It was the late 1950s when we moved into a big, turn of the century house in the Goosetown section of Iowa City. My neighbor’s house next door had been built at the same time as ours and was almost a twin to it. We even shared a garage that straddled the property line. It had been built as a carriage house and had doors at both ends, so that one could drive the horses and carriage straight into it, unhitch the horses and lead them out the other door. The two halves of the garage were separated by a masonry wall. The big, full-size cars of the 1960s would just barely squeeze through the door and leave no room to open the car door. Thus, our side of the garage became a storage place for lawn care equipment, cases of empty pop bottles, and camping gear.
My neighbor had moved into the new house as a bride, and when we arrived, had been a widow for many years. Once, she’d had a pony and cart to drive about town. When I lived there, she drove a Studebaker which was small enough to fit in her half of the garage. Being of an age when stiff joints make it uncomfortable to look out the rear window, she had difficultly backing out of the garage and often came knocking on my kitchen door, asking if I would get her car out of the garage for her. After several rescue missions, I reminded her of the door at the other end of the garage and suggested she clear out the garden equipment and other things stored there, so that she could simply drive her car through and exit by the alley.
She usually had one or two college students renting rooms from her. All the time I lived there, her roomers were male students who seemed willing to shovel snow and carry out the trash for her on pick-up day. They also willingly switched screens and storm windows with the seasons, painted the railings on the front porch, and cleared out her garage so that I didn’t have to extricate her car on a regular basis. I didn’t mind backing out her car for her, but there was always the chance that, after she’d maneuvered it into a diagonal position, I might scrape off a fender or rear-view mirror in my attempts to straighten it up again.
When I was a girl at home, my mother never indulged in what we used to call neighboring. I don’t hear that term used these days, but it was simply the habit of dropping in for coffee and a chat with a neighbor, lending an egg or cup of sugar, or perhaps sharing some garden produce and gossip over the back fence. Mother never seemed to have any spare time for such frivolous pastimes, so I, in turn, never developed the habit. If I visited with my Goosetown neighbor at all, it was usually when I happened to be occupied out of doors doing yard work or playing with my little boys. On rare occasions, she would bring me a plateful of freshly baked kolaches, or offer me some surplus tomatoes from her garden. I don’t suppose I was inside her house more than ten times during the 12 years we lived there.
About all I remember of the interior of her house was that her back porch seemed to be plagued with gnats most of the time. I thought they might be attracted by cooking smells from the kitchen, or an occasional tomato ripening on a shelf under the porch window. My back porch housed my washer and dryer, some toys and tools, and the weekly accumulation of trash and garbage. The trash, by itself, should have been enough to attract my own swarm of gnats. It didn’t seem logical that my neighbor should have so many gnats, and I should have none at all.
Generous with her kolaches and cucumbers, my neighbor also shared some eighty years of wisdom and not too subtly offered advice she thought I needed. One year she had her bathroom remodeled, our house needed painting. Another year, new shingles on her roof, our house still needed painting. The next year her front porch steps were rebuilt, our house very badly needed painting. Her blunt advice was that, if you do something for your house every year, your house will always be there to take care of you. Admittedly, her house was in better condition than ours. Hers was a one-owner house. Ours had seen several owners and renters. It needed more care than we could afford at that time.
One winter, toward the end of February, I noticed my neighbor, clippers in hand, busy with the grape arbor beside the garage. “These nice days in February,” she told me, “are the perfect time to prune the grapes.” Then I remembered the gnats on her back porch and that sweet, heady aroma of fermenting grapes. And the big stoneware crock covered with layers of cheesecloth. The mystery of the gnats became clear, but I still wonder just where are all those nice days in February she told me about.