Sometimes the most resonant moments in life hit us hardest when we least expect them. .
One happened to me the other night while my wife and I were throwing an annual Christmas party for friends. I had an outdoor fire burning in the backyard patio to take the foggy chill off guests venturing out to try some hot mulled wine. I was ladling out steaming mugs of the stuff, when a guest in the kitchen handed me the phone through an open window. "It rang and nobody was around, so I picked it up," said Julie.
I took the receiver, wondering who it could be.
"This is your neighbor, Evelyn Petrali," said the woman's voice.
Her back yard sits on the other side of the fence.
"I see you're having a Christmas party," she said.
"Yes," I say, thinking, oops, we're making too much noise. But that didn't seem likely.
"I just wanted to tell you," she said, "I'm glad you're having your party and I think the lights on your house look beautiful."
"Thanks," I said. "Thanks a lot." I couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Have a great holiday," she said.
I thanked her again for the call and we hung up.
As I stood there with the phone, a sudden wave of sadness washed over me. Jeez, I should have asked her over, I thought. But that would have been a little awkward. Bad idea.
Evelyn's husband, Babe, passed away 71/2 years ago, at 74. He had lymphoma. After he died, I wrote a Notebook in this space about Babe. Although we hadn't had more than a few chats over the fence in the 13 years I knew him, he'd always felt like a close buddy.
I could always sense his presence in his back yard, which was his sanctuary. He tended a thriving vegetable garden, which flourished out of raised planting beds, always well fertilized and watered. I'd often pick up the rich pungency of his pipe smoke drifting over the fence.
Occasionally I heard him play his accordion. He coaxed soulful, exuberant notes through the bellows of that instrument. The music floated in the summer air, its spirited melodies danced faintly into my yard, making it feel more like home than anyplace imaginable.
I heard Babe crush aluminum beer cans to recycle. I heard him perfect his golf swing by hitting balls into a net. Whoosh, click. Short pause. Whoosh, click.
In the years since his passing, Evelyn has kept Babe's back yard manicured with hired gardeners. She's continued to live in the house she shared with him for many years. A couple of years after his death, she dropped by to say hello, and tell us about her volunteer work with small schoolchildren.
But we hadn't seen her for years since then. And that's why after I hung up the phone the other night, I felt I let her down over that long, quiet gap in time. How hard would it have been, just once in a while, to drop in to see how she was doing? Shoulda-woulda-coulda hit me like a Mike Tyson gut punch. But I shouldn't assume that Evelyn is alone and lonely. A kind woman who loves people, that isn't likely. Even so, I'm sure she still misses Babe on his birthday or during the holidays. All of us can't help missing loved ones who used to be around to share stories with, do things with, and take a familiar chair at holiday feasts and family gatherings.
Evelyn's call made me think of how terribly selfish and unfeeling we can get in this busy world. How we get so caught up in our own little me-first petty lives that we rarely take a minute and ask ourselves, "Hey, who do I know outside of my immediate world who could use a little unexpected kindness, even if it's just a small gesture?"
After all, this is the time of year for spreading good will toward our fellow humans, which, as the words of many a Christmas carol remind us annually, makes for a better world.
But the goodwill carols soon fade out, Christmas ends and the kindness thing gets flung unceremoniously into the gutter along with the suddenly unwanted Christmas tree. The same tree that not too many days earlier was a cherished icon bejeweled with lights and ornaments. We're quickly back to caffeine and road rage.
But goodwill offerings ought to last longer than a few weeks leading up to Christmas. And because doing someone a good turn once in a while actually feels good, it could technically be a called a selfish act. So, when you get right down to it, it could be a small part of what has generally become a selfish, rude, manners-free culture. And when we don't act on the many chances to show a little kindness here and there, we all lose a little humanity.
So Evelyn, hopefully when you read this, you'll realize how much I appreciated your goodwill call the other night. And how much Babe is still in our hearts with his verdant back yard, just over the fence from ours. We miss him and, believe it or not, we haven't forgotten you.
Not now. Not ever.