I have often written about how fortunate I was to grow up in the Long Creek community. I’ve talked about how Westminster Park, my neighborhood, was filled with kids that ranged from slightly older than my big brother (who is almost five years older than me) to kids a few years younger than me. Nearly every house had at least a couple of kids and there was never a shortage of someone to play with. We rode our bikes, ranging miles away from our home base, and never had any fear. Our neighborhood was safe. It was full of stay-at-home moms who kept an eye on all of us kids (sometimes too close an eye in our humble opinions).
I’ve also written about the Honeycutts, our next door neighbors for the first eight years of my life. Their four kids were our friends and daily playmates until divorce snatched them away from us, breaking my heart at the end of 2nd grade. Losing LuAnne, my best friend and sleepover buddy, was the first big loss of my life. Angier, NC was a long way from Long Creek. Though we wrote each other often, it wasn’t the same as having a sister right next door.
After LuAnne was gone, I was a bit at sea. I had never known life without my best friend being right next door. In my wanderings, I often ended up at the house on the other side of the one the Honeycutts had abandoned, the Thomasson’s house. Andrew and Marie Thomasson were the age of my grandparents. Their four children were all older than me and the only one of them I really knew was their youngest, Alice. She was a year older than my brother.
Mr. Thomasson taught at Derita Elementary for about twenty-five years. He retired in 1975 when I was ten years old. Post retirement, he raised chickens, practiced horticulture, made and played his own banjos, and made all sorts of geegaws from wood. I would often spy him out in the garden or feeding the chickens. His years of teaching had, apparently, taught him patience. He never seemed to mind my tagging along. He showed me how to help him pull up peanut plants from the ground, spray the dirt off the pods, then spread them out on old window screen frames to dry for a month or so before storing them. When I admired his many pink dogwoods, he taught me how to take a cutting from one of them and graft it onto a slender young white dogwood to create a brand new pink one. He let me feed the chickens and showed me how to carefully gather their eggs. If I wandered over in cooler weather, Mr. Thomasson would play one of his beautiful handcrafted banjos for me or help me make a gee-haw whimmy diddle, a mechanical toy consisting of two wooden sticks. One had a series of notches cut along its side and a smaller wooden stick or a propeller attached to the end with a nail. I would hold the stick in one hand with the notches facing up. When I rubbed the other stick rapidly back and forth across the notches, it would cause the propeller to spin. I didn’t understand how it worked, but it was fascinating to a ten year old kid.
Mrs. Thomasson was a nurse, still working after her husband’s retirement. I would see her coming and going in her nurse whites though the week days and out in the yard, spending time with Andy on the weekends. She, too, had patience for me. Having raised four kids probably helped with that. She would let me help her pick strawberries or peas. I would watch her can vegetables from their large garden or talk to her while she worked in her beautiful flower beds. I remember clearly one time that I came home from the Thomassons with a huge bunch of pansies. I presented them to my mama like they were a dozen long stem roses. Horrified, she asked whose pansies I had plucked. As soon as I told her they came from Mrs. Thomasson’s flower bed, mom phoned her to apologize for her kid raiding her garden. Marie just laughed and said, “No worries at all! They will grow much better if you pick some now and then. Robin just dead headed them for me.”
The Thomasson’s passed their patience along to their youngest daughter, Alice. Though I was six years younger than her, she never treated me like a little kid. She never seemed jealous of the attention her parents gave me. She welcomed me into the fold and treated me as an equal. One winter day when I was eleven or twelve, she taught me how to make Sock-It-To-Me Cake. It is still a favorite recipe of mine because it tastes great, makes the house smell cinnamony divine, and because it reminds me of that day and making that cake with the Thomasson’s farm-raised eggs, playing the card game War with Alice while it baked, then eating a warm slice with milk at their kitchen table.
Mr. Thomasson passed away in 2004 at the age of 91, I believe of Parkinson’s Disease. By then, I was thirty-nine years old. When I had married at twenty, the Thomassons were there to wish me well. In the years since, I’d waved at them when I passed on the road, heading to my parent’s house. I spent nearly every Saturday shopping and having lunch with my mama. After Mr. Thomasson was gone, I regretted not stopping to talk to him as I drove past their house so often. I missed those days when he was entertaining me and teaching me without me even realizing it.
Alice remains a friend to this day, even though we only keep up with each other through Facebook. Many of her posts feature beautiful flowers or vegetables she has grown in raised beds. Those posts remind me of her dad, who she must take after. I’m not sure if I have ever told her what her family meant to me growing up. I don’t know if she knows what a lifeline they were to me, how important their warm, welcoming house was to the annoying little neighbor girl. Tomorrow, I’ll visit that house again for the first time in nearly forty years for a very special occasion. Mrs. Thomasson is turning 100 years old! What a blessing for Alice and her siblings and all of us who have been lucky enough to share the journey with her. I can’t wait to see her and to remind her of that pansy story.