Portrait of a Terribly Good Neighbor

Years ago my friend Billy called me, distressed. It was summertime, and he had been feeling overwhelmed trying to take care of his lawn and gardens. Billy had been a homeowner for only a year and had been looking forward to planting heirloom tomatoes, herbs and cherry trees in the large plot the prior owner had tucked behind the doorway, but flowers? He didn’t know where to start.

I’m his only friend who gardens, and he wondered if I’d come over and help him out. I was happy to help.

Billy had purchased his house by an older woman called Ronnie, who died a few months after she moved. What amuses the pleading telephone call was a remark from his next-door neighbor, Diane, who said, “Ronnie will be rolling in her grave if she could see what you’ve done for her garden, Billy.” This has been spoken in the robust baritone most women can attain only after at least 50 decades of smoking. Believe Patty or Selma from The Simpsons.

Amy Renea

Billy and I laughed about that later, however, he’s a good guy and wanted to become a great neighbor. The yard didn’t look terrible, however Ronnie, with the help of her daughter at the next decades, had kept up everything so meticulously, anything less than ideal was a mess by comparison. I gave the gardens a good weeding and redug the borders so everything was neat and clean. Billy stayed on top of mulching and mowing the yards, and kept everything in fairly good shape for many seasons.

He gave gardening a shot, planting some shrubs and trees, and also for a couple summers he put in enormous vegetable gardens with over 30 varieties of berries. But he found it hard to maintain. He travels a lot, sometimes for weeks on end. The flower gardens he dismissed entirely. We talked about my coming again to form through the plants he wanted to eliminate and those that he wanted to maintain. I was prepared, but he had been gone so much, and I had been busy with three kids, not to mention preserving my own yards and gardens. A few summers passed my coming over to help him out.

Jocelyn H. Chilvers

The gardens were already looking scruffy when one of those two towering pines at the back of Billy’s house was hit by lightning. The best 20 feet fell over but not entirely off. Billy owns a portable sawmill and believed milling the boards but not got around to it, so almost half of the shrub dangled there with a mess of branches beneath it for a couple years.

In the meantime Diane, his neighbor, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Billy took over meals and often checked in. Even though Diane kept up her spirits up, the prognosis was grim. One afternoon, when she and Billy were outdoors, she pointed into the pines and said, “I am afraid I’m going to expire and that tree will still be there.”

Billy was preparing for the weeks-long excursion he takes every summer for work. It had been the worst time for him to take care of a large project, but he called a tree support to decrease the top of the tree along with a friend to help him haul away the brush. He then begged me to come over straight away to handle the gardens again.

It was a steaming-hot moment. I knew he had been about to leave on his big trip. Additionally, I knew the beds had been failed all summertime, at least, and it was already August. I thought that he may as well wait a couple more weeks before the weather cooled and do a large drop cleanup. I was happy to lend a hand, but what was the rush?

He clarified about Diane. He didn’t know if she would continue to be alive in a different month, and he wanted to do anything he could to help her. As ridiculous as it seemed, getting his lawn cleaned up was likely her dying wish.

Jocelyn H. Chilvers

The following morning my daughter Eden and I must do the job. I introduced a tarp and weeded ruthlessly, pulling many of those plants I knew Billy didn’t like. It was a hot afternoon and the dirt was hard, so it was lots of work. Eden was only 5 years old, but she worked like a champ, hauling debris away and laying mulch. Billy mowed and trimmed some of the shrubs that were overgrown. It was not long until what was shaping up and looking great.

Diane detected and came out to observe, dragging her oxygen tank and smoking a cigarette. Billy tried to introduce us, but she cut him off — she recalled me from the last time. She came over to where I had been in my knees weeding and shook her head.

“Alison, don’t bother,” she said. “You’re going to do all this work, make it looking so great, and Billy’s only going to destroy everything.” She took a long haul and shot him a look of disdain.

I smiled. “I know what it’s like to make a mess of things, also Billy’s been there for me many times over time. I am happy to help.”

“You’re a great friend.” The clear implication: better than Billy deserved.

She stuck around to watch while we ended up, and it was apparent she had been delighted with the outcome.

Diane expired a few weeks later. In the funeral her husband advised Billy how much she loved hanging out in the yard while she was able to leave her bed. She commented several times how glad she had been Billy had gotten everything cleaned up.

You may be asking yourself, did he keep up the garden? No, he didn’t. Diane was right; he ruined everything. A case could be made which Billy is a terrible neighbor, however I believe there’s an equally convincing argument to be made that he’s one of the very best.

Next: Billy’s strategy to housekeeping

More: The Unsung Power of a Good Neighbor

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