Yesterday I attended a celebration of life for the couple who were my parents best friends while I was growing up. It was not a funeral or even a memorial for that matter. She had passed more recently, never really being her full self again after her husband’s passing. Their daughter hosted a Friday evening cocktail party where champagne and canapes were served. Delicate finger foods; shrimp, bacon wrapped water chestnuts, baked dips, small kabobs and finger sandwiches. It was as tasty as it was lovely to look at, with lemon bars and more champagne.
The guest list included my siblings and I who had become neighbors with their family fifty years ago last month. I recognized some of the hostesses high school classmates from over forty years ago and then there were the “new neighbors”, people who had moved onto “our block” in the twenty years since my mother sold my childhood home. A group of the hostesses coworkers, some who had worked with her mother as well arrived to round out the festivities. There was a beautiful selection of photographs on display of them throughout their lives; with their own children in the 1950’s, their grandchildren in the 1980’s and more recent ones including great-grandchildren.
It was a perfect tribute to a couple who much like my own parents loved and exasperated each other. My first taste of champagne was in their home, likely at a New Year’s Eve Party or perhaps a birthday celebration. New Year’s eves were frequently spent at their home, where Engelbert Humperdinck and Andy Williams music entertained their dear neighbors from their previous neighborhood, family and us. It was there as well that I first experienced the salty and crunchy combination of the bacon and water chestnut on a toothpick combination that I enjoyed again last evening. At midnight fabulous barbecued ribs would be pulled from the oven, slathered in the homemade sauce with Liquid Smoke, lime juice and brown sugar. There were hats and noisemakers and I may or may not have witnessed a shotgun being cycled from the back stoop. Those early years of spending my New Year’s Eves with my parents at Jan and Bill Newland’s house may be part of the inspiration of why my husband and I will be hosting our own 22nd annual New Year’s Eve party the final night of December this year.
There was more to the relationship than celebrations and parties. Jan was a huge confidante to my mother and vice versa. Over the years as my fathers health declined the Newlands were supportive friends. I can picture my mother on one side of the aqua and white speckled kitchenette table and Jan on the other in the Newland’s kitchen and the same arrangement around our yellow table with the red vinyl covered chairs on our side of Vincent Avenue South. Bill was a big and strong man who was unafraid of work, he helped re-roof the Model-T shed at the back of our lot that served as bike and mower storage, flooded each spring and was where old metal objects went to rust. He was at the family cabin when that was re-roofed as well, I believe that was a “Two-case” job, as such weekend work was measured not by physical size or hourly labor but rather by how much beer the crew consumed completing it.
Trips to our cabin are favorite memories with the Newlands. Nancy would bring teenage friends along and sleep in tents. Jan could not swim but would wear a life jacket and bathing cap when she went in the lake. It was at our cabin where she delighted in butterflies taking off and returning to the same spot over and over. She loved butterflies and had over-sized ones on her garage. After my own mother died, it was a butterfly pin I took from her jewelry box for Jan to have. When the invitation to the event last evening arrived, it was a butterfly that was on the front of the card. Jan and Bill have indeed moved on from their cocoon on Vincent Avenue and are reunited and fluttering about with beautiful new wings.
The joy in the relationship was not only in knowing Jan and Bill and their children Nancy and Rob but also in knowing their parents; Grandpa and Grandma Newland and Jan’s mother Wilma Carbury. “The Grandma’s” (as we referred to them) were different in stature but both were very strong-willed women of Iowa stock who resettled in the Horn Towers of Minneapolis, shortly after they were built in the early 1970’s. With all of my own grandparents gone prior to my tenth birthday, these women were the exposure I had to women of that era. They attended our wedding in 1989. I just gave the wedding photographer’s proof of it to their great grandson. Nancy had two children, Wes and Jana. I babysat for them in my late teens and early twenties and they were part of my bridal party. Nancy did our wedding flowers, as she did for my siblings and several of our extended family. When my father died, Wes wrote a paper the following year identifying my dad Chuck as his hero. He was nine at the time and recently told me that his memory of my dad is of him always smiling.
My folks and the Newlands raised their families in the era of one-car families and most of their entertainment while raising kids took place at each others homes. I remember more than once the curtains in the Newlands kitchen catching fire during fondue nights. Winter weekends the socializing often was at our place, because we had the fireplace. On rare occasion the grown-ups would venture out to a movie. Airport (1970) being one that I recall, as it had our International Airport in Bloomington featured prominently in it. The airport having been a frequent job-site for my father during that era. Once us kids were older there was the venturing out of the two couples for dinner and drinks at a local VFW or American Legion.
The last time I saw Jan and Bill was two summers ago when I took my daughter back to Linden Hills, the community nestled among the city lakes. We went for coffee and a stroll down memory lane, the street I called home from shortly after my first birthday until I got married at 25. Despite having my own apartments and living in other states, Vincent Avenue was always where I landed between new jobs and destinations. We passed my family home where her own first birthday party had been the final family celebration. She remembered her Godmother’s home prominently perched on the hill, a place she had visited as a kid. Right next door to my best friend’s home was the Newland’s abode. Unannounced we ambled up the driveway and as luck would have it, there were Jan and Bill at a table on the patio outside the kitchen door. Gracious as always they were so happy to see us, we stayed and chatted. Bill offered my daughter some agates he had collected over the years. They talked about how they missed my parents and other friends who had gone too soon. We spent some time reminiscing and then Betsy and I meandered down the rest of the street where I provided a brief synopses of the occupants of each home while I was growing up. Later, after Bill had passed I sent Jan a card telling her what a special person he had been in our families life.
More recently, Jan initiated a call to me regarding a potential place she wanted to move. Her son Rob and her were still sharing the home on Vincent and it was time to begin parting with the accumulation of a lifetime and move to a condo with no upkeep. She seemed both sad and eager about the future move and she reiterated that it was lonely as your circle of friends (and spouse) are no longer part of your daily life.
I had heard through her grandson that a condo in the neighboring suburb of Edina had been procured and they were preparing to move when Jan fell ill and it was determined she had cancer. She spent just two nights in her new place prior to visiting her doctor to discuss protocol and was admitted to the hospital, where she died a few days later.
While we were gathered last night, enjoying good food and company it was easy to envision that somewhere Jan and Bill, their former neighbors Bob and Berle and my parents were all gathered and doing the same. If you listen closely, I bet you can hear What’s New Pussycat? being sung by Engelbert.