The Little House Down the Street

Driving through my neighborhood, I am daily reminded that my house is getting old. Neighboring homes are renovated even though they’re already luxurious by most people’s standards, or they’re torn down altogether to make way for an even more imposing home with heavier stone and copper finishes. House by house, all the way down the street, beautiful homes are made finer; and mine still sits in its brown-trimmed Tudor stare.

A few years ago, another home down the street regularly caught my eye. It boasted no stone or copper—it was certainly no show home—and it had a carport, not a garage. I never saw signs in the yard; there were no Home Tour announcements, no school signs, no political endorsements. The tiny 1950’s ranch sat frozen in time on a valuable four-acre lot that kept every realtor in a long and salivating wait.

They waited because the owner of the home was an elderly woman. We saw her regularly; she moved slowly, bent over gathering sticks and and twigs alongside an also-elderly black man, who was apparently her landscaping help. Neighbors hired mowers and blowers for two acres, but she and her companion would pick up sticks for four. When our leaves disappeared into the lawn crews’ mysterious ether, hers lay scattered among the trees, with a pile of accumulated sticks parked faithfully at the street.

I never met the little woman, but she held a bit of mystery. To me, she was an island of simplicity; her home never hinted of the fashions or habits of the neighborhood. None of my nearby neighbors seemed to know her, either; she was just the elderly lady who lived in the little house on the corner. Surrounded by the faster and bigger, she still gathered her sticks with patience in a gentle rebuke to my own too-harried eyes.

If I didn’t see her out one week, I wondered if she was still alive. A sense of relief arrived when I’d finally see her bent figure among the pines and shrubs, grooming her woodland. Outside her acreage, time sped on—enormous new homes swallowed old lots, and horses—once a fixture in our neighborhood—no longer walked by; but her quiet and humble gardening work carried on.

One day, however, she didn’t appear. Nor did she on the next. A string of absences stretched into a month, and though azaleas bloomed, she made no warm weather appearance. I suspected my unsung hero had finally died.

Months passed in uncertainty, until I saw an announcement about an appointment-only estate sale at that address. I called the number, and sure enough, a neighbor was managing some scant goods left to this world; the little old lady had departed to another.

I set up a time to visit. More than just morbid curiosity motivated me; we were moving to a new home, and I wanted a piece of hers. I felt an admirer’s respect for the unbudging calm of her vintage little house. A token of her quiet labors would link her life to mine and carry a bit of the neighborhood past into our home.

When my children were younger, I loved reading about another little house. Virginia Lee Burton, in The Little House, wrote about a hillside family home slowly enveloped by the ruder realities of urban development. There was something noble about the little house that persisted in its rich familial history amid the concrete and steel that slowly surrounded it. The family home was eventually removed to preside over another undisturbed hillside; but the story illustrates the beauties lost to the noise of progress.

Although my neighborhood is nothing like the bustling city that nearly devoured Burton’s little house, its streetscapes have changed with the quickening pulse of our city’s “progress,” too. Its large lots were once popular for equestrians, but few homes have horses now. Most of the newer homes are, in fact, quite beautiful, with smart-home technology and stately landscapes; I confess that I admire most of them as elegant improvements. Some strike me as soulless, though; although they boast enviable features—multiple garages, guest houses, stately pools—they will likely never see little feet roaming or building forts on their expansive and manicured grounds.

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