Shirley Harring

writer, farmer advocate, madwoman

The House Next Door

June 8, 2009

They bought the house in the early 1950s. It was the second-to-this house to be built on the street, it stood very grand –  2 levels and state of the art – boasting what was predicted to be the newest trend: ‘art deco’.  Rounded corners, odd angles, chrome and linoleum. Oranges, lime greens, black fake marble. Long windows with caftan style curtains. Chocolate brown. Swirls.  Indoors, the furniture was purchased to suit the style was chosen with much care. 3 legged tables with chrome feet, saucer style chairs, canisters and containers in shiny coloured aluminium. Over head cabinets which angle away from the wall. Big vinyl recliners. Direct from the Sydney glossies came designers, containers and crates.

The house has not been altered in almost 60 years.

 The first thing we did when we moved in next  door was install a 6 foot fence along the side.

Then we planted a border of tall, fast growing natives.

Then we looked over at the weed infested, trashy yard and flaky peeling painted home and wondered how long it would be before one of them died and the house sold.

Then, we didn’t know her story.


The wife was young, and really quite beautiful.  She came from a family of wealth, a family who disowned her when she left  the large ancestral estate in the country to marry her handsome young truck driver. He was beneath her, they said. He was a drinker, a smoker, bawdy brave and boastful. He was common, they said.  But she had stars in her eyes and the romance of rebellion. He filled her head with dreams, promises and stories. She  ran away from her roots, her and her truck driver, to build their dream home by the sea.

In due time, the stork delivered, and the boy arrived, grew, thrived, and was the apple of his father’s eye. Like his dad, a love of anything motorised was his passion. Fast cars, fast motor bikes. A fast life rapidly cut short at just 17.

After an argument with the truck driver, the boy rode blindly head first into irony. A truck, right at the end of the street.

Devastation filled the Art Deco house. The truck driver turned to alcohol and drowned his grief. Alcohol induced Alzheimer’s and took his liver, his mind and eventually, his life.

The woman was left alone to deal with her ghosts.

 We have lived next door just over 7 years. We went to the funeral 5 years ago with a sense of duty.  It’s only been in the last 5 years that she has left the house. She visits the cemetery every Sunday. Geek boy mows her lawn once a week and skipper and I put out the rubbish. Slowly, we have gotten to know her. We call out over the 6 foot fence and talk through the fence posts. I take over hot meals and make sure she has milk.  We keep her spare key and let her in and out when she loses her own keys.

I have shared a growing number of cups of tea in her 1950’s kitchen, and listened to her life story over and over. She tells it with misty eyes and a slightly shaky hand. She shows me his room. Like the rest of the house, in her eyes it is unchanged from that horrible day in late 1971.  She doesn’t see the cracks in the window pane or the peeling paint. She doesn’t see the faded curtains, peeling wallpaper, cracked brickwork on the path. She sees her son in his prime and her strapping young truck driver. She sees them. She remembers and she cries.

Who would she have if she didn’t have us?  she says. I nod and pass her a handkerchief.

Today, I have the chore of going over to tell her we are moving.  It’s going to be hard.


  1. You wrote this sad story so beautifully. Those last sentences made my heart clutch. I am sure you will keep an eye on her.

  2. Ahhh Rhubarb. I am crying as I read of faded dreams & lost loves.

    Your task will be difficult, yet I know that you will assure L, that even tho’ you are moving, you, Geek boy & the skipper will not desert her.

    Proud of you I am dear daughter, & know that you will deal with this as you do all things, with compassion, warmth & love.

  3. I read this entry twice – wonderfully compassionate story

  4. Oh how awful.

    it’s true… everyone has a story.

  5. “Ohhhh….” was my response to the end of this post. How very sad. She has lost so much.

  6. How unbearably sad this story is. You and your family truly are Good Neighbours.

  7. Awww. How sad. That poor woman. She will be lost without you. Let’s hope the new neighbours she gets are as wonderful as you and your family.

  8. Lump in the throat now. I don’t envy your task, yet I know you will deliver the news gracefully and continue to support this beautiful woman, even if it isn’t from right next door.

  9. How sad a life. I can never understand families rejecting or disowning their own. There are so many stories like that out there. My daughter works in the field of care, & some of her stories break my heart.

  10. Heartrending story! I can’t begin to imagine how much she will miss you and your family. You have been wonderful to her and I know she appreciates it so much!

  11. Ohh Rhubarb, you’ve got me in tears, the poor woman.

  12. Rhubarb, you are an absolute angel, and no doubt your neighbour thinks the same.

    I hope she takes the news well, knowing that you will be extremely gentle with it’s unenviable delivery. (((Hugs)))

  13. What a griping story. Told beautifully, as always. I so feel for her. I can’t imagine her devastation at the loss of her child. You are so sweet to care about her and I am sure she realizes that.

  14. That is such a sad story, some people have to live with dreadful experiences but think how must stronger that woman is because of what you’ve done for her. You may not always be next door but you’ll always be there for her, I’m sure she will appreciate that and be grateful.

  15. You know what … I am going to ring our old neighbours from the city RIGHT NOW. The old couple who adored my Mr Incredible and doted on him far more than he was comfortable with… he is terrible at keeping in touch and I have left it to him. It;s way past time to check in.

    Thanks for the reminder. And for making me cry (again) while I am supposed to be doing the bills. Although they make me cry too!
    *smiles through tears*

    And Welcome to Twitter!!!

  16. Rhubarb, thank you for sharing that sad yet beautiful story with us.

  17. Such an honest, straightforward story Rhubarb, told beautifully. Sad and warm in its simplicity. I am happy for your move however!! Like Meggie’s comment above, my daughter worked as an registered nurse in aged care, and likewise her stories broke my heart, hers too. All elderly people need a lot of courage near the end of their lives – your kindness will always be appreciated and part of her fond memories.

  18. Omg, that was just so beautifully written. Everyone has their story, don’t they? I find that with family history and in so many other places. It will be a hard move but I’m sure that you’ll still keep in touch. (And omg….moving! You are brave! Lol!)

  19. Hi sweetie, I hope it all went well with your neighbour. You told this sad story so beautifully, it honestly gave me a lump in my throat and misty eyes. Hugs for you for being such a lovely kind hearted lady.
    Amanda (aka Cottage Contessa)

  20. Darn it – can’t she move with you? I know not, but it would be easier. Nothing worse than breaking the heart of an old neighbour.

  21. We have a relationship similar to this to one of our neighbours. She is like a grandmother to our children and she loves them to bits. She knows us. We know her. We are closer to her (in many ways) than her own 5 children.

    She has told us – we are NEVER to move while she is alive. Otherwise she will die of a broken heart.

    I kind of believe her….

    Gorgeous post you have written.



  22. Such a sad, sweet story. But as someone else pointed out, some of the other neighbors well keep watch over her. That doesn’t make it less sad, however. Could you write her? My mother loves to get a letter and says that people just don’t write each other any more.

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