Mr. and Mrs. Jackson were an elderly couple who lived in an older, wooden framed house next to a friend of mine as I was growing up and a pre-teen. Their yard was overgrown with poorly trimmed shrubbery. Large trees cast a shadow over most of their yard. The home needed repairs and painting. It looked tired and aging, much as its residents.
The home always reminded me of the "Boo Radley" home from the motion picture, "To Kill a Mockingbird'. Mrs. Jackson was a quiet and somewhat reclusive lady. She was a robust woman, taller and larger in size than her husband.
The first time I saw her, she was hanging their wash on a clothesline strung between two trees in their backyard. She never spoke to us yet would watch us as we sometimes played softball in the rear yard of my friend's home. There was a garage close to their home that held a family car, but I never saw either of the two drive it. Nor do I remember them ever opening the doors to enter the old garage.
My friends and I were curious about what was hidden behind those garage doors. At times we would sneak around the wooden structure, trying to steal a peek inside by stretching to look through a high, shaded window or looking between cracks in the aging garage walls. We saw nothing, but shadowed images sealed in tomb-like silence and secrecy; the contents are known only to the Jacksons.
I remember Mr. Jackson as an elderly, frail man. He was small in stature, walked most often with the use of a cane, and had thinned, white hair he combed straight back. He dressed neatly and always looked crisp. He cared about his appearance, though he saw no others that I knew of besides his wife. He had chiseled facial features and squinting, cool blue eyes. He must have been sensitive to the sun. His face and nose bore age spots and were usually flushed in color. His pointed nose was usually peeling.
The times I saw him outside in his yard in the summer he always wore long sleeve shirts and a straw hat with a wide brim. He walked with a shuffling gait, not confident in his step, fearful of falling.
The Jacksons were the next-door neighbors of my friend, Frank, who lived a few blocks from me. Frank's garage and Mr. Jackson's garage stood next to each other, separated only by a few feet. Both drives were paved with a mixture of grass and gravel that led to upright, side-hinged garage doors that swung open and outward. Above Frank's garage door opening was a piece of white, painted plywood with a basketball rim attached. We often played basketball at that garage door. The rim's net was usually old and frayed, and the rim was bent a little and unsteady as it was mounted to the sagging garage wall. I can still clearly hear the sound of the basketball striking and vibrating that rim or bouncing off that plywood backboard.
Mr. Jackson could hear the sounds of us playing as well. Overgrown, high shrubbery separated the two driveways. He often stepped outside to his small, side porch as we were playing. He would watch us silently, a scowl on his face, waiting like a cat to pounce. If the basketball got away from us and violated his bushes, he would lift his cane, point it at us, and shout in his gravelly voice, "Keep that ball out of my bushes!" We would reply, "Yes Sir, Sorry Mr. Jackson." He would mumble under his breath and return to his door to re-enter their home.
Frank's dad would sometimes hear us being scolded and join us to suggest that we go play softball in the backyard. The Jackson’s rear yard was divided from our makeshift ball diamond by a long trellis with a thick tangle of grape vines growing its full length. We used to sample the grapes when we thought no one was looking. We had been told to keep away from the Jackson property and not to bother them. The grapes were sour, and we used to joke with each other about them being sour as "Old Harry". After all, how could “Mean Old Harry Jackson” grow anything sweet? Hitting a foul ball over the trellis was a major catastrophe that usually ended our ball game. There was no way to enter their fenced rear yard, and we sure weren't going to go ask for the ball's return. Balls hit into their yard would eventually disappear, falling victim to confiscation. It was accepted by us as part of the price we had to pay for having fun next to Jackson’s yard.
One day as we were seated on the steps of Frank's front stoop, we saw Mrs. Jackson step from her home, and leave her side porch. She was carrying what we thought was her bag of clothespins. Instead of walking to her rear yard, she turned and walked along the hedges between the driveways, stepped into Frank's yard, and walked toward us. She stood before us smiling softly as we exchanged our greetings. Then she told us she had something for us. From the bag she carried, one-by-one, she took out four softballs and handed them to us. "My husband and I find these in our backyard", she said. "I've been meaning to bring them over to you. We've been thinking a lot about our son today. You boys remind us of him as a child. So, I decided to bring them over when I looked out my kitchen window and saw you here". We told her that we didn't know she had a son. She told us that today was his birthday and that he would have been 45 years old. He had lost his life in Germany during World War II. We told her we were sorry for their loss and commented that we had been studying World War II at school. She told us more about her son. We listened to her and watched her as the sorrow of the loss embraced her more. She looked down a moment, composed herself, and then asked if we would like to see his photo. We said that we would.
We followed her across the two yards, up onto their porch, then, hesitantly into their home. The home was shadowed, with rays of sunlight penetrating lace curtains over the windows. Though dated, everything was neat in appearance and obviously cared for by Mrs. Jackson. Some of the chair arms and headrests were adorned with lace doilies. Faded, flowered wallpaper adorned the walls. The floors creaked as we followed her into their family dining room. Mr. Jackson sat at the table with a box opened to his side. Papers and items from the box lay before him on the table. There were letters, coins, photos, a dagger, some medals, documents, and a small, folded American flag. On the wall behind him was a large-framed portrait of their son, Harry Jackson Jr., dressed in his military uniform.
Mr. Jackson looked at us, surprised, and listened as his wife told him why we were there. She lifted her hand, gesturing to the framed image, and said, "This is our only child, our son, Harry". He was handsome and looked strong and proud. Mr. Jackson watched us as we gathered around his wife, moving closer to the wall, all looking up to the portrait.
"I'm surprised you are studying World War II. I didn't think too many people cared much about it anymore, especially young people. Have you learned about the War in Europe?" he said. We told him we had. He began talking to us about it and asked if we would like to see some items his son had sent home from the war. As we seated ourselves around him, Mrs. Jackson disappeared into the kitchen. Mr. Jackson took each item in hand and explained what it was and its importance. The last item he held was the American flag. As he spoke of it, Mrs. Jackson returned with a tray of glasses and lemonade she offered to us. The small, folded, forty-eight-star flag was carefully opened for us to see. It bore the signatures of her son's friends he served with in battle.
"Some people might think signing names to the flag was disrespectful. I think it was a great honor they were showing our son and his parents. Harry proudly carried this folded flag in a pocket with him into battle", Mr. Jackson said. His eyes were fixed on the flag until he lifted them to look to us.
We told them both how proud they must be of their son and how much we could tell they missed and loved him. "We still have many of his belongings here", Mrs. Jackson said. "We have his personal items because he wasn't married. We still have his car in our garage." My friends and I looked at each other exchanging knowing smiles at a mystery solved as Mrs. Jackson continued speaking. Then she sat next to her husband. Both were silent and held each other’s' hands resting on the table. The silence was awkward, even painful. To break the silence, I said, "Mr. Jackson, could we see Harry's car? I bet it's a beauty!" Both smiled and he said, "Sure".
We followed the couple outside. He opened the locked garage doors and swung them open to let in sunlight. Inside sat a long-hidden, bright black, 1940 Packard coupe; a dust-covered and treasured tribute to their son.
"I suppose I should clean her, but she won't start. The battery was taken out long ago. She hasn't seen daylight in a very long time". We asked if they minded if we washed and cleaned her up right where she sat. Both smiled and said, "Yes, if you really want to. Harry would really appreciate that."
As the Jacksons sat in the driveway and watched, buckets of soapy water, sponges, hoses, and a bicycle tire pump converged on the old Packard. Three hours later, and more importantly, two new friends later, the car sat looking sparkling clean and revived. The Jacksons were especially happy that some rust spots starting to settle in on chrome were arrested with lots of elbow grease. We watched as the two held hands and circled the car. "I forgot how pretty she looked", Mr. Jackson said softly. "Thanks, boys, Thanks very much".
In a short, three-hour time frame, we came to know the Jacksons differently, and they viewed us differently. Mr. Jackson never again spoke a harsh word to us. Both greeted us when they saw us outside. Mr. Jackson would interrupt us as we were playing basketball to bring us some of the sourest grapes you can imagine. We always thanked him, smiled, and made faces as we gagged on them in appreciation of his thoughtfulness and kind gesture. Foul balls were tossed back over the grape trellis. Later in the summer, we went over and offered to mow their small yard with their rusting, old, rotary-bladed push mower. With our encouragement, Mrs. Jackson abandoned pushing her ancient hand mower. Frank's father's new power mower now tackled the Jackson yard. Mrs. Jackson traded mowing for making us cookies and giving us cool glasses of milk. In the winter, we cleaned their walkways. If either needed help with an errand, we were off on bicycles happy to assist. What had long been no contact at all with these elderly, kind neighbors, turned into mutual caring, concern, and friendship.
A week after our first meeting in the Jackson dining room, we again gathered there with the Jacksons at their invitation. Mr. Jackson said, "I have a favor to ask of you. Will you take this small photo of our son and his American Flag to school? Tell the others who Harry was, what he did, and the story behind this flag. It's very important to us that he be remembered. We trust you with his flag. Just return the items to us safely". We proudly did exactly as he asked. Our class at school wrote a “Thank-You” note to the Jacksons that everyone signed. When we returned the note and flag, Mrs. Jackson said that both the flag and the note were going to be returned to, “Harry’s Box”. I'm confident that that flag was the most treasured item the Jacksons possessed. Looking back now, those were three, very important hours in my life. And Mr. Jackson's flag was an important part of the memory.
I recently saw a FaceBook post about a lady who received a letter from an elderly neighbor who lived in a home just across from her and her family. She had never met or even seen the widowed lady in the years she, her husband, and her two children had lived in their home. The letter bore the neighbor's address across the street and the lady’s name. She recognized the return address and thought it curious that she would be receiving something mailed from a neighbor living so close.
The letter she opened was composed of only one, barely legible sentence…"Will you be my friend?" It was signed by the sender. She then walked across the street and introduced herself to her frail, newly found friend-neighbor. That letter opened a door of friendship and companionship between the two families who adopted the widowed, lonely woman as a new "grandma".
The friendship was close to the elderly lady's death many years later. It’s heartbreaking to think that someone so close to any of us, and so alone and hurting, can go unnoticed. I encourage you to take the time to look around you and make the effort to reach out to your neighbors, ALL of them, but especially to the elderly ones who are too often invisible to us. If Mr. & Mrs. Jackson were still with us, they would love and appreciate your efforts. Help make those like the Jacksons in your neighborhood become “visible” friends. They have lots to offer their neighbors, and as a bonus, you might get some of the best homemade cookies you’ve EVER tasted!
Just as you watch out for and care for your elderly neighbors, you should also ensure the welfare and security of your own future when your health requires you to have needed assistance. Long-Term Care Insurance can help keep you free of those worries and let you enjoy your retirement years knowing that you have taken steps to be cared for if the need arises.