“Being a good neighbor is an art which makes life richer.”—Gladys Taber
The tall, gray-haired fellow walked slowly toward me from the small house next door. There only for a phone number on the “For Sale” sign nailed to a pine tree at Lake Murvaul in East Texas, I had no idea I was about to meet the best neighbor I would ever have.
It’s my opinion that the art of neighboring is dying, the victim of instant, easy and impersonal communication. I was again reminded of that recently while being updated on Center, Texas, news—incredibly, via text from a good friend and former Center resident now living on the other side of the state. “Haven’t heard that,” I told him. ”You’d think news in a small town would travel faster.”
“It did before the internet,” was my friend’s profound comeback. He was right. The result of more and more email, texts, tweets, etc., is less and less visiting across the fence, across the street and across the coffee shop table.
“Looking to buy a place on the lake,” the old fellow quizzed me that afternoon. “Good fishin’ here. You’ll like it,” he continued. His thinning gray hair, weathered face and slow walk revealed his age in years. His smile, twinkling eyes, and friendly curiosity uncovered a much younger heart. “I love this lake, wouldn’t live anywhere else. Retired and moved here from Dallas 17 years ago.”
In the weeks that followed, Mr. Bill made working on our newly acquired lake property tolerable. “How ’bout a glass of tea,” I heard him call out, then looked over the edge of the roof where I was working in mid-July to see him holding two glasses of iced tea. “Come on down,” he laughed. “I got a new joke for you.” He always had a new joke, and no one laughed louder or longer at them than he did.
“Come over for supper later,” he offered as he headed back across the easement that separated us. “Katherine’s fixin’ pork chops. I might save you one,” he chuckled.
Mr. Bill and Miss Katherine quickly “adopted” my children. He timed his afternoon picnic table coffee break to coincide with the arrival of the Gary, Texas, ISD school bus. “Y’all better get over here,” he’d announce as they stepped off the bus. “Katherine just made cookies.”
“Bug,” was the name my daughter selected for the scruffy Terrier mutt she adopted, but Bill called the puppy, “Bitsey.” Robin constantly corrected him, but to no avail. I soon learned this was just Bill’s teasing way of keeping Robin’s attention. The dog with two names soon became Bill’s “bus alert.” Long before Bill’s failing ears heard the school bus coming, the dog’s head would pop up as she looked toward the curve signaling him that it was near.
Good hearing was not a requirement for his fishing, however. You could set your watch by the sound of Bill’s boat heading out full-throttle as the sun came up on the cove, and again just before the sun dropped behind the pine trees on the other side. “Catch anything?” I’d call out when I saw him coming back. “Naw,” he’d laugh. “One tried to jump on my hook, but I talked him out of it.”
Every back porch around the cove was within “hollering” distance, a perfectly acceptable form of communication. Every porch was also within sight, meaning that meandering toward your pier with a cup of coffee hoping to catch fish hitting the top of the water guaranteed someone would soon join you—coffee cup in hand.
Pier sitting wasn’t a requirement with Bill, though. “Got any more of that coffee,” he’d often ask, sticking his head in the back door on Saturday morning. “Katherine won’t let me have any more. Says I don’t need it. If she calls, don’t tell her I’m over here,” he’d laugh, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
Miss Katherine was a determined woman, and she determined one day that it was time to sell their lake property and move closer to kids and grand kids in Ft. Worth. “Crazy woman,” Bill said, shaking his head one evening as we sat on the back porch. “I came to this lake to stay.” He protested to everyone, except Miss Katherine of course, and the “For Sale” sign went up on the hilltop place they had called home for 20 years.
‘Where ya’ going,” I asked one afternoon as I saw him heaving suitcases in the car. “Goin’ to Ft. Worth to see the kids,” he replied. Looking around to make sure Miss Katherine wasn’t within earshot, he smiled and said, “If anyone stops to look at the house, tell ’em it’s eaten up with termites, the roof leaks and the plumbing’s shot.”
“Got ‘cha,” I laughed. “Have a good trip.” The little place next door eventually sold, Bill and Katherine moved to Fort Worth and closer to family, all about the same time opportunity called me to Boerne in the Texas Hill Country. But to this day, every time someone talks about good neighbors, I still see the best neighbor I ever had coming across the easement laughing and saying, “I got a new joke for you…”
— Leon Aldridge