“I wish it was me.”
It never occurred to me when I told Ms. Dot that my father had passed away that she would be jealous, but in some small way, it made the news I was sharing a little less painful. I, still being a young man, viewed death as a tragedy but to people like my father and Ms. Dot, it was a relief, a welcomed end to a life longing for completion. I guess her subtle comfort shouldn’t have been a surprise, after all, Ms. Dot had been looking over my wife, daughter, and me since we moved next door to her almost seventeen years earlier.
Her given name was Dorothy, but in all the time I’d known her no one had ever called her that. Her old friends, of which there were only a few, called her Dot, and younger folks like myself and my family referred to her with a respectful Ms. in front of her preferred nickname.
She was already seventy years old when we first knocked on her door but she was a firecracker nonetheless. She invited us in as if we were family even though she just met us at that moment. She was a short but substantial black woman with a welcoming smile and an affectionate handshake. I can’t say for certain but I believe that was the first and last time I ever shook her hand. Both Ms. Dot and I were hugging people and when we met we hugged.
As far as we could tell she had never been married but she had a delightful old friend named Mr. Hank who visited from time to time. He was skinny as a rail with a head full of white hair and in every sense of the word he was a gentleman. Mr. Hank was at least forty years my senior but he was more nimble and more active than me. I don’t know if Ms. Dot and Mr. Hank were romantically involved, but in reality, I couldn’t care less. They were salt of the earth people who believed that some things should remain private.
After our first encounter with Ms. Dot, it didn’t take long for her to become a surrogate mother to my wife and me, and a grandmother to my daughter. At the time I was working far from home but I found comfort in knowing that Ms. Dot watched over my family with the same care and concern as I did. She would peer out the side window of her modest one-story house throughout the day making sure all was well. On more than one occasion we would hear a firm knock on the door from our favorite neighbor just checking in because she hadn’t seen activity for a time. On almost every occasion we would selfishly invite her in so she could regale us with stories from her youth. Most times I would remain quiet and marvel at a woman who was old enough to have known someone who might have been bought and sold on an auction block yet exhibited no anger or malice towards anyone.
There was very little Ms. Dot required, in return for her friendship and love. She expected to be invited to our home every Thanksgiving and Christmas, and of this, there was no problem. You see it just wasn’t Christmas if Ms. Dot wasn’t there and she was at the top of the list of things for which we were thankful.
Every year, at Christmas time, we would all shop together for Ms. Dot. One year we got her a new sweater, another some pajamas, and still another a television for her room. Each year, however, we would supplement the gift with a gift card from a local restaurant. The only rule being that we would all go together. There are few memories in my life more pleasant than those dinners with our grand old friend.
We were also her de facto exterminators and were at the ready when any creature or critter invaded her home. I was summoned to rid her of a lizard who had found its way into her back sitting room. She had tried to lure the unwelcome guest with peanut butter to no avail. I'm not sure how the two of us caught that poor lizard in the Tupperware container, but catch it we did and, together as triumphant hunters, we released it into the woods behind her house. We were also were called when Ms. Dot discovered a bat in her basement. My wife and I, not being bat removal experts, spent the better part of an hour trying to catch the flying rodent, only being successful when the poor little guy was too exhausted to fly. To this day it is still a story impossible to tell without breaking into hysterical laughter.
When my daughter, who had been a Girl Scout her entire life, needed to come up with a Gold Award project to achieve her troop's highest honor, she settled on one she called the “Ms. Dot Project.” Struck by how important and impactful her interactions had been with our wonderful neighbor, she set out to connect seniors with seniors. My daughter, knowing there was a volunteer requirement to be considered for The National Honor Society, set up a program through which high school seniors would volunteer at a local senior center doing both group and one on one projects. In some ways, Ms. Dot was responsible for a lot of lonely senior citizens having regular visitors, and for a lot of seniors in high school benefiting from the vast knowledge that comes with a life long-lived. The project only need run for a single year for a Girl Scout to get credit for her award, but the Ms. Dot Project ran for many years after my daughter graduated, a tribute to its namesake and with similar tenacity.
If ever a person deserved to live forever, it would have been the angel who lived next door but just under four years later Ms. Dot finally got her wish. When we went to her memorial service we found that that kind loving woman had a secret even we didn’t know. She made the rounds on Thanksgiving as more than one eulogist attested. Apparently there were scores of people who had our same Ms. Dot Thanksgiving story. I remember that day, as I looked around the standing-room-only service, just how happy I was to know how many lives Ms. Dot had touched. Contrary to popular belief she didn’t know everyone in town but she sure came close. I was also reminded of what she had said when I told her the news about my father and I could help but think that even at that moment, overcome by unimaginable grief, if someone had asked who lived next door to her I would proudly say I’m glad it was me.