Winter on the Old Mission Peninsula; East Bay from East Bay Boulevard in near town | Jane Boursaw Photo
Winter on the Old Mission Peninsula; East Bay from East Bay Boulevard in near town | Jane Boursaw Photo
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From Author Dave Murphy: The following is a spontaneous composition on Christmas Eve, 2022. The characters include our now deceased neighbor Frank and his surviving wife, Cornelia, who will turn 98 soon. Frank had advanced dementia when we moved next to them the first of January 1990; Cornelia is now struggling with the same disease, and we engaged hospice two days ago…

After we realized Frank’s impairments in 1990, we took over the snow shoveling. They slept in late, with the first Cornelia sightings often not occurring until noonish when she’d trudge out to their mail and newspaper boxes. We didn’t have a snowblower then, so everything was by shovel or snow scoop. I still had a conventional job and often needed to be out the door before 7 a.m., and Sue always left by 6:30 a.m. With their bedroom near our driveway and above their driveway, I always took care not to make too much noise, shoveling as “quietly” as possible in the early morning darkness and looking up at the windows to make sure lights didn’t come on.

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After Frank’s death in the fall of 1992, I was less guarded about making noise. Then after my mother’s move to the area in 1995 – on the other side of Cornelia’s house – the three driveways were simply too much by hand, at least when the snow was heavy. After struggling for a few years still trying to shovel everything, we invested in a blower large enough to handle the three drives. And I couldn’t worry about Cornelia hearing me when we all had to get out for one thing or another, so I used the blower even in the morning.

I’m not sure how long it was, but some period after getting the blower and using it early morning when she still had another 4-5 hours in bed, I asked Cornelia if it was disturbing. She started laughing, saying, “Disturb me? My goodness, it comforts me! I hear you out there tending to things, and it just makes me curl up and be thankful that I don’t have to!”

Classic Cornelia. She always had a surprising or off-kilter way of looking at life. I certainly appreciated that she liked the noise rather than being annoyed by it.

With the past few days’ heavy snow and Cornelia’s deteriorating condition/staying in bed, I returned to quiet shoveling without the noisy blower. And with my mother now gone these past seven years, I’m back to only two driveways.

So often in the past if I was moving snow or doing yard work any time of day, I’d see Cornelia’s face in the window above her bed watching me, then waving with that impish, charismatic Cornelia grin. Or sometimes she’d go into one of the front-facing windows to wave, standing there in her pajamas and robe. Many times she’d hold up a stuffed animal or she had a wooden dalmatian figure, and she’d make the animals dance to catch my attention. Or I’d see her through the kitchen area watching me cut grass or rake leaves; she’d start jumping, dancing, making motions, and always finish with that grin. We gave her a twirling device that glowed when set in motion, and if ever I’d be completing a task with darkness falling, the lights in her house would go out and the device would start flashing as she’d spin and dance with it. The latter was still happening when she was 97 years old.

To the present: It’s tough to say how much snow we’ve gotten and it’s all been fluff, not the heavy stuff. So it’s not been that tough to move, but I’ve been out shoveling probably 4-5 times for significant periods since early Friday.

Today, Saturday and Christmas Eve, standing outside doing the last circuit of shoveling, I had the strangest feeling – not necessarily foreboding, but certainly poignant – looking up at her bedroom window. Frank had become such a sad figure in his final times. Keeping it quiet that year was so important to me. And today, there was such a connection of past and present with the “quiet shoveling.” That last shoveling with Frank in mind had to be in late ’91 into early ’92.

I was 32 years old the first time I shoveled for Cornelia and Frank in 1990. Cornelia had turned 65 on December 30th of 1989, just days before we moved in. That’s now my age. I’ve spent most of my 30s, all my 40s, all my 50s, and what’s now over half my 60s glancing up at those windows, looking to see if she’s watching, looking for a dance, or at least that grin. I was hoping against hope that her face would appear today. Just one more time. It didn’t.

Not trying to be morose. I certainly hope there’s a rebound. But it’s been decades since first trying to be quiet with a shovel for a person inside, aging, with dementia, and without long to go. How could I not connect the two timeframes? A bookend sort of experience….

If there’s anything brighter to share in this message, it’s probably obvious: Treasure what we have in the present, and what we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy in the past.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Beautiful story! I know Cornelia is blessed by your presence in her life, Dave. But from my own volunteer experience, I know that the past few decades have blessed you too. Thank you for brightening my holiday with your words.

  2. To Cornelia who loved to walk the road with her dog— then just by herself— then with her caregiver and now having the rays from a morning sunrise stream into her windows and upon her face. This is a beautiful story of neighborly love.

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