"I wanted to know if you needed any help?"

Work in the neighborhood affects everyone.

She stood there at my front door, her speckled and freckled face glowing from the heat, fists tight around her walker. I had opened the door after the doorbell rang repeatedly. I didn’t expect to see anyone there because our wireless doorbell malfunctions all the time. We think another neighbor has the same doorbell and ours rings when their’s does. But, Nell, my 95-year-old neighbor, had escaped her house restrictions and walked herself over to stand on our front porch (I wondered how), wearing slacks, t-shirt, and straw hat. One turquoise pants leg was up by her knee and she had on white sneakers and white socks. I held the door open and she started talking.

“I wanted to know if you needed any help with the dirt?” she asked.

Oh no Nell, we’re good.” I say looking down into her face. I thought she was referring to our recent landscaping project in the front yard.

“It’s just something that has to be done. It’s no one’s fault,” she says.

“What’s going on?” I ask. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood.

“I have extra blinds in my basement,” she says. “And a wooden ladder. It’s old but it’s still good.”

“Do you need help in your basement Nell?” I’m now starting to think I’m not tracking on the right topic, I’m not always a good neighbor and don’t pay attention to neighbor fence chat. Or maybe Nell isn’t…I step down to the front porch with Nell and peek around to see if there’s dirt or signs of digging in Nell’s yard and everything looked pretty normal.

Nell raised her eyebrows and said, “No, but I have a metal ladder too if you need to use that instead.”

“We don’t really need a ladder, but thank you Nell.” I say.

“You could put the blinds up to help protect your house from the dirt,” she said. “It’s got to be a mess.”

I try not to look alarmed but I was beginning to be alarmed. What the heck was she talking about? I asked her, “Is there a problem with dirt I should know about?”

“It can’t be helped, the pipes….” Her voice trails off.

“It’s just awful!” she exclaimed. “I woke up in the night and couldn’t stand my hair anymore it was so dirty, so I got up and washed my hair.”

Right then I noticed there was a plastic shower cap on her head underneath her straw hat, and in fact, there were cobwebs on the green cotton bow of the hat. I wondered if she managed to get down her stairs to her basement but then decided it was probably hanging in her garage.

“You should have seen all the dirt in the sink,” she said.

“Oh my goodness Nell,” I exclaimed. “Does Pat know you have a problem with dirt?” I mention the woman’s name, a neighbor up the street, who comes down to check in and take care of Nell. I wondered if Pat was close to checking in. It was then I decided Nell was more confused than I’ve ever seen her. “Maybe you should show me where they are digging.”

Nell glanced around and said, “I’m keeping you, I should go. I just wanted to know if you needed help. Do you have books about flowers? I have some.”

“I go to the library and check out gardening books,” I say, glad for a topic change. “I have a lot to learn about gardening. Let me put on my shoes and I’ll walk you home.”

Nell protested and said she could make it home without me. But you have to understand how wobbly she is, and there she was, standing two steps up on my front porch. I imagined what a struggle that was for her. I looked through the door window to my son-in-law working inside and wondered if he were paying attention and would come help me get Nell down the steps. She cheerfully showed me how she goes down steps with her walker and I held her arm and was ready to grab her by the waistband, the way I learned when working in a nursing home years ago. I ask Nell to show me how she got to our house and she traces back through my flower bed and across the lawn to her driveway. We walk, half step by half step, Nell protesting all the way that I was bothering to walk with her.

“I just want to hear more stories,” I say. “Tell me about your rose bush.”

“Oh, I planted that rose bush years ago for when I get planted…” She looked off into the distance down the street. “Come over and see me sometime,” she says. “You know I have more than 100 relatives on the Pacific Coast and the same on the Atlantic? I have a lot of people.”

I note the Southern use of the word people. “Wow,” I say, “is that right? That’s a lot of relatives!” I wonder if any of my elderly relatives ever went to the neighbors to talk about dirt concerns. Then I wonder what any of Nell’s 200 relatives are doing on a Sunday afternoon. I promise to come check in with Nell and ask to see her gardening books very soon.

I wondered who to call. I don’t even know Nell’s last name. I have no phone numbers on hand, not even Pat’s who is supposed to be Nell’s keeper, except I guess the whole neighborhood has that responsibility. I plopped down in my living room and looked out over the neighborhood. I love my new neighborhood. We have lovely neighbors who seem to have spent a lifetime together and have welcomed the new folks in with open arms. It’s like a gift really. After 19 addresses, this one truly feels more like home than any other. People are sweet here.

The conversation with Nell was running back and forth in my head. I worked to put the pieces together. Our neighbor across the street is having some drain work done. Suddenly it made sense. Nell has lived here longer than anyone, she probably lives in one of the first houses. It’s her neighborhood and she feels the same way I’ve come to feel. That drain problem is her problem, our problem. She was offering to help me as a new neighbor. She needed to help me. I need to help her back, and beyond walking her back home. I need to walk up and talk to Pat and get some contact numbers so I can do a better job of watching out for my sweet neighbor. Then, I need to plan to go ask about gardening books.

Matthew 22:36-40 New Living Translation (NLT)

36 “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”

37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”


About Robin Arnold

Reader, writer, gardener, geek, maker of homes in several states, now settled in Virginia with husband Bob, and Hazel and Wilson the tabby cats.
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2 Responses to "I wanted to know if you needed any help?"

  1. nance marie says:

    wonderful story, robin. and a good reminder. thanks.

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