One Last Cup of Tea

Those of you who read the Good Housekeeping article last November, know of the special friendship my neighbor Shelby and I share. For 24 years we have been the best kind of neighbors, sharing keys and alarm codes, joy and heartache, endless cups of tea and talk. By week’s end a moving van will be pulling up in front of her house. I cannot imagine my life without her up the street. I wrote the words below some weeks ago, while she was away on vacation, a dry run for what is too soon to come.

For the last time I went over and organized my neighbor’s mail, culling bills and personal letters, stacking the magazines, segregating the circulars, candidate flyers and Bed Bath & Beyond coupons into their own pile. This is something we have done for each other for years when one of us is out of town. That, in addition to occasionally watering one another’s flowers, and leaving a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread in the fridge so there’s what to eat the morning after arriving home from being away. We never repaid each other cash for these courtesies. “Put it in the friendship bank” is a phrase Shelby taught me early on.

I was over there to measure the rug in the guest room for her. Someone is interested in buying it, but she hoped to take it to their new home when they move next month. I took the necessary measurements, maneuvering around the sleigh bed she was so excited to find at an estate sale a few years ago. On one wall were photos of her and her three sisters, matted in one frame. My husband had snapped great shots of them all at her older daughter’s wedding last fall and she was thrilled to be able to create this sister montage.

To appease the real estate agents and not alienate potential buyers, the house had been swept clear the things that make a house a home: the family photos, trinkets and memorabilia. Cleared from the baby grand were the wedding photos of all three kids and the photo of her son, daughter-in-law and first grandchild. The mantle was wiped clean but in my mind’s eye I saw all the family stockings and the Christmas tree that stood guard each year.

The tray that I gave her for her last birthday was still in the kitchen, holding necessities: two hand lotions and a bottle of liquid soap, a pill bottle, a sponge. The tray is emblazoned with hens. Even if they notice it, her new neighbors will not know that hens were the motif in her kitchen before it was renovated. For old time’s sake I watered the begonia vines although I know a neighbor boy is caring for the garden while they are away. I deadheaded the daylilies, anyway, because even in the garden her touch is so present.

Speared into the soil were a circus of art fair finds: a frog with a crown, a china tea cup, the winged Labrador we gave her the Christmas after their second Lab, the black one named Smudge, had to be put down. Since I have known her, Shelby has made that wrenching compassionate decision a half dozen times. The trauma of putting down our dog and cat within months of each other gives me pause every time I think about acquiring a new one. But Shelby’s love for animals outweighs her heart’s pain. I’ve no doubt that a new kitty will soon be skittering around her new house, taking up to space on the couch where Norman held furry court for a decade plus.

Out the window in the family room birds fluttered at the feeders Shelby keeps perennially stocked. It is a scene in constant motion as the birds feast on seeds and the squirrels below scavenge the hulls. The feeders are always bright with goldfinches, birds we never had until she put out the food they like best. For just a moment or two, I sat on the couch and watched the avian show. Shelby inherited her mom’s passion for nature and backyard fauna. I never knew Mrs. Salmon, but will never forget learning  her tradition of placing orphaned mittens on a window ledge come spring so the birds would have soft peckings of yarn to weave through their twig nests.

I’m sure the new family will be nice. We’re a neighborly block and I’ll bring over brownies and lemonade on moving day. But they have teens and our kids are gone. We won’t be trading stories about toilet training, commiserating about the world’s problems, or adolescent angst. We likely won’t mosey over to one another’s homes on quiet afternoons for a cup of tea and talk.

When the moving van pulls away from the curb, Shelby and I will begin writing a new chapter of this quarter-century friendship of ours. Skype didn’t even exist when we became friends. Ditto email. We’ll put both to good use. And since she’s an old fashioned girl like I am, I’m sure we’ll exchange letters, too. We will visit them back east, and they will come to us when we spend time out west. They’ll take us sailing and we’ll take them hiking. A new chapter.

“Do you have good toys?” her daughter asked me in 1988 when I went over to introduce myself and see if our new neighbors needed a hand, or someone to entertain their little one while they directed the movers. Yes, we had good toys. But over the years we came to have something better, rarer even — good neighbors who became family. Our block will be emptier, but not so my heart, nor the friendship bank.

Still and all, I shall miss my neighbor so.

This pretty cup, one of a set of four, Shelby surprised me with one day.

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13 thoughts on “One Last Cup of Tea

  1. Cindy La FerleC

    This brought me to tears. I’ve been blessed to have a couple of wonderful neighbor-friends like this. As you so sweetly noted, neighbors like Shelby are more like family, and I believe your dear Shelby will be part of your life in some way forever. Still, I can only imagine how much you will miss her! Hugs.

  2. Kim Hudolin

    What a beautiful message. If only we could all find a friendship like the one shared by you and Shelby.

  3. Annie Salmon

    Oh Debra-I am weeping for your loss of physical closeness with my sweet sister. Thank you for giving me a picture of her that is different and yet the same as mine. She is MY hero!

    1. Debra

      Oh Annie. And what I didn’t even mention are the three Salmon sisters whom I have
      come to know and love over the years, too.

  4. Elissa Schwartz

    What a wonderful connection you two share! It is great news that you will continue to see each other and communicate in other ways.

    My dear former next door neighbor, Ben, moved to San Diego almost three years ago to be near one of his sons after his lovely wife of approximately 60 years passed away. Ben, Shirley and I were good neighbor friends and there was even more contact between us after Shirley died and Ben was alone. I would have Ben over for dinner and he would take my son, Jared, and I out to restaurants. Shirley was the computer person in the family, so with her loss came the loss of computer access in Ben’s home. I printed his boarding pass each time he traveled and I was happy to do it. Jared fixed every technological glitch that occurred with his TV and other eletronic devices.

    I felt a sincere loss when he moved, but I understood it. The move did not disrupt our friendship, it simply changed it. We continued to talk on the telephone about once a month, which allowed us to keep up with each other’s lives.

    I last spoke with Ben in early May. At the very beginning of June I learned he passed away at the age of 92. He learned he had an agressive form of lung cancer after we last spoke and three weeks later he was gone. I am thankful for the friendship we had while we shared a lot line and then were connected by phone lines and I miss him dearly. Just as with your neighbor’s love being stronger than her hurt, I am pained by the loss of Ben, but so happy that we were a part of each other’s lives. I felt the same with Shirley, as well, but it has been more emotional with both of them now gone.

    1. Debra

      We will indeed continue to see each other and use every means possible (save carrier pigeon) to stay in touch.

  5. Kay Osborn

    What a beautiful tribute of a wonderful relationship between you and Shelby. Being the across the street neighbor for years, I loved watching your friendship, and that of your families, develop and grow into something so special. In spite of the distance, it will continue, and you will find many ways to share much together in the future.

    Ironically, one of my dearest friends to this day lived in your home before the Chamblises, as you know. They only lived there for 3 years before moving to Philadelphia, but we became very close as couples and families in those few short years. After the move, we continued to talk and visit each other’s homes often. Since then we have traveled together, shared the joys of children’s weddings, the sadness of family losses, etc., etc. And guess what? Many, many years later, we both have homes in the Savannah area, so we see each other often and are now enjoying each other’s gandchildren. One never knows what the future will bring, and I know you and Shelby will remain very close.

    1. Debra

      Kay, what beautiful story and how amazing that you and the Gales now live near one another in Savannah! I remember when they came back to visit one year. Something about this block.
      I just told Shelby that we will be sharing notes of grandchildren (once I can catch up!)

  6. Michele Olsson

    Debra – I remember thinking after the last wedding, when will I be able to see you again. I thought it would be while visiting Shelby and taking TJ to Northern Michigan, however, Maine has changed that plan. I hope that we will get the opportunity to see you, even without my aunt and uncle in Michigan. We leave to take TJ to NMU on the 22nd, they close on their house while we are dropping TJ off…timing really is everything.

    Thank you for sharing the stories, I am glad to have the memories.

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