It all started 18 years ago with a lemon meringue pie.
I was expecting our first child when my husband, Joe, and I bought our small Cape-style house in the suburbs. We worked full-time jobs requiring long commutes into the city — both of us leaving before seven and returning home after dark. With no time to get to know the neighbors, our house didn’t quite feel like home. And then our daughter was born. My sisters tied helium balloons proclaiming “It’s a Girl!” to our front porch railing. The next day our neighbor Hank knocked on the door, offering congratulations and a lemon meringue pie that he had baked himself.
Hank, a single retiree whose grown kids had long since moved out, didn’t linger. He said he remembered what it was like to have a newborn in the house and was sure we were busy and exhausted (we were both). He dropped off the pie and headed back across the street.
Over the years Hank’s driveway became a welcome stopping point during daily walks around the neighborhood, first with babies in strollers, then with toddlers in wagons. It seemed as if he was always out front washing his car or in the back tending his garden. I would peek around the house and yell a “Hello,” hoping for a response.
Later, he helped me pass the time during those seemingly endless days when the kids rode their bikes, clattering along on unsteady training wheels, back and forth, back and forth, in any weather, up and down our quiet street. And when the kids were older, the tall maple in his front yard became home base for flashlight tag, the children racing about on hot summer nights, shouting, “I’m safe!” “I’m on base!” “I got you, you’re out!” And, of course, they couldn’t help but notice that his picket fence made a perfect backstop for pitching practice and impromptu softball games. The chalk strike zone target is still just barely visible.
We’ve shared a lot with Hank: good news, bad news, Christmas dinners, swap-shop lawnmowers, power tools, and hand-me-down toys from his grandkids. A skilled gardener, Hank grew tomatoes, squash, and herbs that became the undeserved summer luxury of our family dinner table. He has — with wisdom and humor — supported us through what is, at best, the happy chaos of raising four kids and, at worst, damn hard work, with some painful losses thrown in.
Naturally, I felt nostalgic when our eldest turned 18, now bound for college. I talked with Hank the day before we drove her to school and asked him to keep an eye on the house. “So, that’s it, then,” he said. “She’s leaving.” He seemed a little stunned and also sad, as if this all crept up on him, too. But mostly he seemed proud.
I meant to remind her to say goodbye. I really did. But we’d been preoccupied with last-minute shopping trips. Not to mention the laundry. Oh, the laundry. At the start of summer, it had seemed as if we had forever to say goodbye. And then the summer was gone. We woke early on a Wednesday and packed the minivan, heading for the highway and points west. But we made a last stop for blessed, much-needed caffeine. And, of course — one of those “well, now, of course” moments that seems to be divined from somewhere else — there was Hank, sitting in the back of the Dunkin’ Donuts with his coffee and newspaper. Turns out the first person to welcome my daughter to town got to be the last one to see her off, after all. “Off you go, kiddo. Be good.”
Lynne Clifford is a writer and editor in Medfield. Send comments to email@example.com.TELL YOUR STORY. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.