I never saw it coming, becoming the old lady on the block. Circle of life and all, I get it, but some neighbors got it before I did, calling me ma’am. Asking if I was saving the treehouse for the grandkids. Wondering if I wanted to sell the mower.
When I moved to number 5, first house up the knoll on the left of a dead-end drive filled with empty nesters and multi-generations with the same name inhabiting the same house for decades. I was the young mom. Me, approximately 18 months pregnant with kid four, and three big sisters firmly of the age, “I do it myself” and then proceed to do so.
Velma* across the street would sit on her stoop, and wait for signs of life that spilled from our yard to hers. Noise and lots of plastic toys, broken bikes, and balls that escaped gloves and nets, rolling down the driveway, bouncing across the road, not looking both ways – caught in overgrown forsythia in the neighbor’s yard, visible only when winter comes.
“Kaaatiee,” she sing-songs, if my front door even made an illusion of opening, and there’d she’d be, waving waving waving, Katie-ing, Katie-ing, katie-ing. I wave back.
Sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, I pretend not to hear.
“Come on over, I have something for the little ones,” she insists and I waddle across, accepting tomatoes, Italian Anisette cookies, a bottle of her husband Stanley’s* homemade wine – “for later,” she winks. “Couple of days, I’d say, eh?” patting my overdue belly with the familiarity an older woman can assume over her past.
Back then, I thought Velma was older – much older – shame on me, when she was most likely my age. Velma is an old lady name then, now, and always — there are no babies being named Velma today. Perhaps Velma was born 60 – looking old when she was young, and young when she finally got old.
And yet 60 isn’t as old, I know that now, but the neighbors remind me, I’m sadly mistaken. Sixty is still old to those who are not.
People from my neighborhood recognize me out running, often stop me when I’m walking the dog to marvel at how far I’ve gone. Amazed at what? My ability to still walk or the fearless abandonment to travel so far from home. “Wow, a long way from home, aren’t ya?” They roll down their windows and marvel. “Say hello to Miss Kate,” while the backseat tinted window lowers fand a little head from a car seat will or will not wave or smile, face sticky with orange snacks and a juice box clutched in a dirty hand.
That’s what I made my kids call older people when they were little. Like we were from Charleston or Galveston or insert-southern-town-ton that mandates respect to elders with a polite Miss or Mister first-name — wow, such manners.
Why do I feel the opposite?
When Velma lived across the street, she made neighborhood kids tell a joke on Halloween; no exceptions. “Make me laugh,” she’d command, and grab her sides and with laughter, at each of the knock-knocks, why did the banana, silly nothingness she heard again and again, year after year, and yet each little ghost and gremlin giddy with pride at the accomplishment.
She rewarded their efforts greatly: trick o’ treaters received full-size Snickers, and Velma was always the most favorite of neighbors, making the rest of us look bad with our itty-bitty bite-sized cavity creators.
I bet every neighborhood has a Velma. Or had. And no doubt will again.
Now I’m the old lady keeping my eyes peeled for the next generation. My house quiet and empty, I listen for training wheels headed up the street, mom with one hand on the back of the bike seat, the other reigning in a rogue puppy, commands of “peddle-peddle-peddle” calls me from the office or kitchen, and I rush onto the stoop, hoping to catch a glimpse before the family passes me by.
If I sit long enough, I see the grass needs mowing. My own dad said you couldn’t watch grass grow, but I beg to differ.
I have a riding mower, a John Deere that cost twice as much as my first car, and when the guy sold it to us, when we were an us, and I said this better last 20 years.
But we haven’t.
I like to mow the lawn. It’s like cleaning the bathroom – there’s a before. And an after. A difference made, a footprint, someone has been here. Evidence of accomplishment; a job well done if you don’t look too closely.
The new neighbor with lots of tattoos gives me a neighborly wave when I mow. He bought Velma’s house last year and moved in with his pregnant partner, and now is a COVID laid-off victim and a stay-at-home dad to a super cute little girl.
I hear them sometimes, from all the way across the street, laughing and playing – if I listen long enough.
It seems he’s always outside when I’m doing the grass, as we said growing up, or mowing the lawn, as I say now, or “who does your lawn?” as many of my suburban friends inquire now that I’m a me instead of a we.
I do. Me. This girl right here.
It can’t be a coincidence, and just as I do make the turn near the mailbox, he’s there on his lawn with that bubbly new baby, eyeballing me as I crisscross the front lawn on the John Deere, earphones plugged in, podcasts updating me on what else I need to know today, carefully following the lines, alternating where the blades go, where the grass blows, or at least trying to.
I’m surprised when I make the turn at the mailbox, grass blowing into the street like confetti. The new dad trots across the road, waving, getting my attention: “Kate-kate-kate,” he shouts over the roar, like an engine that won’t start. I look up, smile. Turn down the throttle. Cut the blades. Someone to talk to.
He wants to buy my tractor. So he can do his own lawn. With my tractor.
“Whaddya say, wanna sell it?” he asks.
“s’cuse me? What? This one? No, sorry. Not for sale. Sorry, neighbor. I do my own lawn,” and I crank the blades back to life and bounce back up the lawn. “I’ll let you know if that changes,” I yell over the engine, confused on why he would think I don’t want to mow my own lawn while I am actually mowing it.
Oh. I get it.
Now I’m the old lady across the street.
Later, I watch the sunset from the stoop, glass of wine, dog on my lap. From the open windows across the street, I hear pots clanging. Must be making dinner. Cooing and laughing and crying, and I sit. The voyeuristic intoxicating kaleidoscope of sounds and memories spill up and down the street, and I don’t know why I’m sitting but still I sit. Waiting. Maybe for their front door to open, just a bit, so I can bring over tomatoes, maybe some banana bread, or a bottle of wine – something to celebrate their very own beginnings of firsts.
But their door closes shut, the sounds muffle and quiet. And the sun goes down, so I head inside, alone, remembering fondly the not so long agos, and pledge to mask up and deliver a tomato plant to Velma and Stanley, now living in a one-level condo just across town, but a million miles away, but I know it’s just right around the corner.
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Jen Sage-Robison writing prompt June 2020: I never saw it coming