Oniontown Pastoral: Going Visiting
My career in visitation began over 50 years ago with Mrs. Gillespie, who lived across the backyard. Johnny’s perch was a red metal step stool beside the kitchen counter. His usual was strawberry Nesquik.
Who knows, maybe my mother called while I was en route, warning the household of an incoming first grader. All I remember is being welcomed and given a glass of cold, pink milk.
The knack for knocking has been mine from the start, apparently.
“I’m going visiting,” I’d announce to my family, and off I went. My reputation was robust. Friend Ed teased me with a song his father played: “Walk right in, sit right down, baby let your hair hang down.” What The Rooftop Singers meant by letting “your hair hang down” we had no idea.
Where Mr. and Mrs. Farnworth were concerned, Eddie’s jibe was bull’s eye. More than once I entered unannounced and took a seat at the kitchen table, where we sipped ginger ale. Arney and Betty, as the grownups called them, took theirs with whiskey, while I had mine on the rocks. They butted myriad Raleighs in a glass ashtray the size of a hubcap.
And boy, did they light up. But, boy, were they also kind to the kid next door. Arney even let me cut his hair once, not that there was much danger to be apprehended. At risk were wisps of smoky gray gossamer combed straight back. Kinder still, after I returned from a frightening trip to Cleveland for allergy tests, Arney let me prick his arm with sewing pins. Was he allergic to cats like I was? He underwent the procedure in the living room, his left sleeve rolled up, a plaid beanbag ashtray at the ready. No sepsis set in, as I took it easy on him.
Johnny is 60 now, and the Gillespies and Farnsworths have joined my parents in glory. On a summer evening in 1974, I kept vigil on the front porch. At long last neighbor Louie ran out of Arney and Betty’s house, his thick mop of white hair bouncing with each step. “I think he’s gone,” he announced. The light was thin.
Arney had passed in the chair where I doctored him six or seven years before. Then and there I first absorbed the silence that stuns the human heart when bad news arrives.
Too bad. This is the cost of talking and listening. Folks end up loving each other. And when you part company without warning, the one left standing is bruised inside.
From growing up on Wagner Avenue to growing old on Parkway Drive, my life has been about meeting face to face. Parishioners drop by and kibitz for 10 minutes or more. Sometimes the conversations have a point, but mostly we chew the fat.
Without fail, when standing to leave, they say, “Well, I’ll let you get back to work now.”
My comeback is ready-made: “But this is my work.”
Yes, my work and joy. For 14 years wife Kathy and I lived with our children on boulevard where neighbors became family. We granted each other refrigerator rights. “Walk right in, sit right down” was modus operandi. We confessed enough sins to fill The Oxford English Dictionary and enjoyed enough fruit of the vine to sustain a winery.
If what I describe sounds like amusement, think again. The imbibing wasn’t always healthy, but trust me, the love was medicinal. We chatted our way through our son Micah’s heroin addiction, Abbey’s childhood liver disease and the birth and raising of Patrick, the Down’s syndrome kid who knits us together still. Garden variety disappointments, ever at our elbow, got lovingly interrogated ad nauseum. We needed therapy, but why bother? We had each other.
So don’t tell me that “going visiting” is recreation. No, it’s a holy endeavor. This fact was driven home by the passing of Roy, a colleague whose heart gave out before I could lean in close and tell him what he meant to me. He looked rather like Friar Tuck.
If these wretched seasons of pandemic have taught me anything, it’s the treasure of a visit, even if a skinny minute long.
“Mrs. Gillespie,” I’d say, given the chance. “Bless you. That milk was delicious.”
“Mr. Farnsworth,” I’d say, “I’ll take a splash of fire water with that ginger ale.”
“Roy,” I’d say, “I love you. Say something funny and bust out laughing. You have the best laugh, always delighted and silly. It’s like hot cocoa for a sad, shivering soul.”
The truth is, I can’t say these words, and this is the rub for every cheek-by-jowl enthusiast. Sometimes you knock and the person you’ve come to see can’t answer. If you’re like me, you talk to the closed door, just in case your voice carries to a place much farther away than you can imagine.
Post Script: Another beloved colleague, Al, died not long before Roy. Al gave me an old electric car, and one of these days I’ll write about his generosity and that odd little gift.