Monday, March 17, 2014

Forrest's Flowers

It's about the time of year when our neighbor Forrest would call me over to look at the first crocus bloom coming up through the snow. He heated with wood and the bulbs on the outside of his chimney were always the first on the street to bloom. His house, built around 1800, wasn't well insulated, but I was too polite to mention that. I wasn't however too polite to not accuse him of being an old fraud who put out plastic flowers in order to dupe his gullible neighbors. It was the same conversation every year, but we both enjoyed it.

Forrest died last summer of lung cancer and I still can't look across the way and see his house without a feeling of gratitude that I got to know him in his last years.

Forrest was well named. He was a native Vermonter and a true son of the soil.  His mother died when he was a baby, a father was never mentioned, and he was raised a couple of miles away by his grandparents in a state of poverty that wasn't unusual in those days. He left for a few years during the Korean War and was stationed in Germany, but he came right back. When he came back, he married Marjorie, they bought the old house with a little bit of acreage, and that's where they stayed.

Forrest would turn most of his front yard into a remarkable kitchen garden every summer. Marjorie would can up the produce, whatever Forrest hadn't already given away at least. He'd been trained in the service in refrigeration so he started a one man business and was kept busy with the dairies around here. He was known to respond to calls from farmers anytime, even on Christmas morning. (Forrest's contention was that the cows didn't know or care if it was Christmas and that milk needed to stay cold.) Forrest and Marjorie had one child who was the center of their quiet lives.

Forrest didn't spend a dime he didn't have to, unless it was on something with an internal combustion engine. He'd lost close to fifty pounds before we met him, but to the end of his days he wore the same pants, taken in, but still the same pants. The towels in his bathroom were threadbare, but there was a new Kubota tractor in the barn. He was such a guy.

It all sounds so unremarkable, doesn't it? In my not yet published book, Summerland, the passing of one of the characters is bemoaned by her best friend who knows that her friend, who led a good and quiet life, will disappear from this world's short memory. I wrote this before Forrest died, but I cried while I was editing that section because I don't want him to disappear from memory either.

His beloved Marjorie had been diagnosed with Parkinson's a few years before we met them. He cared for her well and lovingly until he needed to be cared for himself. Every eight hours another nice person from the agency would show up and although he grumbled about it, he accepted their help with something akin to good grace. As he grew sicker, his biggest concern was for her because he'd always told her that he would be there for her, and it was becoming clear that was one promise he couldn't keep much longer.

Forrest thought I was a remarkable cook, which I'm really not, I just overcook. I've never adjusted to the children being grown and gone, so there's always too much food in our kitchen and it was nothing to dish some up and take it a across to them. Even when he could barely eat I was taking meals over. He wasn't a person who would have invited hugs, but I wanted him to know that I treasured him.

He loved dogs and they loved him. His favorite dog, our golden retriever Ollie, was diagnosed with cancer about the same time that Forrest could no longer easily get off the porch. I'd take Ollie over and those two old gentlemen would sit in the sun on the porch together and warm their bones in quiet companionship. Everyone in our village knew that we wouldn't have those two much longer, so the visitors increased and the casseroles piled up uneaten in their kitchen. When I told Forrest that Ollie was gone, we sat and held hands for a while, neither of us able to say a word at first.

A few days later, I told him that when we moved in and got to know him, I felt as though I had a part of my father back. I told him that he reminded me so much of my father although they were very different men. I told him that I knew they would have liked each other, being as how they both loved a good tractor among other things. We both started crying and he told me he loved me and I told him the same.

As I was leaving, he asked me my father's name. I told him my father's name was Grant and Forrest promised to look him up 'when he got there'. His decline was rapid and this was pretty much our last lucid conversation. I was relieved to get the call three days later that he had died in the night and all his suffering was over. Marjorie was moved to their daughter's home in New Hampshire and the old house is sitting there, quiet and cold.

Forrest Dunbar was a man who deserved to be remembered, even though his flowers won't bloom early this year.