I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.
The Shawshank Redemption
Across the street there is an empty house. It is a house more hollow than most empty houses. Until a week or so ago the house was brimming with the life of a family. Over the last three years the people of that family became my friends. In their comings and goings there was a continual reassurance that life was being lived with spirit and love and joy. Russell Spera grew up in that house. His father was postmaster in this town for many years. When the father died, the mother moved to Florida and Russell and his wife Jenn made it a home, a home where two sons, Lukas and Liam were working toward maturity.
On the day he left for a new home in Florida Russell told me “I never wanted to live here.” For all those many years I guess it was sort of a Shawshank prison for him. So finally he packed it up and moved to Florida. “I learn by going where I have to go” wrote the poet Theodore Roethke.
Like most women who mother successful families Jenn knows the power of influence that emanates from her family. When we said goodbye I told her it was a joy having the presence of her family in my world these last few years. She understood and said she would “spread that around” wherever they went. Lucky for folks in Florida.
Russell is a teacher. He was teaching English at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, a high school in Camden, NJ. He also taught music as he is an accomplished guitar (and other stringed instruments) player and a member of several local bands. There were times when I would hear music in the distance; when I looked across the street Russell was sitting on his front steps playing and singing. I’ll miss his impromptu free concerts. He had recently finished a Masters degree at my alma mater, Rutgers University. It is a rare treat to have someone in the neighborhood who also appreciates the brilliance of a Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf.
We were simply neighbors until Jenn engineered a very successful surprise 50th birthday party for Russ. She asked me to attend and take pictures. Russell seemed appropriately surprised. I was amazed. Jenn had managed to bring all his friends together, along with college professors who had become friends, people who worked with him as well as family members. A brother from New York Russell hadn’t seen in some years was even there. The work and planning to pull it off was enormous, and what came shining through was the tremendous love and caring they have for one another. I felt very lucky to have been included in this wonderful evening of the very best of humanity.
Jenn does the work of a nutritionist in some way I don’t fully understand. Last year they planted a good size garden. When I saw this happening I told Russ he was fulfilling my dream. I had always told my father he should make a vegetable garden, including Jersey corn in the front yard of our suburban house. Each year he opted for the side or back yards. Well, Russell was planting his right in the front yard, and he let me know he didn’t care what neighbors might think.
Along with the garden they had a compost pile going. I made a lot of trips across the street with vegetable trimmings and coffee grounds, adding to the compost. They were generous and told me to have anything I wanted from the garden.
There’s a huge pirate ship in the backyard — built as a playhouse for children. An above-ground pool was the centerpiece of parties. And colorful kayaks hung along the sunflower-draped fence, ready any time for some paddling in lakes and streams around here. I smiled when I overheard one of Liam’s friends ask if they were taking the pirate ship with them. It now waits for a new captain kid.
I feel sad when I look across the street and see the empty house that was a full home. It’s not as bad as the first few days when trash pickers came by periodically. Everything that was discarded and not moved was placed along the curb for the next mid-week trash pickup. It was hard to watch the trash pickers, like vultures tearing at the carcass of treasured memories.
Lukas graduated high school last year; he’s been doing college work this year. Having grown up here, he is losing most all of what he has and knows so the move will be a challenge for him. As if to reassure himself, he kept telling me, “Change is a good thing.” Liam is going into sixth grade in the fall (next month in Florida), and he’s a tough, resilient character who will do well anywhere. Russ says there are plenty of teaching jobs in Florida — since they pay so poorly no one wants the job. And Jenn, like Ma Joad in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, will keep the family purring along and successfully loving each other — and anyone else who gets in the way!
Welcome to their wonderful world, Florida!