When we bought our house four years ago, we inherited The Old Lady Next Door. Dorothy, as I’ll call her, lives in a house about three inches from our own. Her tiny, one-story house is set all the way back on her property, taking up about 1/5 of her lot. The other 4/5 of her property amounts to a gigantic lawn stretching from said house down to the sidewalk. The first image I have of Dorothy is what I saw when I spied on her and the rest of the street from my kid’s upstairs bedroom window the summer we moved in.
Every morning that summer, Dorothy ambled out to the enormous lawn, which was deep, violent green and perfectly manicured. She spent hours crouched on her knees at the edge of the grass, pruning rose bushes, rearranging wood chips, polishing garden fairies and pulling out any errant weeds that dared to break the uniformity of her smooth grass carpet.
When she wasn’t lawn-grooming or looking after her husband, Dorothy walked her newly acquired companion, an edgy little Maltese I’ll call McDoodles, around the neighborhood. McDoodles was adopted and apparently had been mistreated at some point, Dorothy confided in us, because he seemed “a little” mistrusting of people. He also didn’t like other dogs, and we learned quickly that a hopeful sniff or excited slurp from our 40-pound Golden mutt resulted in an upswell of high-pitched barking and a sharp jump in Maltese blood pressure.
We tried to keep our dog away from McDoodles, we really did. But though she’s friendly and sweet, our dog has no street sense and suffered from a sad drop in obedience since our Punkernoodles came along and dethroned her from No. 1 Baby. So yeah, a few times she bust out the backyard and rushed over to McDoodles’ to see if maybe this time he had taken his meds and wanted to play. No harm was done, but McDoodles and Dorothy were both left in quite a state after these encounters. So much so that Dorothy decided to sic the Seattle dog-catcher on us.
I won’t go into the boring details of my interactions with the weird little man holding a yellow clipboard or how those interactions left me with some ungodly fines, nor will I makes excuses for letting my dog leave our property — bad neighborly behavior, I admit. Suffice it to say that, for a while, me and Dorothy weren’t the best of friends. No canning parties or gossip over the tea cozy.
Eventually, over the years, my bitterness thawed and we began saying hello over the laurel hedge. Dorothy brought our girls airport souvenirs from a trip she took and cooed at them on Halloween. We left Christmas cookies on her doorstep and shoveled her walkway in a snowstorm. Beyond her green thumb and her love of mentally challenged small fluffy dogs, I didn’t know much about her, nor did I think to find out.
Then, one dark dawn last spring, the spinning red lights of two fire trucks and an ambulance shone through my bathroom window. I peeked down onto the thick green lawn and watched as medical technicians filed through the screen door and, more than an hour later, carried Dorothy’s husband out on a stretcher. Word spread quickly down the street later that day: After years of ongoing health problems, he had died.
We all got information about the funeral, and I thought maybe I would try to go. I had learned Dorothy didn’t have any children and that much of her family was gone. But the kids got sick that week, and because I had nowhere to leave two snuffling whiny booger factories, I didn’t go. I remember, though, that the funeral was a Monday.
I remember because that night, after my kids were tucked into bed, the bills paid, and hubby and I had eaten ice cream and watched a few minutes of crap TV, I was washing my face in the bathroom. That’s when I heard the rolling.
We have a lot of garbage bins here in Seattle — one small square bin for actual trash, plus a large rolling green bin for yard waste and compost, and another large green rolling bin for recycling. The two big bins have to be rolled all the way from the back of the house down the driveway to the curb Mondays nights, in time for Tuesday morning pickup.
As I peeked out the rectangular bathroom window that night, I saw her, wearing sweats and slip-ons and slowly pushing her yard waste bin down the long driveway where her husband used to park their navy Lincoln after taking her on shopping trips or to dinner.
In that moment, as Dorothy rolled the trash to the curb on the day she buried her husband, a helplessness washed over me. I felt the fragility of life. The impermanence of our existence. One day you’re pruning your rose bushes or stubbornly ignoring your busybody neighbor, and the next day someone’s true love is gone forever.
And I think about that now, every week, when I hear the bins begin to roll along the driveways up and down our street, their black plastic wheels bumping and scratching over the pavement before coming to rest near the curb. Any Monday could be different than the Monday before.