Our Elderly Neighbors Taught Us the True Meaning of Home—and Holiday Spirit

A priceless gift calls back into the past and proves it's always the thought that counts.

How-the-Elderly-Couple-That-Lived-Next-Door-Taught-Me-the-True-Meaning-of-Holiday-GivingLena Evans/Shutterstock
Reader’s Digest editors asked the Reader’s Digest contributor network to reflect on the true meaning of community during the holiday season. The following piece was written in response to that prompt. To share your own 100-word true story for possible inclusion in the magazine or on RD.com, click here

Christmas Boxes

Layers of carefully packed tissue paper separate a lifetime of memories. My kids sit on Gee’s living room floor and reverently lift Christmas ornaments out of a well-loved cardboard box. They gasp when they discover a tiny stuffed cat. They giggle at Raggedy Ann, who is a foreign character to them. My son is taken with a tiny helicopter, my daughter with an antique Mickey Mouse. (This fun chart shows the most popular gift in every state.)

Gee stands beside them, quietly explaining each treasure. She turns to me and says she and Tom built their ornament collection over time by buying one or two nice ones each year in the after-Christmas sales. When we leave, the box in my arms, she is smiling. Her precious heirlooms, gathered over a lifetime, have found a new home.

We first met Tom and Gee in the early days of our marriage. Jim and I worked full-time, and in the morning our garbage cans went out to the curb, destined to wait the long, lonely 10 hours there until we returned to retrieve them—or so we thought. Instead, we’d come home every garbage day to find them neatly tucked into their spot next to our garage. We wondered about the garbage good Samaritan, and then one day we spotted him: an elderly man who lived across the street from us in a white cape cod with black trim, the most perfectly maintained house on the block.

I baked cookies and we left them on a stool outside the garage with a thank-you note. When we got home from work that day, a typed letter had replaced the gift. The letter was from Tom and explained how he had come to walk the neighborhood on garbage day, returning cans for people he barely knew. Back when he was fighting a war I wasn’t alive to see, his young wife Gee had found herself living alone while he served. In those lonely days, neighbors had taken the time to handle her garbage cans so she didn’t have to. He never forgot, and now he paid it forward by doing it for all of us. It was also his way of sneaking a smoke while Gee wasn’t looking.

The letter was long and generous with details of Tom and Gee’s story. Jim and I studied this window into our neighbors’ lives. Over the next few years, they would tell us how Tom was a rascal when younger and would roll up to Gee’s parent’s house and make every head in the neighborhood turn with his flashy car and clothes. We would visit him in their first-floor extra bedroom, where he spent his last days, still sharp and smiling.

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We told her how special Tom had been to us, how we grieved for her, how thankful we were to have known him—the inadequate words that come with condolence

We photocopied that letter and attached it to one of our own to Gee a few days after Tom passed. We told her how special Tom had been to us, how we grieved for her, how thankful we were to have known him—the inadequate words that come with condolence. She wrote us back and told us she still talked to Tom every day. Sharing that deepened our bond with her. When Gee invited us over to look through Christmas ornaments, I thought back to that note and realized how hard it must be to part with that box, a piece of Tom.

These days, we’re piling up boxes of our own. We’re planning a move. The house that seemed so huge six years ago is filled to capacity with furniture and books and toys and, of course, people. We know it’s time to go, and yet, we can’t seem to stick the For Sale sign in the lawn. Gaining a third bedroom and maybe an office sometimes seems like a lousy trade for all we stand to lose.

It’s not just Gee. It’s the guy next door who lets our kids pick peaches off the tree in his front yard and pats their heads when they crawl up to him on all fours, pretending to be puppies. It’s the ladies on our other side, who call Jim when their pool filter breaks and leave overflowing baskets for our kids on Easter. It’s the corrections officer directly across from us, who smiles and waves and makes me feel a little safer when Jim is away.

It is all the people who have opened up their lives to us, maybe most of all Tom and Gee, who opened up their hearts and histories too. Who quietly took in garbage cans and taught us what it meant to be a neighbor back when we were just starting out. They taught us that home doesn’t end at a property line. It extends to all these people. These people, these connections, the love that flows through it all and whispers a single word: home. (Don’t miss these seven heartwarming stories of amazing neighbors.)

The moving boxes are still neatly packed in our basement, but the sign stays down and Jim and I agree to wait until January. This Christmas, we’ll decorate our tree with Gee’s ornaments, out of the box that is labeled in Tom’s handwriting. We’ll bring Christmas cookies to some neighbors, wrapped presents to others. To some, we’ll just exchange a wave and a “Merry Christmas.” I’ll look out my window and wonder if Gee still talks to Tom. I’ll know she does, and I will too. I will say, “thank you.”

Nicole Burrell is a Reader’s Digest reader from Belleville, New Jersey. She is also a member of the Reader’s Digest contributor network.

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