31: Good Neighbor Helen

31: Good Neighbor Helen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls

Good Neighbor Helen

Friends are relatives you make for yourself.

~Eustache Deschamps

I always assumed that a best friend living next door came with those thirty-year mortgages — like Lucy had Ethel Mertz and Mary had Rhoda. My hopes were soundly dashed the moment I met Helen, the neighbor who lived next to our very first house. Looking at Helen I realized that there was going to be no rerun of Lucy and Ethel or Mary and Rhoda happening in my life. Helen was in her early nineties, gray haired, sharp eyed, and extremely willing to share her opinions. About everything.

“You burned the bacon this morning, didn’t you?” was one greeting on a hot summer morning when I opened the back door and found her standing on the patio. “I could smell it clear over in my kitchen. You can’t cook bacon quickly; you’ve got to let it fry nice and slow. You hurry too much. That’s your problem.”

Then there was the day my husband was installing a new side door. Helen watched him as he worked, waiting until he had invested several hours and a whole lot of frustration into the job before coming over to tell him what he was doing wrong. “I could see right off the bat that you were trying to put that door in backwards,” she announced, “but you’ve got to learn these things on your own. I didn’t want to interfere.”

As the weeks turned into months and then years, we got used to Helen. I’m not sure if we mellowed or she did, but the longer we lived next door to her, the less she irritated us. That became even truer after our sons were born. Helen took a delight in first Joe and then Hank that surpassed their own grandmothers’ interest. She baked cookies for them, gave them cards with dollars tucked inside, and encouraged them to play on her front porch whenever they wanted to. Suddenly the advice she handed out so freely was much appreciated by me, a nervous first-time mother. Helen had raised two children of her own and she shared her knowledge with me just as she shared everything else. “Don’t worry so much,” she advised me. “They’ll survive and so will you.”

Helen stayed in her house until she was in her late nineties, continuing to cook and clean and take care of herself almost until the end of her life. “Don’t move until I’m gone,” she requested one day.

“I’ll try,” I said, but it was a promise I couldn’t keep. We moved to a bigger house a few months before Helen went into a nursing home.

We’ve had many neighbors since Helen. I’ve had neighbors I’ve enjoyed drinking coffee with, neighbors who like to take walks with me, and neighbors who are almost as zany as Ethel and Rhoda.

But I’ve never had a neighbor who was a better girlfriend than Helen.

~Nell Musolf

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