My husband and I rented a split foyer house in New Jersey during the late 80’s and early 90’s. One day I answered a knock at the door. There on the stoop was a young couple I’d never seen before. They were dressed in very casual summer attire, so this obviously wasn’t a business call. I was definitely curious.
“Hello. You don’t know me,” the young woman began, “but I grew up in this house. We’ve been here in Jersey on vacation, visiting relatives, and I just wanted to show my new husband the house I lived in when I was a little girl before we head back to Florida. I was just wondering who lived here now.”
“Would you like to come in?” I asked.
“Oh, yes! Could we? I didn’t want to be forward, but I was hoping you would ask,” she responded with glee.
I said they were to just feel at home and explore whichever rooms they liked, but that I wasn’t going to apologize for the state of the housekeeping. As they went from room to room, she described the house’s features and original furnishings to her husband, with much animation. I vicariously enjoyed their little adventure, and I might have been just a teensy weensy bit jealous that she had “gone home” again.
When they got to the end of the hall she asked him to guess which bedroom was hers. “Remember, I was the little sister,” she hinted. Then they turned left and entered the smallest bedroom in the house. “Oh, my,” she exclaimed, “I remembered it being much bigger than this!”
Their visit inspired me. The next time we took vacation and drove through Indianapolis on our way to back to the Midwest to visit our families, we got off I-70 and drove by the house of my childhood. (I didn’t have the nerve to knock on the door.) The yards, the houses, and even the entire block, all appeared much smaller than I had remembered.
Given these close quarters and the fact that everyone spent a fair amount of time on our front porches, it was pretty easy to get acquainted with our neighbors growing up. One of my very favorite neighbors showed up in this old photograph my mom shared with me recently.
In the foreground is our next door neighbor, Evelyn. She was mugging for the camera with one of either my dad’s or her husband’s pipes. Beside her is the youngest of her four sons. Standing on the next porch over: my older brother, me, and Ella Chambers.
Ella lived alone, in very close proximity to a whole slew of little kids — most of them in our duplex, to the one side of her bungalo, and one more little kid on the opposite side. As noisy, boisterous, mad cap and full of mischief as we could be, this woman never, ever said one cross word to us. (She even let us come into her yard to fetch foul balls, and out of respect, we were very careful not to trample anything in the process.) I mean, if you type “define kindness” into a Google search box, the first result would be: Ella. To say that I loved this lady wouldn’t adequately convey my full range of feelings for her.
My most favorite thing about Ella Chambers, besides her incredible patience and gentleness with us kids, was how generous she was with her wealth: the woman’s fenced back yard was a veritable botanical garden. And every once in a while — but not so often as to become something we’d take for granted — she’d invite us into her yard to pick bouquets to give to our mothers. Well poke me with a fork, I was done.
As she’d open the gate, garden shears in hand and wearing an apron, I always felt as if I were entering a parallel universe of some kind, despite the fact that we lived right next door. Along both sides of the walkway were endless flowers in a stunning array of colors and varieties.
“These are snap dragons,” she’d say, supplying all the names of the various sections in her symphony of fragrance and loveliness. “Those over there are irises. They’d be nice in a bouquet — they’ll stay fresh for a long time.” She would take time to demonstrate how to snip long stems, for vases, rather than just plucking blooms off their stems, as kids are wont to do.
Although I never let on, I always wished I could have at least one of every flower she had. However, I figured that saying so would seem greedy, and I never wanted to do anything that might jeopardize future forays into Eden. So mostly I just let Ella suggest and select, nodding my assent whenever she asked if I liked a particular flower. Of course I like that one — I like ALL of them!
Before long, she would have amassed a plump bouquet of assorted blossoms, at which point she would wrap several layers of moist paper towels around the stems and carefully place the bunch in my hands. I was instructed to carry it right home so my mother could get it into some water as soon as possible. After I left, she’d go about getting the boys’ bouquets “presentation ready”.
Striding into our house bearing one of Ella’s gorgeous bouquets, for the sole purpose of presenting the gift in royal tribute to the lady of the house, always made me feel like a regular little duchess. This wonderful neighbor’s open-heartedness made quite an impression on my young heart. I believe I would have walked over hot coals for this woman.
Ella Chambers: advocate of young children, cheerer of busy young moms, admirer and cultivator of beautiful floral gardens, benevolent neighborhood purveyor of love and well-being.