(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores October 2019.)
ONE LITTLE GIRL WAS WATCHING
[Kids] don't remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.
—Jim Henson, It's Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider
Small towns can be fishbowls, where our comings, goings, and doings can become gossip fodder at the Sunday night potluck supper. They can also be harmonious harbors, where we beautifully and seamlessly integrate into the daily fabric of the community. The picture of Bedford Falls, director Frank Capra's fictitious setting for the classic movie It's A Wonderful Life, comes to mind. This image absolutely exists in some small towns. The rhythm is slow paced, easy, and reassuring. That comforting cadence is like the first warm fire in autumn for those of us who grew up in small towns like this. Faces and families are familiar wherever you go, and everyone knows everyone.
My sister and I grew up in our version of Bedford Falls, in what is now referred to as the Quapaw-Prospect Historic District, which is nestled at the base of West Mountain—one of three mountains that hold the mysteries of our beloved Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. Our neighborhood was, and still is, rich in diversity. The small eight-block area nurtured a close community of neighbors. There were young families like ours, established or retired empty nesters, and several widows who had been there since they were newlyweds. The oldest homes, ours included, were built in the late 1880s. A beautiful collection of Colonial Revival, American Craftsman, Airplane Bungalow, and Queen Anne Victorian style homes was surrounded and enveloped by large centuries-old magnolia and live oak trees. St. John's Catholic Church sat on a high hill overlooking our neighborhood about a block away, and we could hear the large bells ring melodically every morning, noon, and evening. It was a magical setting for an idyllic childhood.
Our collection of neighbors offered a daily lesson in humanity. We had our very own Gladys Kravitz, the nosy character from the 1960's sitcom Bewitched. There was the lonely old spinster, hunched over like a cane, who walked everywhere she went. If we happened to be outside as she walked by, beware. As my granddaddy would say, "She could talk the ear off a billy goat." There were many families with children our age, so playing kickball in the front yard, playing Monopoly or Spades all day on rainy days, or sledding down Violet Street (which happened to be our street and the best hill in the neighborhood) when it snowed were staples when we were growing up. We had neighbors come and go over the decades, yet the communal spirit that led neighbors to, figuratively or literally, ask for a cup of sugar never wavered in the entire 55 years our family lived there. Every neighbor showed us something different through their daily routines and the way in which they approached life.
While reminiscing, I realized I could write an entire book on the characters of my childhood, particularly those from my neighborhood. Two neighbors' stories continue to stand out. Though they had full names and full lives prior to my knowing them, I remember them simply as Mrs. Moriarity and Mrs. Dillard. They were widows, living directly next door on either side of our childhood home. While both were in their 80s, they could not have been more different.
Mrs. Moriarity was a small woman, no more than five feet tall, hearty and frail all in the same breath. It was as if her strength came from an inner iron frame that was draped in a thin veil of threadbare silk, which could be torn by the slightest breeze. She wore matronly black or blue dresses and thick stockings that made her legs look almost like beige prosthetics, with cumbersome, corrective black lace-up shoes completing her ensemble. A white hairnet kept her hair pinned to her head like a Q-tip. She did not own a car, and walked everywhere she needed to go slowly and deliberately, with a rocking, arthritic gate that swung side to side like a pendulum. Mrs. Moriarity quietly attended mass every day at St. John's Catholic Church. She went to the grocery each week and would carry her small paper bag of groceries the two blocks back to her home. Her paltry income came from renting the bottom half of her Airplane Bungalow home. She lived upstairs in the spartan attic apartment, which had a separate outside entrance in the back but did not have air conditioning. We often wondered how she managed in that attic during the hot, humid summers in Arkansas. Yet she did, and she never uttered a single complaint. From a child's perspective, her life was plain and simple.
Mrs. Lila Dillard was the antithesis of Mrs. Moriarity in many ways. When we moved next door in the early 1960s, she was married. She lost her husband several years later, and they did not have children. Mr. Dillard had been a devoted, almost saintly husband who had taken tremendous care of her and left her in relatively comfortable stead. Mrs. Dillard was a pretty woman, and I am quite certain she was eye-catching in her youth. Her carrot-red hair, now from a bottle, was perfectly curled and coiffed and often framed with vintage multicolored rhinestone earrings. Rain or shine, she always wore stockings with a black seam running perfectly straight up the back of her shapely, thin ankles and legs, with high-heel crocodile pumps and a matching satchel bag. In the winter, she would don a mink-collared overcoat with leather gloves, always gingerly gripping an embroidered white handkerchief. She never left the house unless she was immaculately dressed, down to the gnat's whisker.