The First Christmas in 87 Years Without a Neighbor
Do you believe that houses have feelings? I think they must. If they are old enough, and if they hold decades of family memories, of laughter and conversations and arguments, and now they are quiet, I think they must.
The house next door has got to feel very lonely this Christmas. For the first time since it was built, in 1925, it stands empty. No tree. No family cooking dinner inside. No rush to open presents. Inside linger memories of 87 Christmases. It must be waiting for the time it will once again be loved and lived in by another family.
My neighbor sadly passed away shortly before Thanksgiving.
The first time I met Charles “Bud” Strobel; he knocked on my door and politely asked if he could use my telephone. His was out of service, and he had to make an urgent phone call. At the time, Bud was a real estate attorney working on a house closing. At the time, Bud was 90 years old.
Bud lived to be 102. Bud lived independently in the house that was his wife’s parent’s home for nearly all of those 102 years. He lived a life that set examples for us all to follow. He always greeted us cheerfully from his walkway and bestowed other-era salutations to my children like “Hello chum!” and “How are you, my Huckleberry friend?”
Bud, according to his daughter’s beautifully written eulogy, was very athletic in college and throughout most of his life. Even into his nineties, my husband and I could see a sihlouette of him lifting small handweights through his bedroom curtain.
No matter the season, he took daily walks around the neighborhood. Using a cane and a walker in recent years did not deter him from getting out for a stroll. He drove his car until he reached his mid nineties. He always left the house dressed in khakis and cashmere sweaters to socialize with his friends at the Rochester Yacht Club.
One winter night, his daughter from South Carolina called me, worried that her dad was not answering his phone. Indeed, his car was not in the garage. It turns out that he was out for dinner at the yacht club with his “younger” friends who were in their 70s and 80s.
Bud loved the gardens around his house though he didn’t do much to care for them. That was his wife’s passion. After she died in 1997, her flowers and roses seemed to thrive on benign neglect.
From her bed, as she lay dying, she watched the pink flowers of our crabapple tree bloom. Bud said seeing that tree bloom gave her great pleasure in her final days.
Each spring Bud came out of his house to mournfully gaze at the pink of the tree. We could only imagine he was thinking of his wife as the petals fell to make a pink carpet on the lawn.
I never met Bud’s wife, as we moved here in 1999, the first family to move onto the block with kids in a generation. In some ways, like my gardening, Bud said I reminded him of his wife. He said that she and I were both “demon gardners.”
After the first year of tolerating these thorny barberry bushes that separated our properties, I asked if he would be receptive to removing them and replace them with a perennial flower garden.
In his dry sense of humor, he quipped, “My mother-in-law planted those bushes decades ago. I’ve always disliked them. She’s long gone, so I can’t see why they can’t go now too!”
This narrow garden became a vehicle for many conversations between Bud and I in the summer. Each spring, he would come out of his house and ask me “Hey demon gardner, what are you going to plant this year?” And I would show him my bags of spring bulbs or the perrineals in pots I would plant.
I’m going to miss Bud. He spent the last year of his live living down south near his daughter and he died peacefully there.
The end of Bud’s life means the end of three generations, maybe four, who had memories in that home. Those memories, and the house that houses them, is a hefty bag to unload. Even now, that there is no one in the house, his daughters hung a wreath on the door before heading back south after Bud’s funeral.
Bud was a good neighbor and though I know I was busy with raising my kids for all the years we lived next door, I hope he thought we were good neighbors too.
I don’t know what is going to happen to the house. I don’t know how or when Bud’s family, who live in Texas and South Carolina, will return to Rochester to go through 87 years worth of stuff and put his house on the market. And, after 87 years, the house will need some love and TLC and a good hefty rennovation before it finds a buyer.
So, even though I’m not Christian, all I want for Christmas – for next Christmas – are new neighbors.
How a Sukkah is like a Christmas tree
Okay, so the headline of this post might shock and offend some, but please let me explain my bold statement.
Growing up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Staten Island, as the Chanukkah song from Adam Sandler song goes, I was the only kid on the block without a Christmas tree. Our neighbors invited my family over for cake and tree decorating and we in turn invited them on Chanukkah to light our menorah, spin a dreidel and eat fried potato latkes.
Even back then I understood that Christmas was a big holiday, and Chanukkah was a minor Jewish one. But Christmas trees still left me with a feeling of being on the outside, my nose pressed to the frosted window.
A menorah, no matter how big, even the ones that the Chabad Lubavich movement lights, just can’t compete with the smell of fresh pine, the twinkling lights and the tinsel to a Jewish kid on Staten Island. I even had my secret Christmas tree fantasies. If I ever had a Christmas tree, it would be simple: just candy canes and white lights would hang off the branches of the Christmas tree of my dreams. And it would only be in my dreams, because I knew very well that there is no such thing as a Chanukkah bush.
I did have childhood associations with Sukkot, the eight-day autumn festival of Booths, because of Hebrew school. I made the standard paper sukkah chains and ate within the large sukkah of my synagogue. In fact, the first time I was ever asked on a date was in a sukkah. It was in the seventh grade and a classmate asked me to go roller skating at Skate Odyesy as our teacher, on Orthodox rabbi, continually shushed us as he attempted to recite kiddush, the blessing over the grape juice.
But because my family didn’t build a sukkah of our own, the holiday still felt remote to me. I didn’t have a sukkah to eat my bowl of breakfast cereal in, or sleep in.
Now, in adulthood, my family enjoys putting up a sukkah every autmn, and we have done so for eleven years. And because we have a family sukkah, I can now say why this celebration, one of the major holidays on the Jewish calendar, blows that overblown attention we give to that other holiday in December right out of the water. Why? Because a sukkah fulfills the Jewish Americans’ need to decorate a large, religious object with branches and lights and have social gatherings within or around it.
Sukkot is known in Hebrew as one of the “three legs” of Jewish holidays, one of the three times of the year when the ancient Israelites were commanded to make a pilgrimage by foot to Jerusalem. Imagine Israelites building one of these temporary huts and sleeping in their fields under a harvest moon.
This same harvest moon shines through the roof of our family sukkah on the first few nights as we feast and sing. After a month of self scrutiny, asking for forgiveness, and finally, fasting on Yom Kippur, sitting within the walls of a sukkah is like getting a hug from God and feeling His forgiveness, as one Chabad rabbi in my college years so eloquently explained it.
In my neighborhood, Sukkot is all around us. As we are finishing up our meal of brisket and sweet potatoes, our neighbor, an Orthodox rabbi, is starting his meal with his family within their sukkah. We can hear his voice as he joyfully sings the kiddush as we clear off our table. This is followed by the clanking of plates and the laughter of his grandchildren as they dine. This coming outside to eat, either in these formal meals or sukkah hopping later in the week may be the last chance we get before the long Rochester winter, makes our neighborhood just feel more neighborly.
How is a sukkah not like a Christmas tree? For one thing, Jews are commanded by God in Torah to build one to remind us of the booths that the Israelites lived in during their wandering in the desert after we were freed from Egypt. Plain and simple, it’s a mitzvah just to sit in a sukkah. I still don’t understand if there is a religious connection between a tree and the birth of Jesus, but I’d be happy to learn how this tradition got started.
So, now that it is December, I still admire Christmas trees, but with a knowledge and experience that the Jewish people have our time of year for our big celebrations with something to decorate and gather in. Come this Christmas, don’t feel bad for the Jewish people who have no Christmas tree. Instead, feel bad for the Jewish people who have not yet built, or ate, or slept, or dwelt in a Sukkah, back in September.