I grew up beside a remarkable woman whom I came to regard as another grandmother. It didn’t start out that way; when my family first moved into our first house, Mrs. Michie was just a nosy neighbor. She was the woman who had to use a walker to get around and called me daily to bring her the newspaper from the yard, or called me to bring in her groceries. She went to the grocery store twice a week, but she couldn’t manage to bring them up from her garage. I would go on to work at the same grocery store and would often bag her groceries, drive home on a break, and unload them from her mammoth Buick.
Over the years, we grew close. I stopped resenting having to stop whatever I was doing to help her, and I began looking forward to talking with her. She lived with her mother, whom we called Mrs. Smith, until Mrs. Smith died. The two of them bickered as only a mother and her grown daughter can bicker. I spent hours in their living room, petting their two cats, and listening to them tell stories.
When I met Mrs. Michie, I thought of her as old (the walker did nothing to dissuade me from that). But she was in her mid-fifties. I later learned she had broken her hip shortly after her husband died, and because of her grief, she didn’t recover as she should have. She didn’t exert the effort in rehab that might have resulted in her being able to walk without support. I don’t think she had it in her after her husband died. His death dealt her a blow from which she never fully recovered.
Mrs. Michie had two grown daughters who lived in town, and they helped her out all the time, but they didn’t live next door. Whether it was getting her paper, unpacking her groceries, putting up her Christmas tree, or raking her yard, I was called upon. I still complained from time to time, and occasionally, Mrs. Michie and I argued. We had a real relationship.
I stayed in close contact with my neighbor through college. One day, my dad called me and said Mrs. Michie had died on the operating table in the middle of surgery. I was heartbroken. It was surreal going back home, looking at her house, and realizing she was gone.
I think of her often, and one day the following poem came to me. Wherever she is, I hope she knows I love and miss her.
(quick note: one of Mrs. Michie’s favorite phrases was “pardon my French,” which she offered as cursing. It always made me laugh.)
1993 Calls 2018, and I Answer
“Pardon my French,” says my neighbor’s ghost, “but fuck this.”
Fair enough, I think, looking around her ruined house for her
cats that I’m pretty sure wandered off and died in the woods.
The windows in the kitchen droop like sad mouths, and the TV,
once teeming with Alabama football, is a mute troll in the corner.
Another ghost, my neighbor’s mother, asks for her false teeth,
but I’m not brave enough to venture into the vanishing bathroom.
Instead, I gather them both in the living room and tell them
their children and grandchildren should be here soon and I don’t know
exactly what to do because I’m just the kid next door who can barely
finish his math homework—or at least I was. Now, I’m forty-four
and have kids of my own and a house in another state, and yet I’m
back here in this house that doesn’t exist anymore, trying to help.
“You’ll wait with us, won’t you?” my neighbor asks, offering me
a Coke, and I tell her of course, I’ll wait as long she needs me to.
She and her mother settle on the sofa and train their otherworldly
eyes toward the picture window, waiting for people who may never come.