The Princess Next Door

It wasn’t until I moved across the state line to what the sign at the top of my block tells me is “the most beautiful little city in Kansas” that I realized how carefully Jesus had chosen his words when he said, “Love thy neighbor.” Previously, I had regarded the word “neighbor” as a metaphor for anybody and everybody. Now I think it possible that “neighbor,” as it occurs in that phrase, is intended in the most literal sense. Not all and sundry, but the person who lives next door, across the street or behind you. The person whose property line adjoins yours.

My neighbor Mila died suddenly this weekend. She was the most frustrating, stubborn woman I’ve ever met. Also the most charming. But it was her stubbornness that defined her. It was monumental. Years ago I read As I Lay Dying, about the Bundren family’s trip home to bury their dying mother. The father and husband in the novel, Anse, was shiftless, an adjective that was not positive, certainly, but the full dimensions of which I didn’t grasp till I read William Faulkner’s novel. In a similar way, Mila opened my eyes to stubbornness as a character trait.

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Mila had many troubles, mainly but not exclusively financial. To any solution to her problems proposed by me or others, the word “No!” delivered in a heavy Bulgarian accent, was her answer. She was a rejectionist through and through. Also a maximalist. “Half a loaf is better than none” is not a notion she endorsed or understood.

I was a keen do-gooder, not easily dissuaded. “Do you think there is hope for me?” Mila tremulously asked me in the first few years that I knew her. I assured her there was, for I assumed she was a sensible person who listened to reason. She did not. She was noble, proud, bound by rigid notions of honor and duty. She was a tragic heroine from the Old World, and I was the New World optimist eager to make her happier, healthier and more solvent. For her depression and loneliness I proposed walks, a visit to a doctor, more social interaction. For her financial problems I proposed a reverse mortgage, selling the fur coats she did not wear or the car that had sat unused in her garage for 18 years because she did not drive. These suggestions went unheeded. They were practical answers to practical problems, but they didn’t address the wounded person at the core of the problem, Mila herself.

My past relations with neighbors had been polite and distant. Within one week of moving to where I live now, I’d met more of my neighbors than I had in the previous five years. They include the couple who send me harassing letters, channeled through the city clerk, about what they want me to do about the creek that runs through my property. I have not stood on their doorstep and screamed at them, as I have done with Mila, but I do draft occasional cold missives to them in my mind. Before relations grew strained, it was the male half of this couple who told me he’d heard Mila was a Bulgarian princess.

Lawn care is one of the chief sources of friction in community life. The princess in question loved plants and animals but despised grass. Instead of it, she grew flowers in pots. These were distributed around her yard in a haphazard fashion. She did not recognize or regard weeds as such, and the overgrown condition of her yard was an ongoing source of irritation to the Homes Association. I was unfazed by the yard, but her eagerness to feed any and all animals by putting out food on her front walk dismayed me. “Do you not worry about attracting rats and possums?” I asked. I had, on occasion, seen both in our shared driveway. I phrased my concern as a question, my attempt to use subtle psychology. But Mila had never met an animal she didn’t like, including the spiders that spun cobwebs in the corners of her house, which she did not want disturbed.

I never succeeded in changing Mila’s life for the better. Eventually I stopped trying. She was hopeless, I thought. In every sense of the word. She was also broken-hearted and brave. After her husband died and she lost the means to live comfortably, she ate bitter salt every day of the seven years I knew her. The morning she died she told me she was afraid to take a shower for fear she’d fall. She’d stopped using her washing machine years before for fear of breaking it. Every appliance in her house either didn’t work or she feared operating.

I will have other neighbors but none like Mila. None will be exiled royalty living next door in need of rescue. None will be so infuriating, so impossible or so endearing. To be a queen living incognito without resources is not easy, but she was magnificent to the end.

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