We gather with Mr. Schultz in the wrought-iron fenced front courtyard of our building seven minutes after midnight. With little grass, but edged garden beds, there are plenty of spots for Mr. Schultz’s new year’s dig. I do not bring my midnight-sipped champagne out of respect for this man I have come to care for deeply over the last thirty-six hours. Others do. Cocktails, mocktails, wine. Even though I know several are drunk, the group tempers its celebrating out loud. Marina debuts her faux white fur jacket, a gift from a pleased client who now has his tastefully minimalist and masculine house back after his divorce. The shovel rests in my hands waiting for Mr. Schultz’s direction.
I had only had the opportunity to meet Mr. Schultz once before talking with him yesterday. He moved in to the first floor apartment in August after it had sat vacant for six months. I helped him carry in his kitchen dishes and table linens as his sons directed me where to put the boxes. Mr. Schultz’s puppy-dog eyes told me without words “thank you” and “I am sorry for their behavior.” His eyes also looked sad, troubled, but with his sons dictating the apartment arrangements as if HGTV would be stopping by to bestow a tidying up title on them, I left without a proper introduction. I hoped I would get a chance.
I love where I live. A big old building that was once a library then a community center now converted into eight apartments. I met my neighbors early on in my tenure as resident of The Minty, named after the closed peppermint candy factory one black west.
I moved here almost seven years ago. A college grad with independence on my mind, but without the finances to match. Mrs. Schuster, the land lady who lives in a small white bungalow across the street, had a soft part in her heart for my story – a suffering college graduate ready to earn money and make a difference in society, but lacking the work experience to afford a clean and safe living space on my own.
For the first two years, she gave me a discount on my rent for the weekly cleaning of the common areas: the entry way, a small lounge on the third floor, and the laundry room in the basement. Grateful for my adopted family here, I still clean the rooms, proud of our community.
It was in the laundry room yesterday that I ran into Mr. Schultz, crying.
“Oh, Mr. Schultz. What is upsetting you?” I asked before realizing he did not recognize me. “I’m Anna from unit E, third floor.”
He nodded as if he remembered me even though I don’t think he did. He stood in front of the utility sink cleaning dried dirt off of a hoe.
“Getting ready for some December gardening?” I joked. While all of the major snow systems had missed the area so far this winter, the rousing twenty-six-degree temperature did not invite winter gardening.
He sobbed harder. “I am sorry for my lack of composure,” he tried to snap back at me, but his kind voice won’t let him. “Yes. Yes. I am the crazy fool who will be out gardening, as you call it, tomorrow night.”
“Gardening at night on New Year’s Eve during winter? Maybe you know something I don’t about the right time to sow seeds,” I spoke lightly trying to lighten his mood.
He lifted his gaze from the sink and with a slight smile said, “Not quite.”
Removing his smooth weathered brown wallet from his pocket, he pulled out two photographs of women, one in black and white and one in color. Both women wore wedding attire. One in a simple gown with a pill-box hat and lace veil. The other in a cream suit carrying a bouquet of red roses.
“Why I dig in winter,” he whispered as he traced the edges of the photographs with his scaled fingers. Pointing at the black and white picture, Mr. Schultz began.
“This is my Peggy. My first wife and the joy of my soul. We were married for nearly forty years. She gave me two handsome, sturdy, and reliable boys. She got the cancer of the lady parts and died a year later.”
His gaze moved to the other picture, “This is my Linnie, Belinda to everyone else. I met her five years after Peggy died at BINGO and burgers night at my church. She was the number caller. She sparkled with all her jewelry, had voice so loud it echoed in the rec hall, and wore a cowboy hat and boots.” Mr. Schultz paused. “We married five weeks later at the courthouse. Really upset the boys, but Linnie liked my spunk, as she put it. And I needed her spontaneity and laughter in my life.”
He labored that both women should have out lived him, especially his second wife who was ten years younger and an avid runner. Linnie was struck by a car while opening their mailbox. She died on the street in front of the house.
“My sons thought I was lost in my house so they convinced me to sell it and move here,” he proclaimed waived his arms in frustration. “I now live halfway between them and see them less than when I lived an hour and a half away.”
A lonely man during the loneliest time of the year. With my unofficial title as the Community Keeper, I realized my only goal until the end of the year – get Mr. Schultz to attend Marina’s New Year’s Eve party.
A top interior designer and event planner extraordinaire, Marina throws a fabulous New Year’s Eve party where, every year, she somehow gets attendees to forget preconceived biases and attitudes and celebrate the passing of time as a community of friends.
When I asked Mr. Schultz if he had received Marina’s foil-embossed invitation to the bash, he shook his head yes, but said he would not attend. He would have his traditional one Budweiser and some supper and spend a few minutes gardening before hopefully falling asleep to sound of the late, late news.
“Well, at least come for dinner. You will not be disappointed. Marina’s caterer puts together a spread that rival’s any party in the area. You can leave with plenty of time to do what you need to do.”
Mr. Schultz picked up his tools and headed for the door, “I’ll think about it. Now if you will excuse me, I need to get back to my apartment.”
Ten o’clock the next morning, I rapped lightly on his door to hear his decision. Mr. Schultz opened the door looking dapper in his brown slacks, dress shirt and plaid vest, and tweed sport coat. His feet covered with high polished brown leather shoes.
“You look great Mr. Schultz. Are you going somewhere?” I asked as he modeled his attire for me.
“I will go to that party if you will help me with something.” He paused, “Please listen and do not laugh. It may sound out of sorts for you of the younger generation. But for my me and my family, traditions are as serious as the childbirth – they both must happen.”
He shared his story of feasting as a young boy on New Year’s Eve one year only to have mere morsels the next. His mother, a woman of great mind and devoted spirit, refused to let their lack of food ruin their holiday celebrations. At New Year’s Eve dinner, she asked all eight at the dining table to leave at least one bite of their ham sandwich on their plates. She had made the Christmas ham last all the way to December 31st and wanted to celebrate the family’s ability to live frugally, but keep the holidays merry and Christ-centered.
“I had no idea why she wanted us to leave one bite. I did as I was told and left one bite – mostly crust and a slim shaving of ham,” Mr. Schultz shared proudly as if his mother was listening.
At eleven-forty-five, his mother summoned the household to put on their coats and boots and meet her at the front door.
“Since we never argued with Mama’s requests, we all did it”
She ordered her family out into the front yard where they saw a lantern illuminating the frozen and frosted row of hibernating rose plants. A massive shovel lain next to a freshly dug hole between the plants.
“I immediately thought the cat had died because, well, he was old and ate our table droppings and garbage and was fat,” Mr. Schultz shared in a young child’s voice. I was beginning to see the curtain rise over his outward stone demeanor revealing a lighter and more jovial man.
Holding the lantern over the hole, his mom showed the family the ham sandwich bites laying at the bottom of the pit. After leading them in prayer, she covered the hole chanting a line in Irish from an old folk tale. When she finished, she announced their offering would ensure them enough food for the rest of their lives.
“How she knew this I have no clue, but our family was blessed with enough food each year,” Mr. Schultz remembered. “Both Peggy and I and Linnie and I made hams on Christmas and saved enough for New Year’s Eve sandwiches, always leaving one bite. My sons helped me carry on the last two years, but neither could come tonight.” His eyes looked heavy again.
“Anna, if I go to the party, can you help me keep the tradition alive?”
I suddenly felt like I was talking to a member of my own family so terrified that losing a ritual might kill them. Hell yeah I was in. Mr. Schultz handed me a shovel and gave instructions; he asked if I could pick him up at eight.
I texted the Minty crew via group chat the entire story and asked them to simply follow Mr. Schultz’s lead right after midnight. Mr. Schultz made it clear that he did not want to ask anyone to give up their midnight celebration so after midnight worked as well.
“I have to admit Peggy and I were late a couple of years,” Mr. Schultz confessed.
Being an agreeable and adventurous crew, all of the tenants were thrilled with the end-of-year surprise.
I escorted Mr. Schultz carrying his ham sandwich in a zip lock to Marina’s apartment a few minutes after eight. Marina, in her infinite hosting wisdom and charm, had a discrete, but stunning blue porcelain china plate on a table to the left of the door for his sandwich. Within ten minutes, Marina made introductions and provided Mr. Schultz with a succinct and humorous bio of everyone in attendance.
“Better watch out for Harris over there,” she joked with Mr. Schultz. “He’s got enough stories about his travel adventures to keep you busy until new year’s next year.”
At two minutes after twelve, Mr. Schultz gestured to me that it was time. I motioned to Marina to gather everyone. Mr. Schultz and I led the procession down to the front yard.
Mr. Schultz walks by the beds to the right of the entry sidewalk, partygoers quietly in tow. Baby Susan, the Zang’s one-year-old, sleeps peacefully in her dad, Tao’s arms. The Schmidt’s bribe their two grade school sons with extra video game time after breakfast if they stay quiet. Mr. Schultz pauses over a small patch of bare ground between a dried up perennial bloom and one of the rose bushes intermixed throughout the beds. He motions to the ground and then gently waves me over to his spot.
With a nod of his head, I break through the ground on the first try. Thanks to the light winter and an abundance of rain during the previous year, the ground is still soft enough to dig a hole. Calvin shines the light from his phone a foot or so from where I am digging, illuminating the ground without blinding me. His husband, Harris, holds the Nikon he uses on his photojournalist assignments and contorts his body to capture Mr. Schultz’s time-honored tradition.
I stop digging about six inches in. Mr. Schultz pulls a folded napkin from his pocket. He removes the last bite of his ham sandwich and places it in the hole. He closes his eyes and pauses.
“Food feeds the body and the soul. May it bring bountiful provisions to everyone this year and every year.”
I cover the food with dirt and gently tap the food grave three times as instructed by Mr. Schultz – one tap each for his mother and two wives. He chants “Food be get, food be gone. May all who need it have a new dawn.”
We all pause after he finishes. Then in small tribes, the residents head back upstairs to the party.
I lock my elbow with his and he smiles. “This year looks to be a good one,” he says. “Now take me back to that party. I want to taste some of Marina’s creamy brulee and talk with Harris about his photos from Africa.”
He is an official Minty resident now.