Thursday, September 18, 2014

September carves a memory

Everything quickly shifts with the new school year. 

The neighborhood quiets in the absence of kids who are gone for a good portion of the day.

It’s not that their presence especially registers in the summer. 

Gone are the times when the young are seen and heard in outside play that can go on all day. 

So it’s not an abrupt change in activity that one notes. But somehow, nevertheless, with September a pronounced stillness settles over the tree-lined streets and rows of homes up and down the block.

My sister and I were commenting on this. I mentioned the older students who are at the curb each morning for their bus.

We usually don’t have the drapes open that early, but sometimes we do, and then there are glimpses of them as they step quickly in a marvel of timing that shaves it incredibly close. 

Teens perfect that timing, as we recall how it was with our kids as they met their bus.

She and I keep an interest in the young ones around us. They’re maybe not front and center in our attention at this juncture in our lives but they’re much more than background in our lives. 

They’re part of the important fabric of our surroundings. They shape our wider community.

We may not know all their names or instantly recognize them as neighbors if we were to meet in the store. But we’re aware of their young healthy forms as they walk past our houses. 

We mentally wish them well in their studies and elsewhere as the road of life moves them along.

“Probably our neighbors had the same interest in us when we walked to school,” I throw out to my sister. She likes that idea. She says yes, that’s probably so.

At grade school age we weren’t cognizant of those neighbors whose places we went by as we trudged along, a little family group, with an exact number of minutes to get  to the street corner so the school patrol would let us cross before the school bell rang.

There weren’t neighbor children to walk to school with. We were the school kids these neighbors saw day after day, always the same group, shuffling along if we had an early start, or hurrying our pace if late out the door.

They possibly noted us out their windows or from their gardens and knew the time by the consistency with which we came past.

She and I laughed when one of us brought up the name of an elderly bachelor neighbor and suggested he might have been among those who watched us go by.

He was a character and somewhat of a mystery but we accepted him from the few facts known of him. 

We didn’t know his age or if he was retired or if he had ever held a job. Kids generally accept what is, and don’t particularly wonder about what isn’t filled in.

That comes later when we have time to think about past acquaintances. 

We take them apart in their aspects as we have them in mind. Sometimes, and often, we see them differently afterwards and with greater respect. This comes from having experienced, in the meantime, a great deal of life.

This neighbor was nearest to us on our west. His home, a big white family residence shaded by venerable oaks, stood imposingly on a rise of land between our property and the elementary school.

The south slope of his hill, along which we filed past, because that’s where the sidewalk was, was banked with sumacs whose bright red cones will always be the picture of September to me.

He was apt to be outside in fair weather which is why we saw him frequently in the pleasant fall days or again in the mild weather of spring. He was almost always with a pipe, holding it or smoking it.

He lived with his two sisters who were also unmarried. He might have been in his 60s. The sisters were several years older. 

One can imagine that quite often he found the fresh air healthy for him. It provided a place of separation from domestic life inside. It was possibly the only place he was able to smoke his pipe.

They were Irish, and proud of it, and very musical. The mother, long deceased, had been organist at the Catholic church.

The oldest sister, lustrous white hair scraped back and secured in a bun low at the back of her head, was tall and had a commanding personality. 

She taught piano in the home. She was the extrovert, the one who liked to visit.

The younger sister, soft and round, gray hair wound in a braid on top of her head,  with sometimes a shawl over her sweater, nodded agreeably as her major contribution to the conversation.

She was a smiling, kindly, gentle presence as she kept her hands busy with crocheting or other handwork.

These scenes with the sisters are of the future when we got to know them better and went to see them on occasion. In grade school it was the bachelor brother we saw, and often heard, as he played on his xylophone. 

The xylophone was set up on a lower terrace of their yard. It was a short distance from their house. It faced our place. What he played traveled clearly to our yard.  

He had a pet Chihuahua which was his dear companion. Unfortunately for our ears the dog barked a lot. 

We heard considerable barking from that direction when we played outside after school. The barking and the music always let us know our neighbor and his dog were out.

It was our first acquaintance with a Chihuahua. We didn’t think much of this breed of dog. It exhibited nervous energy along with its constant yipping.

Not many families had pets in our part of town. Dogs that were pets tended to be pretty mellow or were hunting dogs trained for fall pheasant or duck hunting. 

A little dog all ambitious with noise to make was a novelty to us.  

Along with his music and his Chihuahua (whose name my sister remembers and tells me of when I forget - so handy to have another’s memory working for you!) this neighbor had one other interest that we knew of, and in later years our family was the recipient of the output of his pleasurable pastime.

He had a hobby of woodcarving. His carvings of birds and animals were whimsical and intimate. They were folk art but we didn’t know the term then.

He must have spent hours carving these various figures. He carved farm animals and more exotic creatures like giraffes with long thin wood necks. 

It’s easy to see him taking satisfying puffs of his pipe as he worked. Almost surely his dog was companionably at his side.

Prompted by the visit with my sister I ponder the long progression of students back to school each year to a new round of academics and playground friendships.

I consider the adults who, for as long as there have been students going to school, have observed and encouraged them from a distance or near at hand.

In the neighborhood hush of a new school year we listen with our ears and hearts. A new crop of scholars heeds the summons of the familiar peals of the school bell. 

Ro Giencke - September 18, 2014

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