This past week I received the sad news that my childhood neighbor passed away. This lovely woman, whose name was Cleta and her husband Jake had lived next door to my family for over 40 years. Looking back, I have to honestly say that Cleta and Jake were one of the bright and shining lights of my childhood, I never realized until today, that their influence and presence is one of the things that makes me smile when I think back on how I grew up.
The timing of receiving this news certainly weighed on my heart heavily as earlier this week, in part of my on-going therapy, I had assessed the state of relationships of my family of origin from age 0 to 18. The result was a full picture of the hurts and hang ups that I’ve carried with me for a lot of my adult life.
My father’s alcoholism and ability to turn off feelings and emotions had a rippling effect on how I saw myself and the world around me. In the last few years through therapy, I’ve begun to work through a lot of the emotional baggage that I have carried with myself for nearly 3 decades. There’s lots of hurts, loss of relationships and pain between myself, my parents and my siblings.
When the assessment was done I felt exhausted, sad, angry and let down. Within a rough rubric, I saw specific relational categories that were void in my family of origin: communication, empathy, respect for one another and self-value.
The therapeutic assessment made me feel dejected, but after hearing the news of Cleta’s passing, and collecting my thoughts and emotions, when I thought back to my memories of growing up next to her and Jake, I smiled, and found a childhood memory that filled me with happiness.
I thought back to the summer of the McGuire-Sosa home run chase, hurrying home from school, rushing through my homework, and heading to Jake and Cleta’s to watch the games. Jake would sit in his rocker and take in that home run chase with pure glee. He shared with me EVERYTHING he knew about baseball, and that man seriously knew everything, I seriously think he could give Vince Scully a run for his money. And while taking in games, Cleta would tell me about growing up in the Midwest, what took her out West, and how she fell in love with a baseball loving World War II veteran, who had seen London in rubbles following the Nazi Blitzkrieg.
And her persimmon cookies were second to none. I have never tasted anything else that could come close. I also remember long chats with Cleta during summers, when I would help her and Jake keep their lawn watered. I recall her wanting to pay me for my time, and you better believe I declined cash, and countered for a plate of those persimmon cookies instead.
Cleta had an unbelievably caring heart. For many years she served as a caretaker for both her mother and her ailing husband. I have no idea how she found the time and energy to care for two of the closest people in her heart, I know for me it would take an emotional toll and I would need mental and physical breaks from it after a few months, but she carried on doing that for years.
Over time I said my goodbyes and moved away to college. And soon Cleta would be caregiving for one, and then eventually have only herself in the house next door to my childhood home. But to be honest her energy, love and joy from being around others never faltered. Just about every time I would call to catch up with my parents, and ask how Cleta was, she inevitably was just about always out or gone visiting and spending time with friends and family. It felt like she had no off button, and that age was just a number to her and was no reason to slow down.
So to Cleta and Jake I say thank you. Thank you for being the best neighbors a kid could ask for. Your happiness and joy was infectious and when I look back on my early life, I really can smile because of you two. Thank you. Thank you for the love and friendship you shared with me, I will carry and remember it for the rest of my life. And fingers crossed, maybe one day my wife and I can be the same kind of neighbors you were to me, to our next door neighborhood kids. Thank you for the memories and I can’t wait to see you two again.