moved into the solidly Southern Baptist, mostly retirement aged, community. Most of them were a little taken aback at the seafood eggplant dip, the KY style burgoo, and the real mint juleps floating freely about the house *in broad daylight*.
But not Arthur. He got comfortable on the basement couch and charmed my work colleagues, my husband, and my children with his stories. He stayed for the entire day, and left late into the evening with a load of burgoo and derby pie leftovers. He was so very happy that day.
I wish we'd had another party the second year -- that we'd given him something else in return for his neighborliness. For just being there. Something has gone out of my life today, something more than just the man who lived next door. You see, Arthur was diagnosed with leukemia last spring. We all thought he was going to die. The doctors at Duke were sure of it, Ethel and her large brood of children were preparing for it. And Arthur fooled them all. He survived the chemo, the illnesses that beset him when the treatments destroyed his immune system, and he brought tomatoes to our door in July. He was living proof that my beloved grandma could conquer her health issues, too.
My children ask about those tomatoes every time we go to the grocery store, and I don't even know if I ever told him what they meant to me. When I told the boys today that he had passed on, their laughter stopped, and my oldest looked at me with sad, dark eyes.
"But mommy...does that mean no more tomatoes in summertime?"