The Tender Neighbor

Eight years ago, I had major reconstructive foot surgery and was trapped in a hospital bed in my living room for months. I had a TV in front me, but never watched a show, as I found it difficult to concentrate on television for some reason. Instead, I listened to Billie Holiday and chatted by email and on online forums on my new laptop. And I read. But the reading is the miracle.

Seven years before my surgery, my husband and I had bought a house and began remodelling it. Before we moved in, a neighbor approached me as I exited my car. He began yelling at me about how our contractor was getting dirt on the street in front of our house. He didn’t even introduce himself before he lit into me, and he never once looked me in the face. I faced him and watched him shout while he directed his shouts 90 degrees to my right.

It took quite a lengthy period of good neighbor conduct before Henry and I started to speak to each other, beginning with “hello.” My husband and Henry began to converse on the sidewalk every couple of days.  Eventually Henry came into our home, and we became good neighbors, trading the contact information of service people, sharing the stories of our past lives (he had been a businessman and banker and came to California from New Mexico, where he had grown up), and, yes, gossiping about the other neighbors.

We were several decades apart in age, and Henry had a widower’s life while we were raising our two children. I learned that his wife had died not too long before he had gotten mad at me about my contractor’s work habits.

Then came the tumor in my foot, and the first person who showed up after the surgery was Henry. He had a book in his hand, The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer. It was a memoir that he loved and wanted to share with me.

I had recently been going through a spell where I wasn’t reading for pleasure any longer. I’d taught literature for years and was burned out from a schedule that required me to read and re-read on demand. I no longer had the desire I’d always known for cracking open a new book and devouring it as if it were chocolate cake (or baklava, more specifically).

But here was a gift from a man whom I had gradually come to value, and he was the first person to give me a treasure after a pretty harrowing four months since the pain began and through belated diagnosis and finally surgery.  I had to read what he had given me.

That’s all it took.  I began to read Moehringer’s story and was transported to his childhood as he was “raised” by the men who hung out at the “tender bar.”

The Tender Bar has become a memoir classic, and rightfully so.  What did I learn from this book?  That tenderness can come from the most unexpected places. And getting over “burn out” from something one loves happens in an instant.

Henry was diagnosed with cancer more than once. In October 2012, he passed away before anyone expected. His decline was swift, and he didn’t have to suffer long. I’m sure he would be thrilled if you read the book he loved.

26 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

26 responses to “The Tender Neighbor

  1. What a lovely story about not allowing someone’s first actions determine the fate of your relationship, Luanne. I’ve had a similar experience here in Baja…as your story illustrates, if we can counter anger with patience and love, people come around and can even become cherished friends. I look forward to reading Henry’s recommended memoir.

    • Luanne

      Dawn, it’s a wonderful story, and it’s different from a lot of other memoirs in how it focuses on how the place kind of shapes the people. Henry would be so happy to know that my friend Dawn is going to read the book.

  2. This is such a lovely story! I’m sorry to hear of Henry’s passing and I can’t wait to look into this memoir. It’s funny that what started as an uncomfortable interaction with a stranger turned into a beautiful friendship over the years.

    • Luanne

      Caitlyn, thank you so much! When the cancer came back for the last time, Henry began to decline, but he moved to a lovely senior apartment with a beautiful view, and he seemed to be fine. Then he got another illness that caused him to pass away.

  3. A great book. Even better, a neighbor who cared about you.

  4. Lovely story behind your friendship.

    • Luanne

      Elyse, ah thanks for your sweet comment! For the first year or two I’m sure I called him “that old curmudgeon” behind his back, but I guess we were both stubborn and decided we had to be friends :).

  5. A poignant story. (It makes me wonder why I expect to live forever.)

    • Luanne

      WJ, I know what you mean about the notion of living forever. On the one hand, I feel that I am racing time ;), but on the other, I keep on living in a manner as if I’ll be here forever. Humans are odd creatures.

  6. What a lovely story! Thanks for sharing both yours and the memoir.

  7. Oh, Luanne, what a great post. I loved reading how your relationship with Henry evolved. I will definitely read this memoir…for Henry.

  8. What a story! Isn’t it great that you managed to become friends with Henry after all?

    • Luanne

      Sometimes we don’t give someone a chance when they make a bad impression on us. In this case, we both gave each other another chance, but we were cautious for quite some time first!

  9. Adding it to my list of books to read but perhaps I’ll take it out of the library because, having just purged many boxes of books, I daren’t buy one for fear of a tongue lashing by my spouse.

  10. For some reason, I flew through this post but it got into me and had to read it again. Henry seemed a lovely soul and I’m glad you read ‘The Tender Bar,’ I’ll add it to my to-read list. Great post!
    🙂

  11. Luanne

    Seyi sandra, thank you so much for letting me know and your kind words. Yes, this is a wonderful book, and I think it’s different from a lot of other books, too–very unique.

  12. I am always happy when a person tries to make a bad situation better. You ignored his complaints and that expression, “You can get more with honey than with vinegar” seems to apply to this situation! He became a valuable and caring friend. This was a well written post with a lot of depth and feeling in it! I enjoyed it a lot, Luanne!

  13. I so enjoyed this story, Luanne! It’s a wonderful example of the complexity of human relationships. Thank goodness that you and your husband were willing to look past your first encounter with Henry, and even come to understand that perhaps it was the stress of being recently widowed that prompted his behavior. It sounds like that gradual friendship was a blessing for you all 🙂

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