Saturday, May 25, 2024 May 25, 2024
71° F Dallas, TX

The Art of Being a Good Neighbor

How an ailing mother and her son taught a young girl how to care quietly.
illustration by Caroline Hwang

When I was a child, my family lived on a street that ended in a small cul-de-sac. Actually, it was more of a dead end—a secret pocket—far from the traffic and noises of the city. Our house had the most ideal location in the entire neighborhood, with a decades-old bridge on the south and Turtle Creek on the west. 

It was in this environment of seclusion and tranquility that she first appeared in the summer of 1956. So little, so thin, so old, so fragile. Even from my bedroom window facing the street, I could tell that her pale, wrinkled skin was delicately beautiful. Her gray hair was held at the back of her head in a loose bun. She wore a flowing housecoat. Her feet never left the street as she shuffled along in her slippers. But what really caught my attention was what she had in her hands: a plate with cookies surrounding a candle.

When she reached the front of our house, she stopped and stood with her plate. I called my mother, who was ironing. She joined me at the window and shook her head saying, “Oh, dear, I’d better call Mr. Stanfield.”

Minutes later, a gray-haired man raced to within feet of the old woman. As he reached her, he said something as he touched her elbow. His manner was gentle, comforting, and coaxing. Without saying a word, she turned with him and they walked back toward the end of the cul-de-sac. 
“That was Harry Stanfield and his mother,” my mother explained.

“His mother? He’s too old to have a mother,” I interrupted. In my world, there were three types of people: children who were always moving, parents who were tall and wore uncomfortable clothing, and grandparents who had gray hair and lots of wrinkles. My mother explained that Mr. Stanfield had lived with his mother all of his life.

It was around Thanksgiving when I saw her again. I was home alone. There was Mrs. Stanfield in the same outfit with her plate of cookies and candle. Only this time the candle was lit, and she had a Kleenex in her mouth. I didn’t know exactly what to make of these new developments except that I always got in trouble when it came to fire and Kleenex in any form. Once again, she stopped in front of our house and stood. I knew that my parents wouldn’t return for hours, so I took it upon myself to rush down the street to the Stanfields’ cottage. I ran around to the back of the house and saw Mr. Stanfield raking leaves.

“Mr. Stanfield, your mother is in front of our house,” I blurted out. He looked up and rushed down the street. Once again, he coaxed her back home.

When my parents returned, I didn’t tell them about my adventure. I knew that I was supposed to stay put when they were gone. But I felt it was my duty to protect Mrs. Stanfield, even if it meant breaking the rules.

By my first year in junior high, the sightings had stopped, and all signs of Mr. Stanfield seemed to disappear. The little cottage moved from a state of neatness to disrepair.

It wasn’t until late one night when I was studying for my first final exam in high school that I noticed flashing lights passing our house. It was the first ambulance to ever drive up our street. Without waking anyone, I followed the lights to Mr. Stanfield’s house and stood outside. The attendants emerged from the house carrying Mr. Stanfield.

“What’s wrong?” I asked the first attendant.

“He’s had a stroke,” the bearer replied. “We have to get him to the hospital.”

I looked at Mr. Stanfield, who had a strange expression of peace and calm on his face.

I felt something touch my wrist. Looking down, I saw Mr. Stanfield’s hand holding my arm. Bending down close to him, I heard him say, “Thank you.” I smiled.
I told my parents about the ambulance the next day. My father made a couple of calls and returned to the breakfast table. “Harry Stanfield died this morning,” he reported.

I later learned that he had given his body to the medical school and requested no services. But I never forgot him. After all, Harry and his mother taught me the art of caring quietly.