Standing at my shaving mirror in these first mornings of spring, I knew that a few feet away, Ethel Hamilton was quietly passing her last days on Earth.
Ethel lived with her husband, Bobby, just across the fence from us, but it isn’t much of a fence, and it’s done little to separate us from people that we’ve also counted as friends.
Ethel, trim and spry and beautiful even at age 76, seemed ready to live forever, but she got sick with cancer near the end of winter, and her doctors told her she’d probably be gone by Easter. She chose to die as she had lived — in the house that she had loved, within a neighborhood she had nurtured as an extended family. Ethel left us on April 3.
When we bought our house a decade and a half ago, the real estate listing detailed the size of the lot, the number of bedrooms, the presence of a shed in the backyard. What the classified ad did not reveal — and what no advertisement ever does — was the kind of neighbors we might have once we moved in. We signed the purchase agreement and hoped for the best.
The best is what we got. As we pulled into the driveway to take possession of the house, we had yet to turn the key when Ethel and Bobby appeared from next door, offering help.
During our first trip away from home, we asked Ethel if she’d mind collecting our mail and newspapers. She readily agreed, using a spare key to have everything waiting for us on the day of our return — the newspapers neatly stacked like firewood at one end of the couch, with the mail bundled nicely in a plastic sack nearby.
Those piles of newspapers and sacks of mail were the first things that greeted us over the years as we entered our house after long journeys from home. They were a bright reminder that following a week’s vacation with fellow tourists, we had once again rejoined the circle of a woman who knew us and loved us.
Ethel had no children of her own, but in her own way, she was everyone’s mother. I remember her regularly rolling out the garbage cans of another neighbor too frail to tackle the job herself. When we shared a cake or pie with Ethel, she reflexively cut it in half to share with someone else.
Ethel cultivated the habit of generosity within days defined by routine. Every Saturday evening, a car would arrive and honk its horn for Ethel, signaling that her ride to vigil Mass had arrived. I came to regard that honking horn as a call to prayer — not quite as lovely as a church bell, but just as insistent in its power to evoke the possibility of a life ordered by faith.
At the heart of Ethel’s faith rested the biblical invocation to love thy neighbor, a principle that most of us regard as merely a nice idea, although she embraced it as a way of life.
In Ethel’s obituary, someone noted that Ethel and Bobby had “long-time relationships with their neighbors.”
If more of us aspired to have that in our obituaries, the world would be a better place.