Our neighbor next door had a big riding mower and he always cut the verge between our two houses. He was a little guy, kinda looked like a pirate who enjoyed the french fries along with the fish suppers.
Jack and I are not super-social people, so we never did much but wave and give a “thank you” bow. It took us about six months of living here to learn our grass-cutting pirate dude was Roger, his wife was Freda, and their last name Vogelsong, which tickled me because Vogel is a bird in German.
I put a note on their door during the 2019 growing season that I had heirloom tomato plants to give away, but they never responded. We planted about 20 of these up the side of our shared fence, and later discovered several snuck through and invaded Roger’s billiard table lawn. He was gracious, but we learned through others that he really hated anything but grass on his lawn. As an apology we brought Roger half a dozen tomatoes as he sat out on his porch one day (he did this often on not-too-hot afternoons). We told him to please pick any and all tomatoes he wanted.
“No sir,” he said to my husband. “I didn’t plant them. I didn’t water them. I don’t take things that aren’t mine.”
A week or so later I saw him on the porch and asked if he wanted more tomatoes, plus some squash and potatoes we had coming in. He gave me an apologetic smile.
“Freda and I eat at Hardee’s a lot. We don’t cook much. Thank you all the same.”
I laughed, thinking of our tomato apology’s backfiring. Roger could tell what I was thinking, because without prompting he said with a grin, “We gave ’em to my brother-in-law so they didn’t waste.”
Not long after, I was cleaning out some old stuff from my dad’s basement and he said I could have some fishing bits down there (not the rods, tackle and stuff). Just about every morning God sent, I would see Roger’s big black truck with the license plate BASSMEN return around 6 am from some errand. Putting two and two together, I left some unusual, old bait on Roger’s porch where he would find it next time he sat out. Something they stopped selling in the ’90s, or some such. The hippies next door could get the apology right this time.
He was effusive the next time we saw him sitting out and went for a chat. “You can’t get those anymore.”
Score. Apology accepted. Plus I had tied up the tomatoes.
COVID struck. We called next door and left a message: give us any lists of things you need and Wendy will get them during a weekly run. Both Roger and Freda were older, Freda visibly frail. A nice phone call came back: Bless you, thank you, we ain’t scared.
We kinda knew Roger and Freda voted differently than us; as COVID wore its weary way through 2020, he didn’t say a word when we put up our BIDEN HARRIS sign. He still waved, we still dropped fish things on his porch, and at Christmas, we left them homemade shortbread.
Freda called over. “That stuff you made us from Jack’s mama’s recipe, that was really nice. We liked it. Thank you.”
Ambulances were not unknown at the Vogelsong home, but they increased significantly in frequency as winter wore on. By the time 2021 was in full swing, it wasn’t Roger’s truck leaving, but the ambulances arriving, that accompanied my 5 am coffees. I said many a morning prayer for them. During one ambulance run that looked fraught, I walked over, mask on, and asked Roger could I drive him to the hospital since he couldn’t ride in the ambulance.
“I can’t go with her at all. This is what America has become.” He sighed, maskless, looking defeated, defiant, and oh so sad all at the same time. I left my phone number writ large on a single sheet of paper in case he wanted a ride later and didn’t feel up to it. He was so visibly upset.
Freda was away more often than home, Roger told us later. Not long after that, when I asked him how Freda was, he said, “She is in heaven.” We commiserated, and I agreed with his thought that Heaven was a better choice for Freda than America these days.
A week later, while stacking a woodpile I heard voices. Roger’s family was having a prayer circle on the back porch, praying for their brother/dad/grandpa to not be lonely and for the ease of Freda’s passing to include God’s peace. Eavesdropping on other people’s prayers is not necessarily good form, but oh my friends you rarely hear anything sweeter.
We continued to chat with him when he sat on the porch. He missed Freda; he wasn’t gonna get vaccinated because he wasn’t a sheeple; what had happened to spring of 2021? (We never got one of those.) He went back to mowing the verge between our houses. His big black Bassman truck slid out of the drive before dawn most days. One day wind blew our garbage across his lawn and he stacked it all up for us and only mentioned it a week later. (Jack built a corral to hold it.)
A few months passed; we started our next garden, and did not plant tomatoes down the side of the shared fence.
And then an ambulance came. Followed immediately by a couple of police cars. The ambulance was in no hurry. In fact, it left without loading anyone. Cars began to arrive. Jack and I looked at each other. We walked over to his back yard and spoke to some women assembled there, one of whom I recognized from the prayer group.
She nodded. “Roger has passed.”
“Gone to be with Freda,” I said aloud without thinking, and the youngest woman smiled.
“Exactly,” she said.
Roger, we will miss you. You were proof of the innate goodness of neighbors; we thought so differently on so many things, and you were so kind, so funny to chat to. You and Freda have a good time in Heaven. I am sure there are regular fish fries plus a burger joint on every corner. Your memory will be a blessing.