I was seven years old when my family moved next door to Eddie Jasper.
Eddie had been there for a very long time: after serving in World War II, he built his house himself, with the help of a few friends. He and his family lived there for decades, which fortunately overlapped with the majority of my childhood and young adulthood.
Over the years, I learned and understood more about Eddie. Most of what I learned was transmitted through observation, as Eddie was not the type of man to tell you about what he’s done, unless you’re asking a pointed question. Instead, he was the one up before the rest of the block, mowing everyone’s lawn without hesitation. He was also the oldest man on the block – a fact that he didn’t seem to dwell on, and certainly not a fact that hindered his ambitions.
When I picture Eddie, I imagine him working in his yard. He was outside so often, in fact, that just about any time I went outside to play, I could hear him working – and he would always strike up a conversation over the fence, and he always had fresh raspberries from his yard to share.
I had been to Eddie’s house many times, often with my two younger sisters. For a few years, we were mostly encouraged to do so by my parents, who I imagine wanted us to be around Eddie for a number of reasons, one being that they hoped we would spend time with someone from another generation (my grandparents all live in Michigan, and this fact added to the cause). I recall fearfully knocking on the door – or forcing my sister to knock – before those initial visits. We were a little unsure about what to do once we were inside; we didn’t know what to expect from a man in his 80’s. Eddie always seemed amused at the sight of three girls sitting on his couch in a row, each of us sipping a Coke that he had brought out on a tin tray.
We began to anticipate an annual visit from Eddie over the holidays, when he would bring my sisters and me a Christmas gift. One year, the three of us each opened our own “Etch-A-Sketch,” and though I can’t put my finger on it precisely, the thought of this gift still makes me feel a little sad, if only for its sweetness, and the look of joy on Eddie’s face when the three of us opened the packages.
At a certain point, because I was the oldest, I was awarded the most “independent” of all bedrooms in our house – the only bedroom downstairs (and it took a year or so to get over my fears associated with what I presumed was a lack of safety because of its location). What I remember so well about the room that I spent much of my childhood in was not a feature of the room itself, but of something outside of the room. The window to Eddie’s sitting room was located just across from my bedroom window, and though the curtains were never pulled aside, Eddie always kept a lamp on, and I grew accustomed to the faint glow from the lamp just outside my own window.
While visiting from college one year, I brought a boyfriend home to meet my family. He must have been overwhelmed by the loud, quick chatter of sisters reunited after some time, because he slipped out of our house without our noticing. I went outside to find him sitting on Eddie’s porch, the two men enjoying a cold beer. They looked like old friends somehow, despite knowing each other for a few minutes. I held very still for a few moments as I watched them with appreciation, not wanting to interrupt the scene before me.
Throughout my time in college and especially in the years following my graduation, Eddie’s health began to decline – a looming reality that is inevitable – but also harder to understand when it befalls someone like Eddie. We all had an idea of him as someone who didn’t change much, seemed as though he could live forever, and could always take care of himself.
Of my whole family, my dad remained closest with Eddie. My dad has worked out of our house for years, and in this way, he and Eddie were always a few steps away from sharing a whiskey or lending a hand. Later in Eddie’s life, the roles shifted a bit more, and my dad did more of the helping between the two of them. One day, Eddie called my dad because he needed a “quick ride to the E.R., please.” Upon arriving at the roundabout outside of the E.R., Eddie attempted to leap out of the car and take care of the rest on his own, hardly allowing the vehicle to come to a stop. Fortunately, my father protested.
Shortly after my birthday this year, on October 21st, my father regretfully told me that Eddie had died that morning, at the age of 94. It had occurred to me in recent years that this could happen soon. I was sad in the ways that one expects: at the idea that we wouldn’t see him any longer, the thought of past memories and the past altogether, and by the overwhelming confusion of death. But there was something else about Eddie’s passing that has stayed with me, and it’s something that my father understood when he, a man of very few words on such matters, noted that losing Eddie was much like losing an important part of a truly great generation.
What stays with me is Eddie’s self-sufficiency, his ability to be tough as nails yet still beam at the sight of three little girls opening up their own Etch-A-Sketch toys, and his daily gratitude that allowed him to see the adventure within convention and enjoy every minute of it.
I believe that you can tell a lot about the collective integrity of a society based on how they respect their older generations – living or deceased. I hope I can carry a bit of what Eddie exemplified as a very small tribute to his life, his values, and his generation.
I’m not a little girl anymore, but there is still a comforting glow from Eddie’s lamp that keeps me company – just in a different way.