The air on the porch was heavy and the cicadas chanted their morning prayers. I peered past the redwood fence separating our yard from that of the most wonderful neighbor. Katie concentrated, brushing her Barbie’s tresses. “Did you hear anything?” I asked my sister.
“Nope,” she responded. I wondered how much longer it would be. “We’re so hot, Mom,” I yelled into the kitchen.
“It’s not even 10:00,” said Mom. “Not yet.”
Clink. The pool gate, a sure sign that it was time. My heart raced a bit. I was 9 years old, and it was time to go swimming. Past the pool towels that danced, long and loose on the clothes line, popped a sun-glassed head.
“You girls wanna swim?” she shouted, a song in her voice.
For us, the answer was always yes.
The Wonderful Neighbor I’ll Never Forget
20 Clark Street was only one house over but a whole world away. While I have no complaints about my parents, things at Shirley’s were just a little different. Shirley Fogarty was my next-door neighbor from the time I was 13 months old until I moved out on my own after college. She lived with her husband and her two children, but memories of them fade across a backdrop against which Shirley reigns as shining star.
When they’d arrive for a weekend or a month, Shirley always made us part of the gang. We’d race in and out of her house all morning, with dirty feet and sticky hands, riding our bikes endlessly around her magnificent circular driveway, the only one I’d ever seen. Afternoons entailed lying beneath the pool table in her basement rec room where one of us would stand above, feeding the cold, striped and solid balls into a corner pocket, while the others watched them bang through the mechanisms below in a hypnotic, clanging race. We’d up the ante of fun by sending the balls through faster and faster still; Shirley never minded.
Soon, we’d move on to a game of hide and seek where the hiding spot was, by some unspoken rule, solely limited to the confines of a giant un-lit walk-in closet beneath her staircase. Our own version of a Narnia wardrobe, it took us to a dark and mysterious world where we crawled over a forest floor of off-season storage bags. We left that closet in constant disarray, but she never made that space off-limits.
Later, when our parents believed, in good-neighbor fashion, that we’d overstayed our welcome, Dad would stride past the redwood fence and shout, “Ok, you two, ready? Time to go home.” Shirley always responded the same way: “They’re fiiiiiiiiine, Wayne.” At Shirley’s, we could always stay late. We could always come early. We were always welcome.
She Made My Childhood Magical
And so it went, season after season of golden hours, before social drama and college applications, summer jobs and boyfriends. We ate chips from a can and cheese from a crock, and unlike ours, her fridge always had Kool-Aid. She had a bottomless bowl of Smarties on her end table, the sole purpose of which was for kids to pilfer, no matter how close it was to dinnertime.
On Super Bowl Sunday, she hosted smoky neighborhood parties, where we ate goulash from a steaming crockpot and guzzled soda. Our rare chance to stay out late on a school night, we rubbed elbows with older neighborhood kids who might not even look our way at the playground come Monday.
For Halloween, Shirley always commandeered the other moms and dads into dressing up. At Christmas, her tree had two sets of lights: a colored strand that stayed on steady, and a white one entwined deep inside, sparkling like fairy dust.
She took us out to lunch for our birthdays and never forgot to tape candy to the top of our gift. She bought me my first curling iron. She showed me how to do the Hustle. She would let me eat a second bomb pop.
…And Shirley’s Incredible Backyard
Nothing defines Shirley like the glory of her backyard. Her swimming pool rafts just seemed floatier, and we raced on them in teams, jumping off to have underwater tea parties that always involved handstands. The radio played steady, and neighbors came and went from her deck in a sunny stream while we rocketed off the diving board, screaming out theme songs to 70s TV sitcoms. No one ever told us to keep it down. Moms lined up the chaise lounge chairs along the beds of marigolds and snapdragons, like bathing-suited birds on a wire.
Midday, there would appear next to Shirley’s chair a tall plastic tumbler of vodka and orange juice, dripping with sweaty condensation. As the years passed by, these drinks and others like them would become her undoing. To me, it never made her less, it only made her real. It made her human. People hurt. And they do what they can to make it better, even if their choices aren’t always the right ones. Despite her husband’s death when she was but 42, Shirley never let it dull her glimmer, at least not on the outside.
Shirley passed away this summer. From Romper Stompers to Play-Doh, curling irons to graduation parties, family barbecues to baby showers, she was part of it all. No matter what the day, no one did big-hearted love better than Shirley, and she never ran out of ways to show it. She was the epitome of a wonderful neighbor.
We All Deserve Special Moments
My nieces are now the same age I was in the years when my memories of Shirley are the sweetest. More often than not, I find myself letting them sleep over on a moment’s notice, saying yes to a fourth cookie, affirming their giggling plans to jump in the pool no matter the time of night. I owe this legacy to Shirley, who taught me that above all, it is important to say yes. To say why not. To say not only in words but in deeds: I love you, you matter, you deserve something special. Not grand, not expensive, but special.
I learned that it is more important than it might appear to be just a little kinder than necessary, to sneak in a sprinkle of harmless indulgence, to go just a bit beyond. The truth is, these tiny moments knitted together over a lifetime yield a gift beyond measure. And the real magic is that I’ve learned it’s just as wonderful to be the Shirley as it was to be “Shirleyed.”
Godspeed, Shirley. You made it all good. I will hold you in my heart until we meet again—where I hope the pool water is warm and the disco tunes are playing loud.
Wonder how you can impact the lives of those around you the way Shirley did? Listen to this podcast episode of This Grit and Grace Life: Your Life Can Inspire Others – 141