Joe and Helen

Bruce Summers
Guest article by Bruce Summers

Growing up, I lived next to Joe and Helen Sitler. They were an older couple with no children. Joe had no brothers and sisters and was the end of the Sitler line. We loved them. Helen was like a third grandmother to us. Joe was a bit gruff. He would not let us play in his yard, especially when he was mowing; he was afraid the lawn tractor might throw a stone and hit me or one of my three brothers. I shared a bit of Joe’s story in an article I wrote for my middle school magazine. People thought I made it up, notably the parts about what I had learned from Joe.

Later, when Joe was very ill and nearing death, my older brother and I went over and helped Helen move him. He was skin and bones. Helen needed help so she could give him a sponge bath and change his linens. Joe died soon after. This was my first encounter with the death of a friend and a neighbor. Even though he was a bit gruff, he was Helen’s husband and because of this he was a special man. They used to love to go to the city and dance to the music of the big bands when they came to town. He was born in the 19th century and had lived a full life and retired before I knew him. Most important, he captured Helen’s heart and had been a good husband. I miss Joe and treasure my memories of him.

House sitting
Another eight or so years later, after I graduated from college, I had the privilege of house sitting for Helen. This was after she had grown more feeble, hard of hearing, and needed to be in a nursing home. Her hearing aids did not work well and it was hard to talk with her, hard to share with her how important she and Joe had been as our older grandparent-like neighbors, too late to tell her I felt a little bad for stealing some of the grapes each year that Joe grew on his arbor just five feet from the border of our yard. I wished too late that I knew more about Joe and Helen, who had no descendants and no relatives we knew of. They were our neighbors. They were our friends and they shared part of our lives growing up.

As I sat in their living room and slept in one of their bedrooms, cooked my meals, wrote newspaper stories on my typewriter at their dining table, explored the home that was the time capsule they had lived in, I wondered about their lives. I remembered Joe never let Helen turn on the electric lights. They used candles and were very frugal. She canned vegetables and fruits. The jars were in the basement on a built-in shelf made just for that purpose.

Memories in an old chair
I left the house to join the Peace Corps and visited Helen to say goodbye, realizing I would likely never see her again. When she died, I asked my parents to purchase an old high-backed walnut chair from their living room. It was the one I sat in to watch TV or to write letters to my future wife late at night. I wanted to have a piece of their story since, I was never going to have any written history.

I am left with memories of Helen and Joe—my good and my gruff neighbors. Even though they are the last of their line, I have not forgotten them forty years after they died. 

Personal historian Bruce Summers is a social collaboration analyst at the World Bank. He has been a writer, editor, website content manager, public relations lead, chief correspondent, and archivist during thirty years as a nonprofit executive manager. He blogs at bwsummers.wordpress.com. 

Photo courtesy Bruce Summers. 

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