A Thing or Two About Life

Mr. and Mrs. S. lived in a small house down the street from us. When we first moved into our old house, I was out in the yard one day, and Mr. S. stopped to talk to me. By the time I met Mr. S., he was in his seventies, a veteran of World War II, Mr. S. could teach you a thing or two about life.
He gestured at the old house I’d just bought.

“So, you bought the old thing?”

“I did.”

“I used to live here, you know.”

But I didn’t know. (This was before I’d been to the historical society and the Registry of Deeds.)

“I’ll tell you the funny story about how we bought this house, I was a teenager…” Dick said.

In 1940, Molly—the nurse who lived in the house since 1903—died. Molly’s official death record, on file in Town Hall stated Molly’s death “due to cardiac disease caused by overwork.” She was 75 when she died, and her elderly husband Fred, retired from the railroad, moved to Lewiston, about an hour away, to live with family members. The house stood vacant. It was wartime, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt had just been sworn in for a third term; it was during the depression.

“I wonder how much they want for that house?” Dick’s mother Gladys said to Dick one day when they were driving by. All Gladys knew was an address, but no phone number, where Fred was living.

“How much money do you have in your pocket?” Gladys asked Dick.

“I told my mom I had a dollar, one dollar. And she said, ‘Let’s go. Drive me to Lewiston!’” Mr. S. shook his head and laughed. “One dollar. I drove her up there to Lewiston, and we put one dollar down on this house. One dollar.”

We laughed together. (I’d put a whole lot more than a dollar down on our house, and I knew Mr. S. knew it.)

A few months later, I visited Mr. and Mrs. S. in their house down the street. We talked for a long time, about how they met and fell in love in our house. Mrs. S. had come to town to attend the local high school, and she boarded in the back room. After the war, Mr. S. came home, they got married, and they built the house down the street where they raised their family—Mr. S.’s mother then brothers continued to live in our house, their house until the early 1960s.

Mr. and Mrs. S. answered all my questions about our house—and more—they sat with me until dusk that afternoon, in their small living room. They were outgoing, those two. Ruth worked all her life in the town schools, and they knew everyone in town. They told me story after story about our old house: the way it looked, what color it was painted, about the darkroom in the basement Mr. S.’s brother put in, about the garden planted by Mr. S.’s father, explaining the depressed grassy area in our yard I always wondered about. About their life together, their youth, their love story, the good times and bad, the war and the friends and the family lost, the way the town changed at the end of the war, and how the town kept on changing with newcomers like me.

That was the longest conversation I had with Mr. and Mrs. S., who eventually became Dick and Ruth, my neighbors, my friends. Ruth died a few years later, and Dick in 2009. After Ruth died, Dick changed; Ruth was his life. He sat in a chair by the window, watching TV and the world going by. When I walked by with the dog twice a day, and I rounded his corner, Dick always smiled and waved. I’d bring him cookies for Christmas, once a beef stew.

“Awful good,” he said when he came back with the dish.

One day, when I was out of town for a while, he came out on his porch and called out to my husband, asking if I was okay.

“Oh good, I was worried about her because I hadn’t seen her all week.”

Since he died, I always have trouble rounding that corner to his house. I always expect to see Dick with a wave and a smile. That’s the kind of man Dick was: he liked to sit, talk and tell stories, and if you asked him, he’d tell you how the world went ‘round. He taught me a thing or two about life.

One of the things I love most about being a writer is connecting with people and hearing their stories. Where do your stories come from? Are you like me, that you love talking to people to learn more about them and gather information?

Cheers,

Julia

Comments

  1. doreen says:

    I love talking with people because everyone truly does have a story. My husband calls me a newsy person.

  2. Thanks for the comment & for dropping by — I guess that makes us both newsy people! So glad to connect, and thanks for following my blog!

  3. What a beautiful story. I love finding out how people think. What they think about certain situations and people and why. Why they do what they do or think what they think. The thought process and motivations people have are fascinating to me.

  4. This made me a little teary-eyed. What a beautiful story.

    I love talking to people and asking them questions, getting to the parts of their lives people might never have imagined they even had. My high school journalism teacher told me that everyone has a story, you just have to dig deep enough to get it. I’ve never forgotten that, and I think it’s why I became a journalist, despite my timid tendencies. I’m always happy to overcome my shyness if it means I get to go up to a total stranger and find out their story.

  5. Cheryl — Thank you so much! And I am so like you in your fascination with motivations and thought processes. Absolutely fascinating!

    Natalia — I have to admit, I got a little (okay a lot) weepy while I wrote it. It’s so true that everyone has a story, and my absolute favorite part of journalism school was finding out how much people want to talk about their lives! It makes it easy to put my introversion away long enough to get the information.

  6. I felt such a pang of sadness for Dick at the end of this story. It must be very hard to go on with life when the person you’ve lived with for so long is gone. My grandmother had a hard time when my grandfather died. Her sister lives next door though. Having her really helped my grandmother, I think.

    I do like talking people and learning about their stories. It’s actually what scared me the most about journalism when I was in college. But I’ve come to enjoy it, especially now that I know people are very willing to tell you their stories.

  7. Hi Jen, Thanks for commenting. I was sad for Mr. S. too after Ruth died. I was even more sad when Mr. S. died, though. It’s still hard for me to not see him in that window! It’s so interesting the things we come to rely on as touchstones in our lives, isn’t it?

  8. Erika says:

    Julia, I can SEE these people in my mind. I grew up in New Gloucester, Maine (is your house in Lewiston?) so your references hit home with me as that’s jsut up the road. So nice to have connected on Twitter–and here you are, a fellow Mainer!

  9. Hi Erika! Welcome to my blog; you’re the first self-identified Mainer who’s commented! So glad I hit the mark with you! However, I must add that I really am not a *true* Mainer, as I was not born here. I hope that won’t keep you from coming back! So glad you found me! Julia
    (p.s. No, I don’t live in Lewiston! I’m on the coast.)

  10. CMSmith says:

    Lovely story. Life is rich. And you seem to be particularly adept at finding the gold nuggets.

  11. Welcome to wordsxo — agreed, life is rich! Thank you so much for the huge compliment! Hope to see you back again soon.

  12. What a wonderful post, Julia! I also love collecting stories, but must admit that my role as aspiring hermit often hinders that activity. Reading your story is a good reminder to take a look around my own neighborhood.

  13. Thank you so much, Amanda, a big compliment! Believe it or not, I’m a huge hermit myself, but for some reason, give me a pen and notebook, maybe a tape recorder, and watch out! The neighbors run and hide 🙂