Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Friendly Neighbors Club: Anniversary

“Would you like to join me for lunch sometime?” said the white-haired, twinkly-eyed, 4’10” Jean. 

It was 2001, and I’d been taking a walk, exploring the area near our new country home on Lakeshore Drive, near Lake Lowell. When taking a turn up Duck Lane, Jean had been walking out to her mailbox, where she greeted me, then asked me to lunch.

I climbed into the eighty-year-old’s sports car the next day, and as I held on for dear life. Jean drove like she thought she was Mario Andretti. We stopped to pick up Thelma Elledge, who lived just down the road, and I thought, “Three for lunch, how fun.”

Twenty minutes later, we approached a restaurant table with nine others seated around it. It was my first introduction to the Friendly Neighbors Club, a ladies’ club that had originated in 1928, comprised of neighbors and farmers’ wives living in the Lake Lowell area. The group needed new blood, and I was it.

I lunched with the Club for the next fourteen years and then some, often riding with Jean and praying all the way there, and all the way back, but these days much has changed, and I do the driving.

Many Club members have, as the organization’s simple “In Memoriam” pamphlets put it, became “as a rose that climbed the garden wall and blossomed on the other side.” Some, in practicality mode, agreed to sell their larger country homes and most of their possessions to downsize into smaller places, or voluntarily go into assisted living facilities. A few went involuntarily. Some are in-between for now, living independently, but heading quite unwillingly towards something else.

I picked up Jean from the new home that she shares with hundreds of other residents. I know she misses her big white house with the fruit trees on Duck Lane, yet she tells me, “You bloom where you’re planted!” in that determined, spunky voice of hers.

We joke that my son’s car, which I borrow on Club days because my Jeep is too hard for Club friends to climb into, is the ‘limo’. It’s even black, so that helps. Jean loops her arm through mine, acting like it’s all about comradery, but I understand she might also want a little help balancing. 

“Let’s get out of here,” she tells me, “we’ve made enough trouble in this place. Let’s go cause trouble elsewhere.”

At the all-you-can-eat Chinese Restaurant, the table is more populated than usual. Nine members present is a good turnout these days. During the Club’s height, they had over fifty in attendance, but things have changed. The middle-aged women who used to attend in the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties wound up going to work in the following decades, and Club became hit and miss. I myself took a two-year sabbatical right after my divorce, since I worked during Club times.

This day in April marked the Club’s 87th anniversary.

Ruth sat across from me, and said, “I could use those things, but I’d starve to death.”
The entire club had an issue with my enjoyment of chopsticks.

“There’s always one,” Phyllis had said last year, when we’d all gone to the Mongolian Barbeque together.

“It doesn’t taste as good to me without chopsticks,” I tried to explain. No one replied.
I began to justify my chopstick-ing once more.

“My kids got good at it right away,” I ventured, “I had to practice for months to be able to eat with them like this.”

“I think it’s the sign of a show off,” joked Darlene. I think it was a joke, anyway.
They allowed me to change the subject.

“My son’s getting married this month,” I told them all, but only a few heard, given the long table we were seated at, “we just love the girl he’s marrying.”

Ruth gave her typical reply.

“Well, I’ll be!”

Her eyes softened as she thought about her own wedding. Everyone knew that Don, who’d passed away many years ago, had been the love of her life.

“I can’t recall ever arguing with the man,” Ruth said, “he was just a lovely, lovely person.”
Darlene, the ‘baby’ of the group, other than me, told me she’d been Ruth and Don Walker’s children’s babysitter many a time. She told of how Don would pick out Ruth’s necklaces, earrings, and bracelets for her dates with him. He had adored his wife, and loved to adorn her. Ruth was always decked out in gorgeous accessories,  which I liked to think might have been carry-overs from her Don days.

Ruth and I got to talking about Peggy.

“I didn’t even know she’d passed on,” I said.

“Oh, ye-esss,” Ruth said, in her cute Ruth way, “that was a while ago.”

“They told me at the last Club meeting when I asked,” I replied, “Peggy was something else. She said she’d never had a toothache, headache, backache…”

“Nope,” Ruth agreed, “she never did. She ran a corn topping crew in her late forties, while she was several months along in her pregnancy. She didn’t allow whining, and she was like a machine. Boy, those farmers sure loved her.”

All sorts of other conversations were going on around the table, and for the zillionth time, I wished I’d had a subtle yet legal way to record it all. Jean had been the secretary for a long, long time, keeping copious notes that she’d read back to us at the following month’s luncheons. As her hearing decreased, the humor of those notes increased. There was no telling how we might get misquoted from month to month, and the mischievous side of her was unapologetic. She’d eventually put down the torch, but no one caught it. I’d been hesitant to step in all of these years, knowing I was still considered as the ‘newbie’, but on this day, I didn’t care. I took a pen and a tiny lined composition book out of my purse and jotted down bits and pieces as fast as my fingers would fly.

“---remember McCall’s Corner?” someone was saying, “Did you ever know why they called it that? It had nothing to do with McCall. A family used to live there by the name of McCall. That’s why they called it ‘McCall’s Corner.’”

“---has anyone seen the old Lakeview schoolhouse lately?”

There were several nods and moans, and mine was among them. The place looked nothing like it used to in the old days, with its pristine white paint of yesteryear.

“I don’t want to go there,” someone said, and the rest of us nodded again.

“I heard it was really nice inside,” a member commented, adding, “and that they just keep the outside not so nice, so property taxes won’t go up.”

A thoughtful pause followed as we contemplated.

Ruth leaned toward me and said, “We used to hold Club in the basement of that school. They had this big crib down there for the babies, and we’d all stick our toddlers in it and let them play together.”

Laneal, who was member Verda’s daughter, changed the conversation’s course by inquiring, “Ruth, how long have you belonged to Club?”

“Oh, heavens!” Ruth said with a wave of the hand, “I have no idea.”

Margaret, who was Ruth’s official ride to Club these days, got a faraway look in her eye and said, “I don’t remember seeing you way back then.”

Ruth turned, feigned indignance, and said, “Well, I don’t remember seeing you!”

Both ladies chuckled.

History was always a topic at Club. Everyone there, myself included, had been through too much, seen too much not to discuss some of it.

“The Peterson’s place isn’t even there anymore,” said a member at the end of the table. And then, “Ruth? What happened to that land of yours?”

“I inherited it after Don died,” she replied, then admitted that she wasn’t sure who owned it currently, but said she didn’t believe it was anyone within the family.

I tried to bring up the topic of Peggy again.  She was a Club member that had fascinated me. Ruth was game.

“She was a very nice lady,” she said, “Very giving. My son said she helped him clean a goose he’d shot once. Or something like that.”

I agreed.

“We never left Peggy’s house empty-handed,” I said, “I used to take the kids Christmas caroling to Club members that still lived out around the lake. And on Halloween, we’d trick or treat out there before we went into town.”

Ruth was attentive as always, one of her many charms.

“Oh, I bet they just loved that,” she said kindly.

“One Halloween, we drove out to Peggy’s, and when my Jeep’s headlights hit the side of her house, we saw about twenty cats, all bundled up on top of each other, trying to stay warm on that really cold night…”

The memory was crystal clear. When the kids had hollered, “Trick or Treat!” to Peggy’s surprised person, it became obvious she hadn’t been prepared for callers. I had quickly whispered to the kids to ‘reverse Trick or Treat her, and they offered up pieces of candy. Peggy went along, but being the giver she was, returned gift for gift.

“Why don’t you take a kitty with you when you go?” she said, “there are a bunch to choose from over there by the garage.”

Three sets of blue eyes turned on me. In our family, we had a rule: If you asked Mom for something with an audience present for added pressure, the answer would automatically be ‘no’.  I realized I’d set no such rule in place with the rest of the population.

That’s how we wound up with an orange kitten named “Pumpkin”, who went on to father countless other kittens who nicely kept the mice numbers down on our acreage for years to come.

Ruth loved the story.

“Oh, my, ye-esss,” she grinned, then leaned forward once more.
I knew that stance. A story was on its way. 

"Did I ever tell you about our house in Hailey?" she asked.

She had, but I wanted to hear of it again.

“We had this house that had this circular floor plan, see. There was this hallway that went round and round. And my mother was deathly afraid of mice. One day, she saw a mouse, and she let out a scream. Daddy came a-runnin’, and he got out his shotgun, and I’ll be darned if he didn’t shoot at the thing. That made Mother scream some more, so Daddy shot again. Then Mother screamed again, so Daddy shot again.”

Ruth’s eyes crinkled with humor, and I knew the punchline was on its way.

“You have to wonder about the neighbors,” she mused, “Who heard three shots fired, and three screams, and still didn’t come over or call the police.”

I laughed, loving the way Ruth told a story.

“Peggy used to tell the story of O.D. Miller,” I began, “She told it every month I attended Club with her.”

“I don’t know that one,” Ruth said.

I felt myself start to grin, “I guess when she had a red-headed baby late in life, O.D. Miller started asking her where that child came from. He’d tease her about the milkman, the mailman, and such.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Ruth responded, “of all things.”

“Supposedly Peggy got so fed up with it, one day she told him, ‘You know why I had a red-headed kid? Because I guess I just got so durned old, my pipes were rusty!’”

“Well, I’ll be,” Ruth laughed, shaking her head.

Peggy had told that story consistently for years. When I asked my friend Julie to sing for the Club at one of their special anniversary luncheons, I gave her the heads up that she might hear a questionable tale or two. Julie assured me she was ready.

Halfway into the luncheon that year, Julie gave me a questioning look, as if to say, “When’s she going to do it?”

When the ladies got up to leave the restaurant, still no story. Julie acted as if she’d been gypped. I shrugged as we followed Peggy and the other ladies out into the parking lot. Peggy had been telling the mildly off-color story for over five years, how could she have failed me?

When Peggy reached for the passenger-side handle of the car she’d be riding home in, I knew it was a lost cause. But, then:

“You know,” she said, turning to face my friend, “I had this redheaded child a little late in life. And there was this old farmer, O.D. Miller, he used to tease me…”

As I recanted the episode to Ruth, she smiled broadly.

“She was quite a woman, that one, “ Ruth said again.

“So are you, Ruth,” I thought to myself, “So are you.”

“Are you taking notes?” Ruth asked now, noticing my pen and tiny notebook on the table, “Take this down,” she said, in a tone that let me know that whatever happened next would most certainly be funny.

“I wish I could drink like a lady,” Ruth recited, “One or two at the most. But one, I’m under the table. And two? I’m under the host.”

I blinked, trying to think of a comeback.

“Wow, Ruth, I wish I’d heard that sooner,” I told her.

“Really?” she said, genuinely concerned.

“Nah,” I laughed back.

More than anything, one of my greatest desires was to convey to the Club how much they meant to me, how amazing I thought they all were. Any attempts to do so had been humbly shushed. I’d written an article all about them for Idaho Magazine, which I proudly gave each lady a copy of at one of our meetings. Thinking they’d be flattered and thrilled, I watched as they thumbed through the story’s pages, and then set their magazines aside.
I bumped it up, turning the article into a chapter in my latest book, then brought the book to a club meeting. Surely this would get to them, I thought. Surely.

“Nice book, but I’m not going to buy it,” said a member with a chuckle. “I don’t read enough to spend $12.99.”

It seemed to be the general consensus.

That was okay. The Club didn’t have to buy my book, or even like it. They’d been there for me during all of the times that counted. The Christmas after my divorce, they’d all decided to give me the special, handmade ornament that they ordinarily drew straws for. Getting to take the yearly ornament home had been a somewhat friendly, competitive feather in one’s cap, and their graciousness touched me.

If there were extras of anything at Club meetings, I was told to bring them back to my children. On this anniversary day I’d been the host, and brought whimsical pinwheels the women delighted in, looking for a moment like the sweet, innocent school girls they once were.

Jean was holding her shiny, spring-toned pinwheel when she got back into my son’s car. 

“Wheeee!” she said in her elfin voice, between puffs that lit up the tines when catching the sunshine.

“So, how is your new family-in-law going to be?” she asked, and I loved her for asking. Jean was like an older auntie, always interested, always concerned.

“They’ll be great,” I said, “Except I might be off to a bad start.”

“What do you mean?” Jean said, sounding for all the world like Glinda the Good Witch, with that magical tone of hers.

“Well, the other day we all piled into the car, and since I didn’t want to sit in the back seat, I asked my son to let me drive.”

“I don’t see a problem with that,” Jean said supportively, “but go on.”

“Well, we were in this parking lot. I guess I released the emergency brake before turning on the ignition, and the car began rolling backwards. I noticed there was another car parked behind me, and panicked, trying to find the brake, but it was a stick shift, and I kept hitting the clutch or gas pedals, which did me no good.”

“Did you hit it?” Jean asked, bemused.

“Yep. And guess whose car it was?”

“Your lawyer’s?” she offered.

“Nope. My other son’s. He’d parked right behind us.”

Jean nodded, and looked like she was trying not to laugh.

“…so I hit my one son’s car while driving my other son’s car…” I continued.

“What did your future in-laws do?” Jean asked.

“I’m not sure about the others, but I saw my new future daughter-in-law’s dad slowly but surely reach over and buckle his seat belt.”

Jean’s giggling couldn’t be retained at that point.

At the assisted living facility, Jean took my arm, yet insisted on trying to open the big, heavy entrance doors for me. Those farm women just never quit.

“Well, I hope you’re glad you joined Club,” she said.

“I am, Jean,” I assured her, “I’ll always be thankful to you for that. The Club has made a big difference in my life.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that, dear,” she said. 

It’s been hard to see members getting older, moving out, moving on. 

“In thirteen years, the Club will celebrate their 100th anniversary,” I said to Jean, then inwardly chastised myself, knowing there was no way most of the women in the Club would be around by then. I carried on nervously, trying to mask the obvious.

“Maybe we could get the city to hold a parade,” I continued, “with fireworks.”

“Maybe we could,” Jean agreed amiably, “if we could get the powers that be to agree to it…”

“Oh, I’m sure they would,” I countered, “We’re the Club. We know people,” I told her with a little wink, so like the ones Jean used to give me when she’d talk about dancing with much, much younger men.

I walked Jean to her room with my arm looped through hers. For Jean, it was for balance. For me, the comradery. I loved my Club ladies.

“Oh, before I forget,” Jean said, holding out the sparkling pinwheel, “You have kids. Here.”
My kids were 24, 21, and 20, but that didn’t matter. I knew Jean and the other Friendly Neighbors had always been all about giving. I took the pinwheel, thanked her, and hugged her.

“Love you, Jean,” I said into the top of her white-haired head.

“Love you, dear,” she said back, and then stepped into her apartment.

“I’ll see you next month,” I told her, praying that would be the case. 

As I walked away, I remembered something Phyllis had said during a rare interview for that magazine article I’d written.

“Nothing ever really goes away. It just changes.”

The Friendly Neighbors Club will never really go away. It might change, but farm-girl friendships like the ones we’ve enjoyed have and will stand the test of time.

*Dedicated to Jean Wilkerson, Ruth Walker, Verda Allen, Charlotte Johnson, Margaret Lawrence, Marilyn White, Phyllis Saxton, Laneal Chirin, Barbara Dinius, Jelene Baird, Anita Welchel, and Darlene Fail.