I always think of Vernie, a nextdoor neighbor lady, when I think back to forms of generosity in my youth. At first blink, she may not be the kind of lady you would expect to be so kind. She smoked cigarettes, drank when she felt like it, and had three beautiful children. Blackie, Vernie’s husband, worked in the foundry in our industrial small town and came dragging home at five thirty, dirty as anyone I’d ever seen, removed his shoes in the garage, climbed two small steps up to open the screen door to the kitchen and headed straight to the bathroom. Somehow in the quagmire of pretty tough economic times, Vernie found the time each summer to call all the kids in the neighborhood over to play Gin Rummy or some other penny game. She looked like a card shark, smoke encircling her head, glass of beer on the table, laughing at whatever came up. We had a blast munching on nuts, ginger snaps or pretzels and drinking real soda–coke usually–while we played. She’d shoo us out often before Blackie got home.
She, like most moms in the area, hung her laundry out on the lines to dry. Seems like everyday she had a batch of clothes and sheets drying out there. She and Blackie had a dog named Lassie that could smile. So, on top of the commands of shake, speak, lie down, we could ask Lassie to smile and she’d do it by baring lips back and showing all of her front teeth! I’ve only met one dog since then that smiles on command like that. One time Blackie was out back wearing a white t-muscle shirt with some sort of blue work pants listening to Tiger baseball on a small radio. Clean clothes flapped on the line, and Lassie sauntered over to greet me before Blackie did. Must have been summer and must have been a weekend. That’s just a snapshot of a sweet memory I still think about.
At holiday time, Vernie sent our family (probably others too) the most incredible assortment of baked goods in a special oblong metal tin. She must have been baking and freezing all year, so varied were the cookies. Pecan balls, thin mint cookies, sugar cookies, brownies, layered chocolate chip bars, lemon bars, and more. Mom knew to put the tin up after we’d each had one, because we were like a pack of hungry wolves when something like that showed up and we could’ve devoured everything in no time if left to our own devices. Families in our neighborhood didn’t have much, but we sure knew who to go to when Halloween came around. There, beneath her basement stairwell were a couple of barrels chock full of homemade clown costumes, wigs, old dresses, wings, kids overalls and hats. I think she loved it when we needed to borrow things since her kids were already grown and out of the house and these costume pieces surely carried bits of lingering happy memories just waiting to be released again.
When I came home from college for short breaks, I always tried to take time to walk over to say hi to Vernie. She’d come to open the door, laugh and say, “Come on in here girl! Sit down, and let me get you a glass of beer!” With that, she’d ask me about school, my classes, and fill me in on any neighborhood news. In so many ways it seemed Vernie liked her life as much as she might have battled with it. She could dress up and look so fancy for weddings, showers, and parties. Even as she was aging, I caught glimpses of the younger woman she must have been a couple of times when I glanced her way at these events. She began asking me to come over to help clean her house, which looked pretty spotless to me. She was a stickler for a clean floor though, so I had to get down on my hands and knees and scrub her floors–“HEY! Don’t forget the corners!” Her arthritis wouldn’t allow for her to clean like she wanted to anymore and I know it bothered her. But it would be summertime and I appreciated whatever money she paid. I can still hear her rolling, raspy laugh in my mind. She’d close her eyes, lean forward and her shoulders would just shake with laughter. Sometimes she’d throw out a curse word here or there when she came over to talk with our mom. “Jeezuz,” she’d cackle. She’s passed on now, but I think of her often and wish every neighborhood with young kids could have at least one Vernie!