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The Neighbors

"Bill Shaffer died a few minutes ago."

This was a text I got from my sister this afternoon. My first reaction was to ask, "Had he been sick?" Then I realized that our parents' generation is working up to their 80s and 90s. People are going to pass away.

The Shaffers were our next-door neighbors at the house I grew up in in Virginia. We lived on what we called a cul-de-sac up there but in Mississippi we called a "cove." About seven or eight houses, I guess. Ours and the Shaffers were at the top of the key, with hilled driveways that were fantastic in the snow. We'd take our sleds to the top of our driveways and ride them all the way to the end of our street. The snowplows never came down the cul-de-sac.

In my earliest memories I always remember the Shaffers being there. They ended up having four children to my family's three: Bobby was the same age as my older sister; Kenny was one year younger, so between my sister and me; Michael was my brother's age or maybe a year younger; then finally came Pam. When she was really little we called her Pammy. She was terribly cute.

On Halloween, my dad and Mr. Shaffer always took the kids trick-or-treating while the moms stayed back to hand out candy at home. [LEFT: On the Shaffers' doorstep; Pam as a bunny, Spiderman Michael off to the right; my siblings and I down the center]

The Shaffers had an apple tree in their back yard that was perfect for climbing. One year, Bobby and Kenny decided to dig an ongoing hole in the backyard behind the swing set. It went on for months and got very deep before Mr. Shaffer made them fill it in.

One time I was in their shed with Pam - we were looking for something it seems like? Or getting bikes out maybe? And I hit my funny bone. It was the first time I'd ever done that. It scared me to death. I muttered some excuse to Pam and ran home to report to my dad that my arm was probably going to fall off. He took me onto his lap in the rocking chair and consoled me with, "It isn't very funny, is it?"

When the Hobbs and the Shaffers bought their homes on Ottawa Street in the late 60s, the houses were minimalist. Three bedroom, one bath, finished basements. Later, the Shaffers decided to add on to theirs. They literally raised the roof and added a second story with two bedrooms and a master bedroom. Mrs. Shaffer came over to tell us the construction work was about to start and not to walk barefoot in their yard. All of us kids set up picnic chairs on the sidewalk across from their house (the cul-de-sac was kind of kidney-shaped) to watch the work.

Before they decided to build on to their house, the Shaffers toyed with moving to a bigger house. I remember my mother joking that she was going to tag along and tell people not to sell to them. We loved our neighbors.

After we moved to Mississippi, I visited the Shaffers only a couple times. The family I babysat for in Mississippi came from the same area of Northern Virginia. Christmas of my junior year, they were driving back up and offered to take me with them. I saw old friends and stayed one night in one of the Shaffer's expanded upstairs bedrooms. Kenny let me look through his yearbook to see the photos of my old elementary school friends.

When Elijah was 6, Chip and I took him to D.C. for a week. The Shaffers hosted a lovely picnic dinner for the three of us. They could not have been more gracious. Pam was there and Bob I think. Not all of the kids still lived in the immediate area.

In 2002, my mom, sister and I met in D.C. for a surprise 40th wedding anniversary party for Mr & Mrs Shaffer organized by their kids. They held it at their church on a Saturday afternoon. Bob told them his oldest daughter was receiving a Girl Scouts award. They showed up to find a roomful of family and friends. Mrs. Shaffer said if she'd known she would've changed out of her gardening clothes.

The Shaffers loved to garden.

After the party they invited us back to their house to visit and catch up. It's the only living room I've ever sat in that wasn't centered around a TV. They had a TV - it was either tucked away in a dark corner? Or maybe not even in the room? But their lives did not revolve around it. I always knew they were Methodists but I never knew until I spent some time with them as an adult just how spiritual their lives were. It seems to have grounded them as a family in a way that ours never was.

My heart goes out to the family for the loss of their patriarch. But knowing what I know about this family, they will pull together and support each other in their time of sorrow. Bless you, Shaffers.

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