THE NEIGHBOR LADY

THE NEIGHBOR LADY

From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

The Neighbor Lady

When I was in grade school, I used to have a dream that Mrs. Paxton’s house next door had fallen down the hill with Mrs. Paxton in it. If that imagined event had actually come to pass, I was sure my life would get much better.

We lived then in a suburb of Pittsburgh—a family neighborhood with lots of kids. It was ideal: big yards, lots of little wooded lots, safe streets, hills for sledding and a few dangerous places to explore. Everything a boy could want. Except for Mrs. Paxton, our neighbor lady.

She was a small, thin woman, who wore spectacles on a black cord around her neck. She had a receding hairline and a ring of gray curls high on her forehead that looked, from a distance, a little like a halo. She never had kids of her own, which seemed to us a lucky break because Mrs. Paxton was any kid’s worst enemy: a nosy woman who not only watched us more closely than our own mothers, but reported what she saw.

From her upstairs bedroom window Mrs. Paxton had a view of our backyard, our hillside and the street below. So she could see almost everything we did. Sometimes when we got into fights, she would tap on the glass with a pencil; you would be surprised how far that sound carries. Other times, if we were into something dangerous like hopping curbs on our bikes, she would tell my parents and I would get a lecture . . . at least a lecture.

Our only respite from Mrs. Paxton’s constant intrusion on our privacy was on Thursday afternoons in the summer. Then three cars would pull into her driveway, and music teachers from my school would file into her house.

That got my attention because I thought teachers made themselves cocoons or something and just hibernated in the summer. But there they were carrying instrument cases, and after a while we would hear the sounds of a string quartet coming though the open windows.

Mrs. Paxton herself played the viola, and I often listened more attentively when her instrument had the melody. I’d begun piano lessons a few years earlier and had gotten good enough to know how to really listen to music. Still, there was something about the sound the string quartet made, sounds that got to me in a way the piano couldn’t.

When Mrs. Paxton played, she made a warm, sweet sound like a song—sweet and mellow as summer.

Quartet-day was good news because it meant that Mrs. Paxton was not at her upstairs window, and we could do the things we did not want our parents to hear about. So my friends and I would head down the hill to the drainage ditch. My own mother said it was “a filthy sewer,” but really neat salamanders lived there, so I liked it a lot. Sometimes we would crawl into the forbidden burned-out house—still standing because of some legal tangle. We would peel back water-stained wallpaper looking for hidden messages or sift through ashes, looking for coins.

If we did any of these things unaccompanied by the sounds of string quartets from Mrs. Paxton’s house, our parents would know about it immediately. Mrs. Paxton knew everything about our neighborhood and told everything she knew to some grown-up or other. I couldn’t imagine why she was like that. Was it because she never had kids of her own that she didn’t like us?

By the end of summer, I entered the eighth grade, and signed up for the school orchestra. I got up the nerve and went to see the orchestra director about the possibility of learning on one of the school instruments. But Miss Wagner told me all of the stringed instruments had already been signed out. She said she’d love it if I could help out in the percussion section, though.

That was a long way from what I had in mind, so I moped around the house for a few days. My parents could not afford to buy me an instrument, and I did not want to beg for it.

Though I spent more time than usual running with my friends, I could not get the idea of making music out of my head.

Then one day I came in from riding bikes with my friends to find Mrs. Paxton sitting in our very own living room talking with my mother. I tried to step slowly backwards out the front door, but my mother had already seen me and told me to come in. Mrs. Paxton had something she wanted to say to me.

I felt my body get sort of heavy, and I shuffled into the room. I sat down on a straight-backed chair across the room from Mrs. Paxton. She patted the seat next to her on the couch and told me to come sit beside her. I would rather have been told I had to play with my sister’s friends. I delayed moving, and my mother shot me one of her looks—the kind that get you out of your seat in a hurry.

I considered sitting at the far end of the couch, but I knew my mother would consider that noncompliance. So I sat cautiously down next to Mrs. Paxton. To my surprise, Mrs. Paxton smelled like lilacs. She immediately began to quiz me about music, of all things. She wanted to know what I liked and if I really wanted to play a stringed instrument—somehow she even knew that.

I looked at my mother to see if she had blabbed it, but she shook her head telling me she had not. I did not know what to tell Mrs. Paxton about why I wanted to play in the orchestra so badly. I had become obsessed with making a kind of music that was like singing.

But that’s just not the kind of thing you say, not even to your own mother. Still, something inside told me to just say it anyway and let everyone laugh if they wanted to.

I said, “I want to play something with strings because you can make them sing the way a voice does.”

Mrs. Paxton’s eyes widened. She looked at me very curiously as though I had somehow said the magic words. Then she lifted a long black box from the floor and placed it between us on the couch. She opened it, turned back the green velvet cover, took out her viola and held it in her lap. Sort of like the way my mother held babies.

It was the instrument of my dreams. The honey-colored viola glowed and shone. She stroked it gently with her hand and then handed it to me. “I want you to have this. It is a loan until you have your own someday.”

I didn’t know what to do. I stared at her and then the viola. I couldn’t move. She took my hand in hers, which was strangely soft and warm, and put my fingers around the neck of the instrument. I looked at her. She smiled. I looked at my mother. She smiled. I started to shake a little and was really afraid I might cry or do something else disgraceful. But somehow I kept hold of my self-respect.

She did not stay long after that. I wanted to say something really nice to her, but I was so used to hating her I couldn’t think of anything at all to say except, “Thank you very much.” It seemed lame somehow, considering what the instrument meant to both of us.

Later, I accused my mother of telling Mrs. Paxton about my wanting an instrument. But she swore she hadn’t done anything of the kind. “Mrs. Paxton just knows things,” she said.

“But why would she do this?” I asked, still amazed by my good luck.

“Well, she never had children of her own. I think she just loves you.” I looked at my mother as though she had lost her last marble. “When you’re older . . .” I was out of the room before she finished that dumb line I knew by heart.

Over the years I often thought about Mrs. Paxton and the mystery of why she gave me the thing she loved most in the world. I eventually got good enough to play in a string quartet of my own, to tour Russia, to play in an orchestra in Carnegie Hall, to become principal violist of the Florida Philharmonic.

And after all this time, I see that Mrs. Paxton knew more about me than I ever imagined, knew me almost as well as my own mother.

I think she watched out for me and cared about me just as she might have done for a son of her own. And I think that if she had been able to have children they would have been very lucky. She would not only have watched over them, but she would have opened doors they never knew existed, opened doors to joy and happiness and the immeasurable pleasure of finding the thing you loved to do most in the world—just as she had done for me.

So now as I get ready to begin Fort Lauderdale’s Beethoven at the Beach concert, I put on the festival T-shirt that the orchestra wears for these performances. And I hope that my playing will have a sound like singing, a sound I heard long ago coming from Mrs. Paxton’s open windows on a summer afternoon.

Michael McClelland

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