Messages From Carrie
Love Notes and Yard Art
November 18th, 2011
Janet Snopes stood up at the October meeting of The College View Neighborhood Association.
“It’s an eyesore, it’s tacky, and frankly it’s just a little embarrassing, and I believe there maybe a littering problem. I mean this is an educated community.”
As usual, following any pronouncement by Janet, the room let out a collective sigh. College view was an older section of town that was reasonably near campus, built in the days of fine hand craftsmanship, front porches, built in shelves and simple lines. It had gone from vibrant neighborhood to gradually aging owners to college student rental property. By the 1980’s the street had gone into sad disrepair with only the small indicators of it’s former solid charm. Then in the financially optimistic days of the 1990’s a wave of style conscious couples and families started buying up the large bungalows and craftsman houses. They pulled up the shag carpet and refinished the oak floors, they stripped years of paint off the base boards and moldings, and they steamed away layers of wallpaper and fixed the leaky windows. They planted hydrangeas and hosta and spring daffodils to compliment the tall wide trees that graced the newly rebuilt sidewalk. After a semester of particularly noisy and party prone students, who played loud music far into the night and filled their front porches and yards with saggy old sofas and lawn chairs, a group of the homeowners got together and formed the College View Neighborhood Association. They petitioned the city for stricter noise regulations and set up a neighborhood watch to discourage thief or vandalism. The cleaned up the alleys and pushed city government to begin recycling pick up. They became a connected and committed community. Eventually, in the 2000 decade, most of the rentals returned to single-family ownership. And, as the neighborhood became more quiet and safe, The College View Association had shifted from being primarily a watchdog group, to a much friendlier organization, encouraging the use of weatherizing, environmentally friendly lawn care and reviving the annual summer block party. But Janet Snopes, was a woman who relished a good fight and found a real or imagined wrongs to right everywhere she looked, and she had turned her gaze to Ella’s front yard. The meeting had gone late, and everyone knew that Janet could be a bit of a pain, so Sharon moved to adjourn and take up Janet’s topic next month, and Jenny quickly seconded the motion.
Ella house was a green bungalow situated at the corner lot of College View and University Avenue. It had a wide, gracious front porch, that even in the middle of a hard summer rain you could sit on her old style metal glider and not get wet. Ella was in her 90’s and the only original owner still living in the neighborhood. Having passed through all the decline and revival, she was the neighborhood’s one solid and always present soul. Ella and her husband Ray had built their house in 1947, newly married and soon after Ray returned from military service. Ray had worked as an electrician at the Westinghouse plant from 1953 until he’d retired. Although they never had children of their own, in that original neighborhood everyone thought of them as family, sideway relatives who lived just down the street. Ella was always good for a home baked cookie or on a hot summer day, a glass of red or green Kool-Aid tinkling with ice cubes pulled from her old style metal ice cube tray. Ray was always on hand if a neighbor’s circuit blew or to offer carburetor or electrical advice when groups of men still stood around open hooded cars and fixed them without the aid of computerized diagnostic tools. As they aged the neighborhood changed and there were not so many families, but they were still known, even by the renters, as the nice old people down the street. No one soaped their windows, slit their tires or turned over there garbage cans even when the neighborhoods was at it’s rowdiest.
In 1985 Ray retired. He felt unfocused and a little at loose ends. He was restless in the way that only a man who was looking at two empty hands, a man who has done honest work every day of his adult life can be. He puttered in his woodshop back in the garage, he’d read and reread his stack of national geographic magazines. He tinker around with the car and fixed the cord of an old toaster oven. One day he was hanging around the house and underfoot until Ella had finally had enough and shooed him outside saying “Ray, it’s a lovely day, maybe there’s some yard work you could do.” Ray, a little put out and disgruntled slumped out onto the porch. He surveyed the yard and garage and sidewalks. He had let the place go a little in the past few years. Then Ray got an idea. He hatched the notion of starting his own lawn beautification plan. He put on his yard gloves and set to mowing the lawn. He then edged the grass at the sidewalk and stacked the fireplace wood more neatly next to the garage. At the end of the day he straightened his tired back and felt good about the visible difference he’d made in that one day. So in the coming weeks he pruned back the old lilac bush and mulched the flowerbeds. He thatched and reseeded the grass, fixed the gutter spouts and patched the cracks in the driveway. Finally after much determined beautification, Ray looked out at his tidy homestead and felt proud. Ray looked around at the declining neighborhood and thought to himself “You know, what this house and neighborhood really needs is a little cheering up.” So he went to a garden shop out on the edge of town and returned with a somewhat larger than life cement rabbit that was wearing a waistcoat and britches. It’s stood up on its hind legs and offered a little waiter’s tray with a flourish. He told Ella that he had picked out this rabbit because it reminded him of how he met her. Ella had been working as a waitress at the old Ladyman’s Café downtown. He saw her pouring coffee and taking orders on a small waitress pad, with a stub of a pencil that she’d touch to her tongue before she began writing. She laughed easily and worked hard and she had shoulder length wavy red hair. To Ray she looked like a hometown Rita Hayworth. She’d taken his order with a wide generous smile and when she turned and left to place his order he’d caught the scent of her Shalimar perfume. After that, Ray spent way too much of his weekly pay on breakfasts and lunches he couldn’t afford that the diner. He’d watch her carrying those trays of eggs, country ham and fried potatoes, dressed in a yellow waitress uniform and white apron. He told a friend who had joined him for breakfast that someday he was going to married that girl. His friend had answered by raising one eyebrow. When Ella heard the story and why he’d bought the little rabbit waiter, she smiled and hugged him long and hard around the neck. Ella loved the rabbit and every time she looked out the window she would remember how her own heart skipped a beat when she passed his table and how he’d wink at her when she was making coffee. They started putting little things on the tray just for fun. Peanuts still in the shell for the squirrels and birds, a cut flower from the garden. But then Roy began to leave Ella little notes on the tray. Each morning he would leave a bit of paper or 3x5 card weighted down by a small rock so it wouldn’t blow away. Ella loved that if she checked later in the day, when she returned from grocery shopping or a meeting of her book club at the library, there would be a message for her on the rabbit tray. The notes always signed with a smile a l-shaped nose, three lines of hair standing straight up and two eyes, one a dot, and the other a horizontal wink. The notes said “Here’s looking at you kid” and “To my honeybunch “ “Happy Birthday” “Happy Anniversary” and “Hotch cha cha cha cha.” After she read each note she would usually go find Ray and give him another hug around the neck. That was how Ella and Ray’s foray into yard art collecting began. They started frequenting the yard art and statuary store out on the bypass. They brought home five small ducklings to trail behind momma duck because it reminded them of the pond at Ray’s parent’s old farm. They bought kissing Dutch children in honor of Ella’s maternal grandmother and grandfather who had come over from Holland with nothing but a suitcase and a sewing machine. They put out a cement collie dog that stood at faithful attention to honor Blondie who brought in their paper and slept at the foot of the bed for 15 years. They bought a gnome with a staff and a little gargoyle to protect the house as the neighborhood got seedier. Their purchases began to get bigger and eventually Ray borrowed a flat bed truck and brought home a life-sized angel with open hands and bare feet. Once after Easter Sunday service together they picked out and brought home a sweet faced Madonna. Ella said she like the lady, because if she were to be completely honest, God had always seemed so big and bossy, and Jesus was just too perfect and every hair in place. But she always thought that Mary, with her passel of kids, a woman who did regular work like hanging clothes and cooking dinner, was a much easier person to have an occasional heart to heart with. One memorial day they brought home the poured concrete shoes of a solider, which they placed it near the orange Tiger Lilies. Ray recited the names of some his friends who did not come home from the war all those many years ago. Jim Berman, Carl Hanover, Lee Richey and Thomas Kelly. He pulled out his pocket-handkerchief, wiped his eyes and blew his nose. He and Ella stood there quietly, hand in hand, while as the evening gathered. They continued collecting yard statuary. Each piece was a remembrance, an image that delighted or comforted. They were sentinels and protectors. They were winks and nods and love notes. They were literally touch stones and Ray still left a small note each day on the tray of the rabbit waiter now in the place of honor at the center of the yard, surrounded by a whole concrete collection of cousins and relations.
They were beautiful.
They filled the yard.
Today Ella is looking out the window at the wide winged angel, and at her always-affable Madonna. She likes to sit here in the sunlight with her morning tea. and enjoys watching how the morning light rests so gently on all those familiar images. Ray passed last year. He slipped away quietly after a bout with pneumonia. He had gotten over the illness, but it had taken too much out him. Ella remembers how back when she was a girl folks called pneumonia “The old people’s friend.” Especially when the old person was like Ray, basically good humored, blessedly healthy, but their bodies were simply wearing out and winding down like a pocket watch that had been wound so often and for so long that the springs and small gears just couldn’t hold on the true time anymore. No shock or momentary panic of heart attack or long drawn out cancer, just a finally letting go, a gradual quieting of the breath. She remembers how after the memorial service she’d gotten down all those shoeboxes from the hall closet. Each box had been secured down with a bit of string that she cut with her little sewing scissors. All the boxes full of little notes, 3x5 cards and love letters – each and every one signed with a grin and a wink.
She had read them all.
Then she read them again.
Then she had kissed each one as she put them back in the shoebox.
Now every morning she goes out to the rabbit, and places her own note on the tray. But unlike Ray she places no stone to hold it there.
She just lets the wind carry them and sending them lifting down the street, and out into the world.
Wednesday, on her way to the doctor, Sharon found a piece of paper in the holly bush next to font door. She picked it out of the sticky leaves and read, “Don’t be afraid.” On Thursday, while walking her dog, Tonya caught a note that was tripping down the down the street. It said, “You’re right where you need to be. It all starts from here.” Gavin the UPS driver stepped out of the truck in front of Jenny’s house. He stooped and took up a small card lying on the sidewalk. He read, “There is still wonder in the world.” On Friday, Janet pulled into her driveway and found a wet 3x5 card sticking to the front porch steps. All it said was, “It will be alright. It just takes time.” She looked down the street, the late autumn wind whipping down from the corner of College View and University Avenues.
At the November Campus View Neighborhood Association Meeting no motion or disparaging comments were made about Ella’s front yard – or ever again for that matter.