It’s never too late to say thank you. Even when it might appear to be well overdue.
There are all kinds of ways to create families, to love others and to have a sense of belonging and connection. From a traditional perspective, I did not really have any kind of relationship with my natural grandparents; my fathers parents passed before I was 10, and although I have some pictures, they did not live nearby and we saw them rarely, especially after my parents separated. Today I know them probably better than anyone else alive – but through their letters, photos and diary, not my memories. My mother’s mother passed before I was born, and my mothers father remarried and live out of state; her economic and physical circumstances and own broken relation with him kept him farther away than the miles themselves.
With my paternal grandfather on the beach at their Oceanside home c. 1963
But looking back I can see that our neighbors in many ways filled the gap. Here, I do not share the names off the living, or their pictures – except in the case of myself, and occasionally my husband. In fact, sorting through my family records and the literally hundreds of photos from my parents, their parents and before, is going to be a very long term project. Still, when I ran across a portrait of our next door neighbors from my childhood, I feel that sharing their gifts to me might have meaning for you, distant readers. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to them, today.
We moved to our amazing all electric “Medallion home” in 1962 – there actually was a large gold emblem in the porch – it was one of the last sold. I was four, my brother 7, and my parents marriage would be over not long after. On one side, the Burchetts lived with two daughters, and across the street, the Millers with four children, three older than me – and these were not large homes. But next door, it was just the Milbrats. I had no idea of their age, of course – to me, they were just old. Even as I grew into my college years, I really didn’t know much about them, except that they had grown children – and that they were exceedingly kind. In some ways, they were angels in our lives.
I remember, after my father left and we struggled financially, it was Mr. Milbrat rather than my Dad who taught me how to ride my bicycle, encouraging me. He lent us yard tools so that my older brother and I could try to keep up with all the work – they had a beautiful backyard, and a neatly trimmed lawn out front. But perhaps most importantly, they welcomed us into their home on very special occasions – to watch television. For most of my upbringing, due to broken TV tubes and limited funds, we did not have a functioning TV in our home, which definitely accentuated my sense of differentness from the families around us – no father, no car, no income really and – no TV!!! That was certainly a reason I rode to the library a lot.
This was the era of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, preceded by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with your host, Marlin Perkins. The Milbrats welcomed us in every Sunday night to watch thrilling shows like Zorro and The Horse without a head, that I remember so clearly. And, at Christmas we would watch the specials – I particularly loved “The little drummer boy”, since we sang that song in my elementary district wide choir led by Mr. Farmer – that show, narrated by Greer Garson and animated by the famous Rankin Bass Studios, still moves me to this day. On New Years day, we would head over to watch the Rose Parade; and, historically, it was in front of the Milbrat’s tv that I saw the Apollo moon landing. Oh, but, we also had to endure neighbors gathering to watch slide shows of their travels, and weird documentaries like “If these walls could speak” hosted by Vincent Price, and of course – National Geographic specials featuring Jacques Cousteau, back when there were an astounding 7 channels on TV.
I still love watching this program, and hearing “One Star in the Night”
They were very involved in out local church as well, the Methodist church, where Mrs. Milbrat would donate her knitted goods and baked treats – always delicious! We would see them at the seasonal bazaaars, and annual Christmas nativity programs that we participated in, as well. Mrs. Milbrat was particularly sweet and kind – I remembers being fascinated by her stamp collection (yes, I was truly that nerdy) from I think her mother who had served as a postmistress decades before – I am sure it was quite valuable, even then. I think occasionally they would give us a lift to the doctor, but we mostly relied on taxis, or on my Dad’s weekly stopping by to pick me up to shop at the Alpha Beta not too far away – sending me in to the liquor store next door sometimes to pick up cigarettes or beer, as well.
I think after my father remarried that he and my stepmother, partly motivated to perhaps reduce the amount of time I watched tv at their home after junior high, which they lived nearby, and things like “Seymour presents” on Saturdays, gave me a small black and white portable TV. I would watch in my bedroom for hours, catching up on reruns of Get Smart and beginning my love of old movies – to escape the loneliness of the house, now holding only my mother and I. And I drifted away from youth group and choir at church, starting to attend the more modern “Cross roads” that was large, new, and had guitar music and a popular pastor who appeared with his family on “Family Feud” in my teens. The Milbrats were always there next door – my mother would talk with Mrs. Milbrat, and her other friends from bible study, on the phone for hours. But they slowly became less of a presence in my life.
And then an amazing thing happened, in 1979, the summer after my third year in college – my Mom presented me with my first car. She said she realized my father was never going to help me get behind a wheel – my brother had left to live with them in part so he would be able to drive once he was licensed in high school. Of course, my Mom had not worked in all the years since they first married, and her income was limited to a small alimony and disability payments from the state; but, the Milbrats daughter had decided she was finished with her 1965 Buick Skylark, and I think out of the kindness of their hearts, they sold it to my Mom for a mere $350. It was somewhat beat up, and my father immediately found many things that were wrong with it. But, it ran – and I finally had “wheels”, and no longer needed him to give me a weekly lift from Corona to my Cal Poly campus and dorms. A year later, after graduation, I remember distinctly a co worker at my first job, with a San Bernardino CPA firm, ridiculing it as the “Jupiter Two” from Lost in Space – but it was, nevertheless, a thing of beauty (in function if not form), to me.
There was one other “gift”, in a way, that came from the Milbrats, and remained in our lives, for a while. She made wonderful stuffed toys, dolls, and puppets – and when my younger brother was born in 1971, I bought her handmade “Raggedy Andy” doll as a gift for him. He had it for years, calling it “Baby Andy”. In time, my mother bought two more – one for my older brother and one for me, to give to our children. What happened to my older brother’s Andy is unknown to me – perhaps one of his kids, now grown, has it stored away – but I kept mine in a drawer with my own childhood mementos for many years. Because, of course, I knew – as did my Mom in time – that I would not be having any children to pass it on to. Five years ago, I had the joy of giving it to the daughter of a dear friend who was expecting her own first child, and sharing with them what it meant to me, and knowing it too would finally become a beloved companion. Another enduring gift of love.
Then, in May 1980, shortly before my college graduation, Mom called my dorm room to let me know Mrs. Milbrat had died; and, the family was asking me to be a pallbearer. At this point in my life, I had never even been to a funeral; well, probably to my fathers parents services, but not in my memory. I was shy and reluctant to be around so many strangers, but I remember driving to the chapel in Loma Linda and then to the cemetery, and returning to campus. I know that my presence meant something to Mr. Milbrat, but to the rest I probably seemed like an outsider – and, I guess in many ways, I was. After I began my job in San Bernardino, he moved away, and eventually word reached us a few years later that he had passed.
When I came across their picture in my endless sorting of faded documents and forgotten faces, I reflected on how much the simple kindnesses of these “chance” neighbors had touched my life, in ways that at the time I did not appreciate. Of course, as a child, I always thanked them – especially when they bought one of the many fund raisers I had to tramp through the neighborhood hawking, like seed packets, cans of nuts for cub scouts, or engraved Christmas cards for church youth group. But I was a child, and as I grew, I became too busy to appreciate all their kindnesses, busy with work, career, and trying to make my way through my own life with it’s challenges that I mostly bore alone.
So, this week, I delved into the amazing online resources available through services like Ancestry, Newspapers.com, and other resources that until now I had only explored for my own family of birth – realizing that in many ways, the Milbrats were my grandma and grandpa of the spirit. What I found was a bit surprising. Oscar, born in 1893 in Alabama, had been a grocer in Orange county – and had been married previously, in Yucatan Mexico in 1925. (It really is remarkable the information one can find on these services!) Apparently his first wife had unsuccessfully filed for divorce, according to a short newspaper article in Santa Ana that she had filed a police report for her husband being too noisy in repairing her roof! She passed in 1957, and two years later he married Beatrice – he was 66, she was 51, and the daughter I had thought was theirs, was only his. After he passed in 1985, he was laid to rest back in Orange County, beside his first wife, not Beatrice – and so, childless, she perhaps today is largely forgotten. But, not by me.
There are all kinds of angels in our lives, you know. Not like Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, necessarily – not even people whose names we know, perhaps. They may just pass through, but they give us moments of grace, love, encouragement and hope. Even better – we can be those sources for others – it doesn’t really cost us much, if anything, to take a moment to be kind, to listen, to smile. And I think, despite the fact that the tract home neighborhoods of the past don’t exist for us all anymore, we still have neighbors, just in a different way – online, social networks. Our need to connect still drives us deeply within, and there are days when I lie in bed thinking – did I touch someone today? Did I take a moment to show them care, to be as the best neighbor of all, Mr. Rogers, would – just be present with them?
To me, the Milbrats were like Mr. AND Mrs. Rogers, right next door
Is there someone who touched your life like my neighbors? Perhaps someone who in the past, or now, is making a difference in your life that you have never really acknowledged or expressed? Perhaps you’d like to take a moment to reach out and check on them, and say a heartfelt thanks. Or, if like the Milbrats, they have moved on – then the best way to thank and honor them is to share what they gave you, with someone who crosses your path soon. Yes, indeed – what the world needs now is love, sweet love – for and from each of us, especially this very moment.
I thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Milbrat – Oscar and Beatrice – Grandpa and Grandma neighbor – for your love. Your caring, acceptance, and giving spirits. I have to admit – I don’t measure up, by a long shot. But perhaps, sharing their lives with you today, will help us all remember – we have the power to touch lives, moment by moment in small ways – that echo through those lives in ways we will never know. We can reach out and together – rise. Let us do so, today.