Death of a Neighbor
In past blogs we've remembered important people who have died. Kaye Pearson, Jack Cooney, most recently Tom Oxley. Today, in Boise, Idaho, there is a memorial service for Ruth Gullstrom. She was 98. More importantly, she was our neighbor for 16 years.
When we came to Florida in 1970, we found a pretty house in Colee Hammock. What we did not know was that our neighbors were watching with interest to see who bought the house. They were up to here with the wild parties held by the previous owners. But Ruth and Al immediately befriended us, and that is an understatement if there is any way to understate or exaggerate the word friend. Al, whose real first name was Carl, arrived in Florida in 1918. He was 2 years old, the son of a Finnish immigrant to Massachusetts. They came down because a sister was ill and the doctors suggested a warmer climate. She died anyway. Al recalled the 1926 hurricane when their house on Ravenswood Road blew away and he helped men mount the house on logs and roll it back in place. It stayed there until airport expansion took it away in the 1980s.
Ruth was 30 years older than my wife Peggy, but they became best friends. Ruth was warm, funny and loving. She used to give our kids cookies and milk. Years later, when our son Mark arrived with a spring break gang from Notre Dame, Ruth and Al put them up in a spare room. They were surrogate grandparents.
In 1982 we had a bad break. We were broke and planned to take the kids out of private school. Our youngest, Julie, was at Happyland, the First Presbyterian Church pre-school. Ruth and Al picked up the tuition. We never asked them. They just did it. Neighbors.
Al, a carpenter by trade, was a longtime employee of Causeway Lumber. He could do anything, always in a slow, drawling way. One New Year’s Day we awoke to a water spout in our front yard. A pipe had broken. Al had heart trouble, and I did not want to trouble him, but he was the only guy I knew who could save Florida from drowning. He went into his shop and hammered a piece of pipe so that it fit over the key leading from the main. The man literally made a tool in about five minutes. That shut off the water.
“Thanks Al,” I said. “We’ll get a plumber Monday.”
“It’s New Year’s,” Al said. “You gotta have water.”
Conscious of his bad heart, I protested. But he went back to his work room and produced a spade, a bit of hose and a hacksaw. He dug up the ground, cut the rusted part of the pipe and fitted the hose over the gap. All I did was stand by with a two-by-four and pressed a little when Al said to. It took about 30 minutes. That fix lasted for several years, and we had water on New Year’s Day.
This could go on. One Christmas Ruth asked me to get a picture of Foy Fleming, who lived in that classic walled house on our street. I did not know it, but Peggy thought he was the best-looking man who ever lived. She was not alone. Ruth wanted to play a joke on Peg but was too shy to ask Foy for a picture of himself so she could have fun with it. She asked me to call Foy. I told him the story.
“Bunny,” he said, in his southern way, “I probably shouldn’t do this, but I will.”
The picture was a Christmas gift. It read: “To Peggy, with all my love, Foy.”
Ruth and Al moved to Ocala in 1986, and we often visited. They bought land next to large horse farms and it was great fun to walk the dirt roads and get to know the horses. Al died and Ruth moved to Boise to be near their son, Chuck. Peggy kept in touch by phone and we always enjoyed the amusing cards Ruth sent for birthdays, etc. We knew she was failing and we talked about taking the time to visit her.
My wife is sad today, for the reasons here mentioned and the countless other kindnesses that came from wonderful people and the blessing of living next door to them. Peggy wishes we could do something. I told her I would think of something.