I grew up next door to a family with a willow tree with a swing in their backyard, a family who allowed me to be as one of their own for summer days on end. For years and years, I was as much an O’Connor as their own daughters and son. The two girls, Erin and Cara, were younger than me by a few grades and so I sometimes took a surprising role as leader in our tiny tribe, a space I didn’t often fill as a little girl with a quiet voice and a tender spirit.
I grew up romping around the yard with my neighbors, huge to our small selves. I’m sure that we spent a fair amount of time together in the other seasons, as we lived as neighbors for almost a decade, but it is summer that remains the most vivid. I can smell the tomato and lavender plants in the muggy Virginia air. I remember grass stains galore and sticky lips from those popsicles you squeeze from a tube. I remember taking refuge in their cool basement when it was hottest and watching Annie for the first glorious time. I remember Mrs. O’Connor taking lunch orders as she called out the back door: PB&J, turkey, or ham? she’d ask. I remember also being scolded more than once for being mean to one of the girls. I did not have immunity— I was a member of this household, not a diplomat. On those long summer days, we’d pretend-play the days away. We’d play school and house in the basement. We’d make forts in their conifer trees that lined the back fence. I’d tell them I knew how to make perfume from fresh flowers. And they believed me.
My childhood house has a window that looks right to the corner of their backyard fence, the corner where the willow tree was planted. Many summer days, I’d wait by that window in the mornings until the girls would come to the corner of the fence. We had our own code symbols and hand gestures. “Can I come over?” I’d ask through our symbols from behind my window. They’d run in to ask their mother, who always had room for me. I’d return home hours later, closing the back fence gate behind me and galloping past our other neighbors’s deck, after spending the day emerged in other worlds, ones where I was a nurse, a mother, a teacher, a firefighter (and apparently a budding perfumer) all in the same day.
It wouldn’t be until much later that I realized that one of the best gifts I was given by my neighbors was an extension of innocence in the form of friends who still wanted to play pretend. The O’Connors moved away when I was eleven and I was devastated. The friends I had at school weren’t interested in pretending anymore. On the cusp of the pre-teen years, it wouldn’t be long until Taylor Swift and make-up and seventh grade boyfriends would edge out imaginative play.
But in Sycamore Lakes in Herndon, Virginia, I grew up with a rich inner life, a mind bursting with story, and with neighbors who let a little girl with straight across bangs join their ranks as an eater of apple slices, a player of games, and above all, a chief pretender.
In the mini-civilization of our neighborly tribe, she was the mender of wounds, the dispeller of little-girl disagreements, and the one who tweezed the stinger out of my toe when I got my first bee sting.Kelsey Miller
It was not long after they moved away that Mrs. O’Connor died in a car accident. Erin, who was only ten at the time, tried to call me to share the news, but I hung up on her because I thought she was being a jerk with a cruel joke. My dad sat me down an hour or so later after my parents got home from work and I remember so vividly his face as he told me Erin’s joke was true, holding my small hands, my mom standing in the kitchen crying. I can see now just how much my parents tried to quell their own grief in that moment for my sake. But it was undeniable, for that day they lost a friend, a neighbor, a sharer of snow days and summer days and those inevitable longer-than-intended talks in the driveway as we walked past their house on an evening stroll.
If there was any shred of hope for that pure innocence of childhood to live on, it was buried then. I thought I was devastated when they moved away, but living in a world where Mrs. O’Connor didn’t anymore moved beyond devastation into an unrelenting grief that stings thirteen years later. In the mini-civilization of our neighborly tribe, she was the mender of wounds, the dispeller of little-girl disagreements, and the one who tweezed the stinger out of my toe when I got my first bee sting. I believe still that she loved me as a child and I loved her as a second mother, and her mark on my life will always be the complete welcome she offered to anyone who found their way into her home.
I have wondered many times what it would have been like if Mrs. O’Connor were still here. I wonder what it would have been like to bear witness to her growing older alongside her children and what a loss it is that such a woman never got to become a grandmother. I wonder what our relationship would be like today, me now having matured into an adult. I wonder why God took away so brutally one of the best people I knew.
I can’t know the answer to those wonderings and so I am left to stick to hope. I hope that one day Drew and I will have children and we will be friends with our neighbors and our children will be friends with their kids. I hope we will have a spot for a willow tree in the backyard and a sandbox underneath it and some fragrant flowers with which a little girl will pretend to make perfume. I hope that I will tweeze the bee stinger out of the toe of a neighbor friend who wasn’t wearing his shoes in the grass and offer some shelter from the unpredictable storm that is childhood, darker and scarier than we let ourselves believe. And most of all, I hope that I will feast with Mrs. O’Connor again, perhaps on peanut butter and jelly, and that we will share in the goodness of the world and laugh about the times I was a brat to her kids and how she still let me come back through her doors day after day, year after year.