Twenty years ago, my husband and I lived in a small town in West Tennessee. He worked for a Swedish company, and we befriended the company’s president and his wife, Rose Mary. I haven’t thought of them in years, yet the mention of their names makes me smile. Gabe recently reminded me of the beautiful landscape tapestries Rose Mary wove. Indeed, it was fascinating to watch the way she carefully spun fine, distinctively colored threads together to create the desired color palette.
Sunday afternoon we headed home from a weekend away with old friends: the type of good friends beside whom conversation and silence offer the same comfortable cushion. Driving back, we detoured into that hometown of 20 years ago, flooding ourselves with memories. Karl Erik and Rose Mary moved away long ago, but deeply embedded in every recollection of that era were our former next door neighbors, Mary and Maurice (Mo), so we decided to pay them a surprise visit. Surely they must be nearing 80, yet there they were, happy to see us: their bright laughs, their warm presence, their memories making it feel as if no time had passed. Suddenly I was 20 years younger, engaged in a friendly Christmas light competition with Mo.
Like the finest yarns on Rose Mary’s craft table, Mo and Mary were essential threads in our family tapestry.
Perched amongst the towering pines in their backyard was the greatest of treehouses. When Mo found out his new neighbors had little girls, he set about fortifying it. Their grandson Philip—just between our older two daughters in age—visited for the summers, and the three children were inseparable, riding bikes and playing outside until dusk every day. Soon Mary and Mo’s home became an extension of our own (and the kids were known to “double dip” when it came to requesting snacks). I tried to teach Philip to swim; Gabe and Mo took turns running beside Elena as she began to ride a bike; and it was Mo’s strong hands that held Anna’s as she learned to roller blade. We shared the horror of 9-11; they grieved with us over our beloved dog’s death; and Mary was amongst the first to hold our third baby daughter. My dad, Mo and Gabe tackled several weekend projects when my parents came to visit—hearty laughter and tall tales descending on our two houses like a benediction.
I’ll never forget the evening when Anna and Elena spied a kitten in a tall tree across the street. Its mewing broke their hearts. “Please save it,” they begged their father and Mo. Those two men went out, into the dark, navigating a dangerously tall ladder into the limbs. Each time Gabe got close to the kitten, it scurried farther away and Mo called out direction adjustments: “Move left! Move right!” Both more than a little skittish of heights, each man took turns as the climber and the holder of the ladder. Mary and I watched nervously below, convinced those two bulky men would kill themselves, while we tried to calm the crying girls and the hungry baby in my arms. When the kitten was finally rescued, it wriggled out of my grateful daughter’s arms only to immediately dart back up the tree. Sweating and breathing heavy, Mo and Gabe swore at each other: “That cat is staying put!”
Mo is a retired college football coach and Mary a retired teacher. Their stories of the places they lived and the students they mentored were captivating and endless. There was seemingly little common ground in our racial or ethnic backgrounds, and yet as a young working mother of three small children, Mary and Mo were my lifeline when I was the most tired and my cheerleaders in times of joy. Today, when I attempt to define goodness, they are my touchstone.
Mary has a picture on the wall of Philip and our girls, and I am profoundly grateful to think that perhaps we occupy a small piece of their tapestry.
Our visit was short and I have no idea when we might see Mary and Mo again, but my heart beats a little lighter assured they are there and well. The treehouse finally rotted and had to come down, and over the decades there has been sickness, cancer, financial troubles, and the loss of parents. Philip is now a father of two, and my little girls stealing popsicles have grown up and left us all. But the knowledge that Mo and Mary are on their pine shaded deck, that their smiles and their love still radiate, gives me hope for our collective world. We all need neighbors like Mary and Mo. We all need to be neighbors like them… blind to our differences, united in our common life goals. Doors wide open.
On the drive home the sun bathed our path, and the autumn trees were in full bloom. After a week of news and noise, I was thankful for the lulling whoosh of tires taking me home, and for the kaleidoscope of friends whose thumbprints rest tenderly on our hearts. In the words of Carole King:
My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.
I wonder what threads we are contributing to other people’s tapestries— what impacts, petite or powerful, each of us makes.