The Death and Life of a Villager in the City

Across the street, two houses up, workmen throw old lathing and horsehair plaster into a dumpster below the windows that belonged to Olympia. Olympia held her neighborly vigil on the sidewalk outside those windows for more years than any of us can remember. And, all the while, Olympia remained a riddle to us–a reproach to our busy, urban lifestyles.

She had come from Greece with her family as a child or young woman; that much was clear. And to all of us, she kept the obligations of a villager to her fellow-villagers. Broom in hand, wearing her familiar housedress, she banished leaves and detritus from the sidewalk before her house. She greeted passers-by. When mothers with young children passed, she reached for the children with loud teasing, and they shrank back in their mothers’ arms. Though easily 50 when we moved here 23 years ago, Olympia shoveled snow from her walk as soon as the last flake fell, then she shoveled the walk in front of her one friend’s house—a slightly older woman–across the street.

Olympia watched us, and our houses–caring for her distant family of fellow-villagers. In my kitchen, the phone would ring at the moment of some domestic impasse when I was wishing I had three hands to manage two children.

“Anne! Olympia here! Olympia FBI,” she yelled, joking, over the phone.

She would tell me she had seen unfamiliar boys go into our backyard, or that I had left my car door open in the driveway after bringing in the groceries. Once she called to say my husband had dropped his wallet in the street while getting in his car to go to work, and she returned it to us. Perhaps the wallet helped her find our phone number, since we never exchanged last names. Her watchfulness surprised me but I was grateful, friendly. I helped her fill out pension forms.

One night, though, I realized just how closely Olympia watched my house. My children were 10 and 14 then, and I let them try a strobe light in their playroom on our third floor. Olympia, whose house was always dark at night, called immediately to tell me that my upstairs light was broken.

A bit spooked, and trying to laugh about it, I described Olympia’s eccentric behavior to another neighbor one day after we passed Olympia on the street. Did Olympia hear us laugh? Since she always shouted, and never seemed to hear questions, I thought she must be a little deaf. But she never spoke to me again after that, even though I shoveled her walk, and her friend’s, a few times in penance. She stopped watching our house, or stopped telling us what she saw, and our house was broken into twice.

Olympia grew old and withdrawn in recent years. In the rural villages of Europe, people might have left casseroles for such a neighbor. I tried to give her a brochure for Boston elders once but she no longer trusted me. Her nephew emerged from the suburbs then—son of an estranged sister—to shovel her walk, and drive her to a doctor when she permitted. One day he found her dead on her floor, in a pool of blood that had hemorrhaged out of her.

Then something happened in the neighborhood that had never happened before. Many of us from up and down the street, many who had never met before, gathered over Sunday coffee to remember Olympia and piece together her story. We were a village at last. We learned about her family from older neighbors; the time she was left at the altar. Everyone had a story of Olympia reaching out to them and then withdrawing. Paranoia, someone said. Probably, but I thought guiltily of my own contribution to her suspicions. She seemed to have reasons to suspect us, and to exhibit the confusion of a stranger in a strange land.

Olympia left her house to the daughter of the friend across the street who had often driven her to the grocery store. It was her last and most generous neighborly act; an act of love, and showed us all the bonds that grow in the time taken out of a busy, modern schedule.

The daughter sold the house; the workmen started in. Now, while the workmen modernize Olympia’s once-crumbling house, I sometimes drag my new shopping cart up to the market and think of Olympia marching up our street with her shopping cart in all seasons. I think of the wisdom of villagers with their slower, quieter, more energy-efficient ways that so many of us struggle to find. And I think a little part of Olympia lives on.


Smells of Summers Past

Proust knew the power of the senses to recall moments past, but science has only recently caught up. Our noses, at least, are organs of memory. Smells transport us—like evanescent time machines.

Here on the East Coast, humid, sweltering summers yield the vegetal scents—fetid and sweet–that open a thousand doors to the past. Is this part of summer’s recipe for relaxing us? To deliver us–through an olfactory seduction–to certain weightless moments of childhood and youth, unlading us of our cares? Continue reading