The guy who lives in the house behind us is probably 65 years old, though I’m admittedly not great at estimating ages. We have lived next door to each other for nearly 8 years now. Mostly, he stays with his girlfriend, coming over to maintain the lawn and bring in the mail a few times a week. He can’t move in with her and sell his house, he explains, because his wife’s ashes are scattered in the side-yard.
In our early years of living beside Robby, his son and grandchildren were staying there with him. The two older boys were quickly enfolded into the little crew of kids who came over after school to play cards, eat dinner, and work on homework. They came with us to summer camp and watched the Super Bowl on our couch. Eventually, they left with their mom and moved across the country where she remarried. Robby’s son stayed for a while, then disappeared for years. Robby tells us in snippets across the bedraggled chain-link fence about his drug problems.
When his son moves back in again, trying to get his life back together, I ask him about his children. He tells me in a quiet voice that he hasn’t spoken to them in years. I am sad for him, for his loss. Hopeful for his future, for the plodding steps he is taking to rise again.
Robby has started cleaning out his house and yard, and boarding over the holes squirrels have burrowed into his gutters to slip into the warmth of his attic. We made him cookies for Christmas, and he asked my kids what Santa brought them. Last week, Zay ran outside to show Robby his new pajamas when he saw Robby raking his grass. Robby chuckled loudly at Zay’s antics. He has talked about selling his house finally, and I hope he won’t. But he cleans it out room by room, leaving furniture and trash, things left behind, on the side of the road.
I have been listening to Michelle Obama’s memoir the last two days, thinking about the things that help us become who we are. The pieces of our lives that we hold on to, and the things we are forced to let go. The ashes scattered in our side yard, and the children who teach us about surrender. The neighbors who occupy our spaces and watch out for kids meddling with our stuff, the one who entrust us with their grandchildren and manage not to judge us for the toys constantly strewn about. I wonder what are the things, finally, that will define our legacy, our place. What things we will leave on the side of the road and what we will take with us.