By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
It may be hard to remember or even believe, but there was a time when folks knew, visited with, and felt close to their neighbors. Such was the case with our dear friends, Ida and Walter Taylor, who lived next door to our family for thirty years.
Mom’s dad and Mr. Taylor were rural letter carriers during the forties and fifties. Tales of their rambunctious antics at the post office were legendary. The two families attended church together down at First Baptist and frequently got together for meals and birthdays. Many Sunday afternoons they’d pack a picnic lunch and all drive down to the Old Swinging Bridge just outside of town. Summer evenings would bring forth the hand cranked ice cream freezer or juicy, ripe watermelons and fresh lemonade. The five Taylor and Knight kids were all around the same age and enjoyed spending time with each other. They were a joyous, boisterous clan, almost like one happy family.
Unlike today, in 1950’s the property where Mom and Dad built their home was considered “way out in the country”; nestled ‘midst the towering pines, verdant hillsides and wide, grassy fields. No draping electric lines marred the landscape. No paved roads etched black ribbons into the topography. No gaudy signs, hydrants or phone poles blocked the view. The only residence in sight was the Taylor home next door. The lure of such open, serene space and privacy was strong, so you can understand how shocked my parents were to learn, on the day our basement was being dug, that a large sawmill was to be constructed across the dirt road from our new home. We could only imagine the 24 hour activity of the rumbling log trucks, screeching and grinding saws, billows of red dust and suffocating black smoke that would ensue on that dirt lot right outside our front door! Needless to say, my folks were heartbroken by this surprising news.
“Mrs. Taylor,” Mom inquired. “Why didn’t you tell us about this before we started building?” A bit sheepishly, Mrs. Taylor ducked her head and answered, “We knew about it Ruth, but thought you wouldn’t build here if you knew about the mill and we really wanted you to be our neighbors.”
Dad, who was the least volatile and more optimistic of my parents, tried to be reasonable and calm Mom down by saying, “Honey, those sawmill folks will be good neighbors. At least they won’t always be on our doorstep borrowing a cup of sugar.” And so construction on both projects progressed, with no permanent harsh feelings toward Ida and Walter for their slightly selfish deception.
Ida was a dainty, very neat and diminutive white haired lady who seemed to drift easily through life. She quietly went about her daily business, neither creating nor encountering ripples in her routine. She always wore black, little granny lace up shoes and a pair of white stockings that were held in place by an elastic band rolled securely at the top of her calf. When her hair began thinning on top, Mrs. Taylor made arrangements with her hairdresser to order a small wiglet she pinned on each morning to conceal the bald spot. Only a few of us knew Ida’s little secret. I never once saw that woman with a speck of dirt or dust on her freshly starched house dress and apron, nor did I ever spy her doing anything of a laborious nature. Ida Taylor epitomized the term “southern belle”.
Walter, a talkative, friendly fellow took care of the yard and house and treated his wife like a queen; fulfilling her every desire. He chauffeured her to the beauty parlor each Saturday morning, as well as to her Wednesday afternoon WMU (Women’s Missionary Union) gathering at church, and made his weekly trip to the local A&P with Ida’s carefully detailed grocery list in hand. She never learned, nor had the need to drive a car with Walter around to do her bidding.
Although Mrs. Taylor did the weekly laundry, Walter was the one that hung it on the clothesline and brought the dried clothes inside. I have watched her stand over an ironing board, slowly and meticulously starching and ironing her dresses, table cloths, pillowcases and Mr. Taylor’s dress shirts and handkerchiefs. The arduous task seemed to take an eternity to complete. She folded, smoothed, pressed and stacked each item with great care and precision.
Ida was a wonderful baker. The apples in her homemade pies were cut paper thin and every crust was rolled and cooked to perfection. Many lazy summer afternoons I’d amble up to rap on her back door, secretly wishing to be invited inside and treated to one of her mouthwatering desserts. For my own selfish reasons, I always hoped that Mr. Taylor would join us at the old, red formica kitchen table. When she served me a piece of delicious pound cake, it was as thinly sliced as her apples, almost transparent. Giving me a slight wink Mr. Taylor would say, “Ida, cut that girl a real piece of cake! That’s nothing but a flimsy Kleenex you’ve given her to eat, and don’t forget a big scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.” I could always count on my buddy to help me out in such situations.
After supper, in the cool of the evening, Mr. Taylor and I often settled down to chat on their back steps, accompanied by their fluffy, white, bobtailed shepherd, Bouncy. Bouncy was a sweet dog who didn’t know if he belonged to the Taylor family or our family because we all loved and showered affection on the jolly mutt. He liked nothing better than to leisurely wallow and slosh around in the cool, bubbling creek that meandered through our back yard.
I’ll never forget the sizzling August afternoon a sudden storm appeared out of nowhere, while Bouncy was enjoying himself frolicking in the creek. An unexpected and extremely loud clap of thunder sent poor, frightened Bouncy racing in terror for the safety of home. Leaving it tattered and splintered, the yelping dog bolted straight through the Taylor’s back screen door, tracking his muddy paw prints over Ida’s glistening kitchen floor and smeared on her pristine, white living room carpet. Knocking over everything in his path and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, Bouncy dove headlong under Mrs. Taylor’s bed, spreading mud, leaves, and muck across the pink rug and frilly, floral organza bedspread. Poor Mrs. Taylor was dumbstruck and never said a word. Meanwhile, her very concerned husband gently leaned under the bed to comfort and retrieve his terrified dog cowering beneath. Mr. Taylor later spent the entire afternoon repairing Bouncy’s extensive damage to their house, as well as his frightened dog’s wounded spirit.
Only three times, well, make that four if you count the sawmill incident, did I sense any notion that Mrs. Taylor was not as perfect as her ironing, baking, personal grooming and housekeeping habits. After all, we’re all human, but looking back I am amused and surprised by her unexpected actions and comments. My parents owned and operated a new and used furniture store in town and, like the cobbler, whose children needed shoes, we usually made do with second hand furniture rather than new. A close friend laughingly reported to us that Mrs. Taylor once told her that she was surprised we didn’t have nicer furniture in our home since we were in the furniture business. Another incident that truly surprised me was her statement about an adopted child. She said, “I know they don’t love that child as much as their others because she is not their real blood.” On a personal note I have to giggle when recalling the numerous times my future husband and I were returning from a date and could see Mrs. Taylor spying on us as she peeked through her bathroom blinds watching us kiss good night. When feeling especially devilish we would both turn, smile, and wave happily in her direction.
The Taylor’s grand daughter, Lucinda, was close to my age, and we soon became fast friends. We joyfully roamed the woods and streams in our happy little childhood world, played cowboys and Indians with Bouncy atop the huge stacks of logs piled in the sawmill lot, and spent hours and hours with our imaginary friends in the quaint little playhouse her daddy built snuggled in the woods behind the Taylor home.
Every summer Lucinda attended a girls’ camp in Tennessee. One beautiful Sunday afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Taylor invited me to take the trip with them to visit her for the day. Mrs. Taylor packed a picnic lunch and the three of us happily hit the road for a wonderful adventure and reunion with Lucinda. Although I was not yet old enough to drive, the entire time we were riding I had the strangest sensation that there was a problem with Mr. Taylor’s car motor. It just didn’t sound right to me. I never said a word to the Taylors, but mentioned it to Mom and Dad late that evening when we returned from our excursion. Sure enough, several months later I discovered that there had indeed been a problem. We had driven the entire distance to visit Lucinda in second gear!
As is the case in most quaint southern towns, growth and change eventually arrive in the name of progress, and over time the same was true with our own little town. In the past fifty years, what was once expansive, wooded country land has been swallowed up and replaced with asphalt, brick high rises and malls. The city limits have been extended and the Taylor and Merrill homes on Walnut Street. are no longer situated in that original serene country setting so desired by their first occupants. Although both homes are still standing, having outlasted their original residents, they are now surrounded by the sights and sounds so common to the present century, and remain as sturdy today as did the firm friendship that existed many decades ago between their owners… who were such good neighbors.