65. Neighbor from Hell

65. Neighbor from Hell

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Neighbor from Hell

Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day.

~H. Jackson Brown, Jr., P.S. I Love You

She was determined to make our lives miserable from the moment we met. Edna Strom looked to be in her late seventies. She had a perpetual squint. Her lips curled sourly, as if she had mistaken a bottle of vinegar for soda.

We’d barely moved one stick of furniture into the lower duplex we’d rented next door to her converted two-story home when Mrs. Strom hobbled onto her upstairs front gallery. She glared down at my twelve-year-old son David and then at me, announcing, “You make sure you keep that child out of my yard!”

Since our buildings shared a communal six-foot-high privacy fence that separated our lots, I couldn’t understand her concern or hostility. Nevertheless, I replied curtly, “Don’t worry!” as I ducked into my entryway with the box I was carrying.

That encounter set the tone for weeks. The next day, while my son was laughing on the phone, we were stunned to hear a loud pounding from the other side of his bedroom wall, which connected our dwellings and ran the entire length of both houses.

“Stop that racket right this minute!”

Mrs. Strom’s furious voice filtered right into the kitchen I was painting. I rushed towards David to find him sitting on the bed, eyes wide with shock, his conversation forgotten.

“Mom, I was just laughing!” he protested.

“I know, honey,” I soothed, gulping back my own growing anger. “Listen, let’s just let this go until we’re a little more settled in. I’ll deal with it in a few days if it continues, okay?” I promised.

“Okay,” he agreed reluctantly.

That same afternoon, he and a friend went out front to play pitch and catch. Within minutes, they both returned, their expressions clearly indicating that they were upset about something.

“What happened?” I sighed, certain our neighbor had struck again.

“She yelled at us from her balcony to go play in the back yard,” David complained.

I handed each of the kids a soda, instructing them go out back. Then, I marched out the front door to confront the cranky old woman. This was our home too and I was going to nip this problem in the bud. There was no way she was going to continue scolding my child, especially since he’d done nothing wrong, nor been excessively loud.

I found her sitting ramrod straight in a rocking chair on her front porch, peering out into the street. Her summer dress was crisply ironed, her polished shoes gleamed, and every hair was in place. She wore a pearl necklace with matching earrings. When she saw me approach, she narrowed her eyes, pursing her lips even tighter.

“Is something wrong?” I asked her.

“My boy is coming to visit,” she informed me haughtily. “I didn’t want to get hit by your son’s baseball while I wait for him.”

“I’m sure he was being careful,” I told her stonily. “He’s not a bad kid, ma’am. In the future, if there’s a problem, please come to me so we can solve it instead of shouting at him.”

Not waiting for an answer, I turned and went back into the house. As I entered the common foyer, I almost bumped into the upstairs tenant who was checking her mail.

“I see you’ve met Edna Strom.” She smiled. “Pay her no mind. She sits out there every day the minute the weather turns warm and waits for her son to visit. He only comes when he needs money. Even then, he’s loud, rude and obnoxious, treating her like dirt!”

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I almost muttered, but bit my tongue. “Is she always that crabby?” I asked instead.

“Always. Just ignore her. Everyone does.”

Edna didn’t let up on her tyrannical behavior. She hammered on the walls if we so much as dropped a pot cover or raised our stereo or television to a decibel above a whisper. Even adjusting the ring of our phone to accommodate her couldn’t please the woman. We could almost feel her scowl sear into us as she kept her ever-present vigil on the balcony in the pathetic hope that her son might drop in.

Two months later, we were finally settled in and decided to have a cookout for friends and family. I prepared for the event, ignoring the persistent banging whenever I closed a cupboard or refrigerator door a little too hard. By that time, Mrs. Strom was becoming background noise.

The day of the barbecue, as people arrived, I noticed that Edna wasn’t at her usual post. Her son had dropped in two days earlier and was every bit as vocal and insufferable as I’d been told, belittling his mother and demanding money. I assumed she wouldn’t expect him again anytime soon and was taking a break from her lookout.

As the last guest arrived, we moved to the back yard. I was serving appetizers when a movement from her upstairs window caught my eye. I looked up to see her observing a laughing group of my visitors. Unaware that she could be seen, her usual bitter demeanor was absent. Instead, a combination of sad, wistful loneliness seemed to suffuse her features, and I felt a growing sympathy tug at my heart.

Seconds later, I was ringing her bell. She opened the door, shocked to see me.

“Can I help you?” she asked coldly, and I smiled.

“Mrs. Strom, I was wondering if you’d like to join us since we’re neighbors. I’m sure my family and friends would love to meet you.”

“Well, I—that is—I—I’m not really dressed to—”

I noticed then that she was clothed more casually than I’d ever seen her.

“You look fine,” I assured her. “Everyone is in jeans or shorts. You’ll fit right in. Please come.”

For the first time ever, I saw her smile, catching a glimpse of the beauty that must have been hers when she was younger.

“Well, if you’re sure,” she said shyly, patting her hair nervously and straightening her blouse. “I have a fresh cheesecake I can bring—my late husband’s favorite. I made it this morning.”

“Why, that would be wonderful,” I gushed. “Come, let’s go.”

My husband and son hid their shock, welcoming our neighbor with warm smiles when I escorted her into our yard on my arm.

“Everyone,” I called out, “I’d like you to meet my friend and neighbor, Edna Strom.”

We never heard a harsh word from her again. In fact, we became close friends, forgiving and forgetting our rocky beginning, and embracing our friendship instead. She no longer sat on her balcony waiting tirelessly for her son’s sporadic visits. She was far too busy teaching me her favorite recipes, and joining us for family occasions where she was received with love and respect until she died peacefully five years later in her sleep. Only a week before, she had hugged me tightly and thanked me for being the daughter she never had. I mourned her like I would a beloved relative, grateful that I looked past the thorns to see the fragile flower within.

~Marya Morin

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