ast year I read Jamie Ford’s novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. The protagonist, Henry, is a widower whose wife Ethel has recently died of cancer. I remember Ford’s phrase that Henry had “an Ethel-shaped hole” in either his life or heart (probably both) struck me hard.
At the time, my next-door-neighbor Ethel was undergoing treatment for cancer. Recently newlywed – at the age of 75 – I knew that her husband, Hank (yes, really!) would have an Ethel-shaped hole in his heart if the treatment didn’t cure her.
Ethel’s funeral was today. And as I sat in the church I’d been in only one other time – for their wedding – I realized that Hank isn’t the only one left with an Ethel-shaped hole.
Mine is much smaller, no doubt. But our relationship had that strange intimacy of neighbors. Thrown together by proximity, semi-strangers can become more familiar than family. You know their routines. You see them going in and out – or not, which was the red flag a month or so ago that Ethel’s treatment wasn’t going so well. You small talk. And that can become the bridge to a real friendship.
In the house I grew up in, our neighbors became some of my parents’ best friends. They were all of similar age and stage in life, all parents of young children. When my husband and I bought the house next to Ethel, I unconsciously hoped for the same thing. “Oh well,” I thought, when we met her, then a widow from her first marriage.
But I liked her. She was feisty and forthright, a manner underscored by the abrasive northeast accent she’d never lost despite 50 years in the Midwest. She did things like put her cat, Fluffers, outside on a leash so it could get fresh air yet be safe. (A cat on a leash? Yes.) At past 70 years old, she still did some consulting work. She split her time between Traverse City and the Massachusetts town where she was born, driving herself and Fluffers on the 1,000-mile trip twice a year.
Oddly, we thought, she always went back east in the summer, the best time of year around here. But that was Ethel, and we grew to expect her to depart in the spring and show up again around Labor Day.
Then, in 2006, Labor Day came and went. “What’s going on with Ethel?” my husband and I wondered.
Hank was what was going on with Ethel. They returned toward the end of September. I remember her introducing me in the alley between our driveways.
“This is Hank,” Ethel said.
“Hi Hank,” I said, trying to restrain my curiosity.
“We’re getting married,” Ethel said, blushing.
“Oh! Congratulations,” I said.
“In three weeks,” she said.
Well, really, when you’re 75, what’s the point of waiting? And I got what I’d wished for, after all, newlywed neighbors. It was so cool to see them, taking walks hand in hand, going in and out together. And talk about optimism. My own mother had been widowed four years at that point, and I found myself hoping she could follow Ethel’s example.
But my favorite memory of Ethel is of when I brought my second child home. Her birthday is Sept. 14. My firstborn’s is also in September. Ethel told me that all three of her children had September birthdays as well.
“Once I figured out what was going on, I stopped going to New Year’s parties,” she cracked, her Boston accent dragging “parties” into “pahhties.”
Not the kind of small talk I’d expected when we met our neighbor. But exactly the Ethel I’d come to know, and will miss seeing across the alley every day.