A Very Worthwhile Project

Today I wanted to share one of my short stories that will soon be part of a collection I’ve been working on for years. I want you to  know about a dear woman who lived next door to my family while I was growing up. She was an extraordinary person who didn’t think she was anything special.

 

 

A Special Neighborhood Watch

2012 Copyright by Barbara Celeste McCloskey

 

The thump of car doors slamming came from next door when it was still dark. Next door in Mrs. Sheil’s yard, I heard unrecognizable voices. My curiosity made me jumped out of bed and peek out the curtains. What I saw was disturbing. Two police officers and Mrs. Calvino, another neighbor, were standing in the yard. Next the rescue squad arrived and parked behind the squad cars. I dressed in a panic. Something was terribly wrong.

By the time I got next door, the officers, rescue squad crew and Mrs. Calvino were inside the house. I rang the doorbell and a burly officer came to the door. He stood as tall as a basketball player. My eyes moved up from his black belt with the gun holster and bully club, to his shiny silver buttons, his badge, and finally to his head that sat on his wide shoulders. My mouth became too dry to speak.

He said in a ten-ball voice, “What do you want kid?”

I cleared my throat and my voice cracked. “Is Mrs. Sheil OK?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Barbie from next door.”

“Go home. There’s nothing you can do here.” The cop slammed the door.

I felt like he had slapped my face. My stomach felt sick and my face got hot. I banged on the door again, this time I wouldn’t be dismissed.

The same cop answered the door. “Didn’t I tell you to go home, little girl?”

“Yes, but—

“This is no place for kids. Go home.” He slammed the door again.

I screamed, “I’m not a kid. I’m sixteen, and Mrs. Sheil is my friend. Let me in!” Not knowing what more I could do without getting into real trouble, I walked away from the house with my eyes focused on the ground; I shuffled my feet in the brown, crunchy leaves and let my tears of fear and humiliation drip down my cheeks. I walked to the sidewalk that stretched in front of Mrs. Sheil’s house and stood there like a sentry. I made up my mind I was not leaving without understanding what was going on.

I sat in dry leaves leaned up against one of the tall maples that lined our street, and memories of Mrs. Sheil flashed through my head. She had lived next door to my family for over ten years, and since I was six years old, she was always in my life.

She wasn’t like other adults. I could tell her anything, and she’d keep my confidence. She enjoyed hearing about my young life; she was curious about my friends and what was happening at school; she even helped me understand my parents. Over tea and cookies I’d hear what was interesting on “Donahue,” Mrs. Sheil’s favorite television show, and she’d listen when I told her about learning to drive and my latest boyfriend.

Heck, it was just last week when I ran to her house crying.

I yelled through her opened screen door, “Mrs. Sheil, are you home?”

I heard her jolly voice, “Of course, I’m home—my plane for Tahiti doesn’t leave for another couple of hours!” Then I heard her laugh.

I brushed the tears from my cheeks before I went into the house and tried to smile. My voice cracked when I asked, “How are things today, Mrs. Sheil?”

“For me, not bad. But you look like you need a cup of tea. Sit down.” She motioned for me to sit at the table, while she hobbled to the stove.

After she broke her hip a few years ago, she could never walk normally again because one leg ended up three inches shorter than the other one. Mrs. Sheil was supposed to use crutches, but her stubborn streak proclaimed she didn’t need “those damn things” in her tiny house. Instead, she held on to furniture, tables, chairs, and counter tops as she traveled from her bedroom, through the living room and into the kitchen.

As she scurried around the kitchen, I said, “Instead of tea today, could we please have Ovaltine?”

“An Ovaltine Day! Oh my God, this must be serious. Tell me why your eyes are leaking.”

“You’ll think I’m a baby. Sometimes when I tell you something, after I say the words out loud, it all seems so silly.”

“Have I ever made you feel silly?” She had a look of concern.

“No, that’s not what I meant. It’s just—

“Why don’t you just tell me why your pretty eyes are red and you sound like you’ve got a cold? Nothing that makes you feel like that will ever be silly to me.”

I took a deep breath and began my latest teenage drama. “I promised to babysit for my brothers on Saturday night.” I paused.

“You do that all of the time, why are you upset this time?”

“Any other night wouldn’t matter. But this Saturday—is—well—special.” I twisted my long brown hair around my fingers.

“Okay, out with it. What’s going on?”

“Wednesday, Dan, you remember the basketball player?”

“You mean the very tall Dan with the black dreamy eyes and no brains for Geometry?”

“Yeah, that’s him.” I hesitated, “Well, he asked me to go to the Homecoming dance.”

“That’s wonderful! I’m glad to see the boy finally found some brains.”

“Oh, Mrs. Sheil, sometimes— I laughed.

“Sometimes, what?”

“You’re so funny.”

The kettle whistled. She poured the boiling water into two of her favorite china tea cups and added a couple of spoonfuls of Ovaltine. She pushed one of the cups in my direction and then opened a lower cupboard where she stashed her special treats. She pulled out a plastic bag of miniature marshmallows and threw a handful into her cup. She handed the bag to me. “Forget your diet; marshmallows always help – guaranteed.” She grinned.

“I don’t want to gain back the weight I lost.”

“Oh, sweetie, don’t you know men want a woman who is strong and stout to bear children?”

“Maybe a hundred years ago. Today, in 1967, thin is in. You read the magazines. You watch Donahue on TV. You know I’m right.”

“You’re telling me that my dating days are over?” A broad smile covered the old lady’s face, and she winked. Then she smoothed her house dress over her large hips.

I laughed. Mrs. Sheil always had the magic power to make me giggle.

“So tell me about Mr. Gorgeous.”

I blushed. “When he asked me to go to the dance, my knees nearly buckled. I couldn’t believe it! My dream had come true, and my brain didn’t think. I said, “Yes” right there in the hallway after class! But after he walked away, I remembered I promised Mom and Dad I would babysit for the kids on Saturday night. What am I going to do?”

“I suppose you told your parents about this.”

“The very minute I got home from school that day, I told Mom what happened.”

“So what did she say?”

“She said to call him back and break the date. She said I made a commitment and I had to learn to take promises seriously.” Tears began forming in my eyes again. “But Mrs. Sheil, I can’t break this date. I’ve wanted to go out with Dan this entire semester and now my parents are screwing it up.”

Mrs. Sheil sat quietly. “You know, your parents don’t go out too often, and they’ve been looking forward to this special evening for weeks.”

“I know, but going to Homecoming with Dan is special, too. It’s one of the biggest dances of the year. And he’s not just any guy.”

“Your parents are counting on you, Barbie. They asked you weeks ago, didn’t they?”

“Yes, but—

“Yes, but nothing. A promise is a promise.”

“But, I thought you’d understand, Mrs. Sheil. This is so unfair!”

“Whoever said life is fair?” She looked at me with a stern face through her wire-rimmed glasses. “If life was fair, would I end up like this? Here I am, in the prime of my 80s, widowed, crippled, still beautiful and sexy and nobody wants me!”

I laughed through my tears. At that moment, I wanted to grow up to be just like her, even though I didn’t like the fact she was telling me what I didn’t want to hear.

“So, what are you going to do?”

I had resignation in my voice. “I’ll go home, call Dan and cancel the date. Maybe he’ll ask me out again some other time.”

Mrs. Sheil looked up from her tea cup and said, “Now just a minute before you do anything drastic.”

I looked at her confused. “But didn’t you just say, a promise is a promise?”

“Yes, but you always have to have a Plan B, too. If I don’t teach you anything else, remember to always have a Plan B.”

“What are you talking about?”

“A compromise.”

“Like what?”

“Well, this is what I want you to do. Go home and tell your Mom I need to see her right away. If I can convince her to let me pinch hit for you on Saturday night, you’ll be able to go to the dance with your Mr. Gorgeous.”

“You’d do that for me?” I got up and hugged her. “You’re the best, Mrs. Sheil.”

“Cinderella isn’t the only girl who has fairy godmother.” She smiled. “Before you go, there’s one more thing.”

“What?”

Mrs. Sheil had a sparkle in her eye. “You have to be home by midnight; otherwise, I’ll turn into a pumpkin and won’t make it to church on Sunday morning.”

I smiled and then put a light kiss on her cheek. “I promise.”

“And one more thing.”

“Yes.”

“Could you wash and set my hair on Saturday morning, so it looks nice for church?”

“Of course.” I kissed her other cheek and left.

Mom agreed to Mrs. Sheil’s Plan “B”, and I had the time of my life with Dan at the dance. I felt Mrs. Sheil had saved my life. But now I sat wondering what was going on inside of her tiny house.

Mrs. Sheil was closer to me than my own grandmother. She never complained even though her life had been very hard. Her only child had been born dead. She survived cancer but went through a radical mastectomy at age 35. She and her husband had lost their business when the new highway went through their property. And she was widowed at 60 and left with very little money. When she tripped and broke her hip at age 75, the neighbors rallied around her.

She called herself “The 97th Street Neighborhood Project.” And she was right. None of the neighbors wanted her to go to a nursing home, so everyone pitched in to help her stay in her house. Once a week, Mrs. Calvino dusted, vacuumed and scrubbed her floors. She also washed Mrs. Sheil’s clothes. Mr. Veenstra took care of all the heavy work around the house, like changing storm windows and screens, fixing leaky faucets and trimming bushes. Mrs. Veenstra invited Mrs. Sheil over for a meal once a week. Bob at Nearing’s Grocery Store brought her groceries after Mrs. Sheil phoned in her weekly order. My brother and I mowed her grass in summer and shoveled her sidewalk in the winter. I washed and set her hair in pin curls every Saturday. My Mom took her to town in Mrs. Sheil’s ’57 Chevy—it was so like Mrs. Sheil to have a cool car! She even said when I got my driver’s license I could drive her downtown and show her how we teenager’s “scooped the loop” on a Friday night.

Sunday was the most important day of the week to Mrs. Sheil. Mr. Calvino faithfully drove her to church. She said she needed all the help she could get to go to heaven. She’d dress up in a pretty tailored suit, fix her hair and then crown herself with a “pillbox” hat that had netting in the front that covered her face. Her purse matched her shoes, and she made sure she had a couple of bucks for the collection plate.

She carried herself with class and dignity as she limped up the main aisle to receive weekly communion. She stood as tall and straight as her 4 foot 10 inch frame could muster. She told me that she prayed every Sunday that God would grant her a happy death. She doubled her efforts for a happy death wish in her nighttime prayers. It made me uncomfortable to find out that she thought that much about dying—after all, what would we all do without her?

After sitting on the ground for over 30 minutes, my butt had gone numb. As I thought about trying to get into the house again, a car came around the corner, squealing the tires. It turned out to be Mrs. Sheil’s nephew Clarence. He ran right past me and was let into the house. Now I was really angry. He never had time for Mrs. Sheil.

A few minutes after Clarence went into the house, Mrs. Calvino and the burly cop came out. The big lug had his arm around the older woman’s shoulders, and she was drying her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief. Two rescue men came out of the house with a wheeled cot. The person lying on the cot was completely covered with a white blanket.

“I thought I told you to go home, girl.” The big stern cop said.

“Knock it off, Joe. She’s not hurting anything.” One of the rescue squad guys said.

After the men put the stretcher into the squad, the nice guy walked toward me.

“Mrs. Calvino said you were very close to Mrs. Sheil.”

“Yes.”

He said softly, “I’m very sorry to tell you this, but she died in her sleep last night.”

“Oh, no.” My throat closed and I choked.

Mrs. Calvino came over to me. “Don’t be sad, Barbara. She went to heaven on the wings of angels in her sleep . . .  Just like she always wanted.”

I wrapped my arms around myself and moaned, “Nooooo—

Mrs. Calvino took me in her arms and let me sob. “Mrs. Calvino, she was my best friend.”

“I know, sweetie. She was mine, too.”

“I never had a friend die before.” I said.

As I cried, I heard Mrs. Sheil scolding me. “Don’t be a silly goose. Crying about things you can’t change is wasting good energy.” I wiped the wetness from my face with my hand and sniffled.

Mrs. Calvino said, “We have to go to the funeral home, now. You should go home; tell your parents I will call them later with the arrangements.”

I turned to the nice rescue squad attendant. “Can I see her?” I asked.

“It won’t do any harm, Mrs. Calvino.” The rescue squad man said. “Come with me.”

After we stepped into the rescue truck, he pulled the blanket back. Mrs. Sheil’s round face was slightly gray, but she was smiling. She looked like she was sleeping, and I half expected her to sit up and say, “Just kidding.”

I bent down and whispered in her ear, “Mrs. Sheil, it’s me. Time to wake up! You’ll be late for church.”

When she didn’t open her eyes, I knew the adults had told me the truth. She was gone. I bent down and kissed her cheek. I whispered, “Mrs. Sheil, please don’t leave me. We haven’t gone for that ride down Main Street. Where’s your Plan “B” for this time?” My tears began to flow again.

Clarence got into the truck and moved beside me. He said softly, “You know, Barbie, she really loved you. Whenever I came to visit, she talked about you all of the time. I know that she’ll never forget you. But it’s time to go now.”

I searched his eyes and saw he was genuinely sad. I couldn’t speak. I nodded and jumped down from the truck. I stood frozen as I watched the squad cars and rescue truck drive away.

I wanted to stomp my feet like a two year old. How could she go? How was I ever going live without her? This wasn’t fair! Then I realized Mrs. Sheil was right. Life wasn’t fair. I prayed a short prayer that her husband Dan would greet her in heaven because she really missed him a lot, and the thought made me feel better to hope she was in his arms again.

Before I went home, I glanced around her front yard and remembered the day we planted the chestnut tree. I watched a squirrel pick up one of the nuts and run away with fat cheeks. One time Mrs. Sheil told me she planted the tree so the squirrels wouldn’t go hungry. And for one second, everything made sense to me. Mrs. Sheil had it wrong. She wasn’t our neighborhood project, we were hers. She enriched all of us, and even in death, she was still taking care of things.

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3 thoughts on “A Very Worthwhile Project

  1. Pingback: The Statistics Are In | Author Mccloskey Speaks

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