The Girls Next Door

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

I never planned to live in South Philly again.

I lived here for a few years after Bill and I married. It was not a good fit for me, and Bill was ready for a change, too. When he began his military career we were both happy to relocate to a suburban setting. We bought a lawn mower and never looked back.

But 25 years passed and Bill’s mother’s health was failing. Time and time again Bill took emergency leave to fly here to be with her as she faced yet another health crisis. My own mom was faring better but she wasn’t getting any younger and I wished I could spend more time with her. So we did what we never thought we’d do: we sold our house, quit our jobs and came back to Philadelphia.

We arrived here in August of 2010. Bill’s mother took a turn for the worse and died just two months later—on Halloween. Six months after that, my mother went to live with my sister in Florida. She died a year and a half later.

We found ourselves living in the house Bill grew up in, but it didn’t feel like home to either of us. We were puzzled; we came here to be with our mothers, and they were both gone. What were we supposed to do now? As we tried to settle in and make sense of our new location and new life, we found comfort and encouragement next door—where Bill’s Aunt Ginny lives. (When I say “next door,” I mean it quite literally. We can look out our kitchen door and into her kitchen window—it’s just 6 feet away!) Bill’s other aunt, Dolores, had recently moved in with her. I always liked them both and I now had the opportunity to really get to know them well. They quickly became so much more than aunts to me; they became my friends, too. They shared favorite recipes and filled me in on family history I hadn’t heard before. They told me stories of what it was like growing up in the Philadelphia of long ago. When I was missing my mother, they’d give me hugs and make me a cup of tea and let me sit at their kitchen table and talk about her—and cry, if I needed to. (I often did!)

I love these ladies so much. Let me tell you about them . . .

Ginny is one of the most gracious women I’ve ever known. A visitor can’t be in her house for more than five minutes before she offers them something to eat. The quintessential homemaker, her family and her home have always been her world. She’s lived in the same house for 68 years, and knows it like the back of her hand. Though macular degeneration has robbed her of much of her eyesight, she still moves around her house with ease. She does her own laundry and some light cleaning and even continues to cook—though not the elaborate dishes she was once known for.  At 97, Ginny easily seems 20 years younger. She’s tiny—perhaps 4’8” and she’s as lithe as a little child. When I first Ginny & Delores sharing some piemoved here I’d often see her standing on her kitchen counter to reach things in upper cabinets. I think she’d still be climbing the cupboards, but her daughters worried about her safety, so she agreed to keep both feet on the floor.

Ginny is ladylike and she seldom utters a negative word. She always says grace before a meal, and when you’re leaving her house, she’s likely to offer you a blessing. She also has a very fun side. On New Year’s Eve she puts on festive music and dances around the kitchen, laughing and yelling, “Happy New Year!” She brings out her electronic Dean Martin doll to croon for guests and she sings along with gusto. On birthdays, she crafts and recites personalized rhymes, making the recipient feel very special. She wrote this one for my daughter, Alexis: “Now that you are 33, you can shout with glee–at last you found your honeybee!” (Alexis and her “honeybee” both got a big kick out of that one!)

Dolores is the younger sister—the “baby” in a family of eight siblings. We often call her “Aunt Bo” because that’s what Bill called her when he was first learning to talk. She worked in a doctor’s office for many years and when someone in the family is sick, she quickly goes into caregiver mode. She put her own life on hold and used her medical know-how to take excellent care of Bill’s mother during the last few years of her life. I don’t know what we’d have done without her.

Dolores is 88 now, but still has beautiful posture and walks with an air of dignity and elegance. Beneath the graceful exterior, however, she can be sassy and so much fun! She makes me laugh and I make her laugh and sometimes laughter is exactly what we both need. I make library runs for her and she and I discuss the books we’re reading. We both like watching Dancing with the Stars and we have fun talking about how our favorite contestants are doing and who we think will take the mirror ball trophy. I feel so comfortable with her, as if we’ve always been close. I had no idea she and I would ever have such a friendship, but we just seem to click, and I consider that quite a gift.

Sometimes I wonder why Bill and I moved back to Philly. I’m not a person who believes everything happens for a reason, but I somehow believe there must be a hidden purpose for our being here. Can it be that the aunts somehow figure into that purpose?

Are we here for them? Are they here for us?  I don’t know.

Here are some things I do know:

My life would not be the same if I hadn’t had these years with Ginny and Dolores; I am a richer person for having known them. I feel more hopeful about growing older because I see them living independently, with courage and grace and humor.

Our little house feels like home now, and I know it is partly because the aunts are next door. I find comfort in looking out my back door and seeing the light in their kitchen. It makes me happy to know they are there.

So, while this wasn’t an easy move and it hasn’t been a smooth transition, I can’t regret our decision to come here. I remind myself that we came here to spend time with two very special women—and we’ve done that.

(They just aren’t the two we thought they’d be!) 

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