A Neighbor I’ll Never Forget

A Neighbor I’ll Never Forget

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

A Neighbor I’ll Never Forget

Perhaps I was nine, no more than ten, years old when an elderly couple moved to my neighborhood. They were serene and conformed to their Italian ancestry in their dress, and in the decoration of their home. The wife’s appearance scared me—her jet-black eyes were as cold as stones in an icy brook and she wore long, dark dresses with a stiff white lace collar. Her glossy, black patent leather shoes were bound by a thin strap, and buttoned with a large pearl. Her hair reminded me of a bird’s nest.

In the early 1930s, many people associated Italians with dangerous gangsters. The woman was lonely, probably because no one in the neighborhood made her feel welcome. She loved birds and, searching for acceptance wherever she could, fed them every day. Walking slowly, she tossed seeds in every corner of the large yard. Her menacing eyes remained downcast as she talked softly to her feathered friends. Unlike the birds, I was petrified of her.

In stark contrast, her husband was outgoing and friendly. Whenever he saw me he raised his arm high and waved wildly. His lips would part in a wide smile showing huge white teeth. His full flowing white hair reminded me of a classical music composer. I had never heard the word obese but he surely was just that. His face made me think of Santa Claus, and, after some months, he became a mythical figure in my life.

I probably would have paid little attention to Mr. Conti had it not been for his 1928 Buick. One morning, acting on a spontaneous impulse, when he backed his beautiful car out into the sunshine, I raced across the street to close the heavy wooden doors on his garage. I wished to be as close to that automobile as possible! Because of his enormous body he appreciated sitting in his car as the friendly neighborhood boy performed a thoughtful service.

“Hey sonny, what’s your name?”

“Jack,” I answered.

“Well, Jackie, thank you, here’s some gum.”

His fat liver-spotted hand held a five-stick pack of chewing gum. His gift was quite valuable in 1932! After that day, whenever I saw his car approaching, I rushed to open the doors and, in return, he provided me with a steady supply of gum.

Our relationship stayed at that level for months. Some time later, tragedy paid a visit to the aged couple. Mrs. Conti became ill. The birds went hungry. They chirped and called for their friend, whom they would never see again.

One day I saw crepe hanging on the front door. A stillness had settled over the large house. Long black cars arrived, stopping only to pick up and return Mr. Conti. Meanwhile, the Buick sat in the damp darkness of the garage. Still too young to know what I could do to help, I waited.

Time floated by. Finally the garage doors swung open and Mr. Conti waved to me. A wide black band circled the sleeve of his coat. I didn’t move. He called, “Come on over, Jackie, I have some gum for you.” Feeling uncomfortable I sheepishly crossed the yellow brick street. I knew that there had been a sadness in my friend’s life, which I was at a loss to grasp.

“Jackie, I’m going to the cemetery to take care of the flowers on my wife’s grave. If you want to go for the ride, ask your mother if it’s okay.” Taking only a moment to consider, my mother gave the necessary permission.

I waited as the large green car backed out of the garage, then I closed the doors. I climbed into the automobile that I had been worshiping for so long. I stroked the velvet seats, so soft to the touch. The shiny wooden steering wheel looked so smooth I wished to hold it. The engine purred as we drove down the street. Mr. Conti was sad, but I could not have been happier.

We parked the car on the narrow road in the cemetery, then walked to the mound of fresh dirt covered with wilting and dead flowers. I thought perhaps he was being careful not to disturb his wife, he worked so quietly. Nearly missing his request as he grunted and huffed leaning over his task, I asked him to repeat his words. “Sonny, will you get the watering can in the car and fill it at the pump? I want to water this plant so it will live.” He didn’t say, “so it won’t die.” The most precious gift he gave me was a positive attitude toward life.

Taking the large iron handle in my hand I pumped up and down, and cool, fresh water splashed into and around the sprinkling can. It was heavy and it bumped against my leg as I lugged it back to the grave. Satisfied that all was in order, Mr. Conti blessed himself and said a soft good-bye, then put his hand on my shoulder, guiding me to the waiting car.

“Jackie, now we both need to have some fun. Let’s stop at the Drive-O-Links down the road and hit some golf balls, okay?” My eyes lit up as I shouted, “Yes!” The tires on the big car crunched as they rolled across the gravel at our destination. He purchased a bucket filled with golf balls and picked out two clubs. He then stood on the square wooden box. A giant could not have looked larger. His club swung in a mighty circle, hitting the little white sphere past the 200-yard sign and the 250-yard sign. It finally fell onto the smooth grass at the 300-yard sign. “Okay, Jackie, now it’s your turn.”

My attempt to send the ball more than a few yards was futile. Patiently, he showed me the correct stance and how to hold the club. A golfer I would never be, but I was having the time of my life. The trip to the cemetery followed by a stop at the Drive-O-Links became a weekly occurrence. I looked forward to the exciting ritual, counting the days until the next Sunday.

Mr. Conti owned several quarries. He had contracts with the state, and when roads were tarred and pebbled, it often was with stones from one of his locations. During the summer I was a constant passenger on his business trips. He taught me much about taking pride in myself.

I saw him embrace a man who had recently lost a child. I looked on as he put twenty dollars into the hand of a handsome young man whose marriage was only days old. He told one of the old workers to stay with his dying wife, assuring the man that he would be paid. A child played in front of a wooden shack that was a worker’s home and Mr. Conti laboriously leaned his heavy body over to pat the child on the head, digging into his pocket for a pack of gum. Nearly everyone felt a fondness toward him.

I was still young when I learned to grieve the loss of a loved one. Mr. Conti died suddenly while having a glass of wine with a few friends. My spirit was broken. Sadly, I missed his funeral since no one cared to take me. His house became dreary and bleak. The birds had long gone to a happier place. My final good-bye to my mentor came the day someone opened the garage, then backed the big Buick out into the daylight. Through tear-filled eyes I watched as it disappeared. The automobile was gone but the portrait of a gentle, caring, smiling man, who had taught me much about living a life for others, remains in my memory forever.

Jack Alexander

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