This story first appeared as a blog post for Sean of the South on December 1, 2018. Post is reprinted by South Georgia Today with permission from the author Sean Dietrich.
His mother died when he was six. His childhood was a lonely one. He’d been raised by his father—a man who worked too much.
No brothers. No sisters. He was a quiet child. So quiet, kids at school wondered if he even existed.
He got older and became a quiet fourteen-year-old. He had a hard time making friends. Most nights you could find him alone at home after school, eating fast food before a glowing TV screen.
She was his neighbor. She was old and feeble, with an oxygen machine. She lived in an ancient home and she stayed inside it.
She was not friendly. In fact, she was downright hateful. Most people avoided her.
Especially kids. She would chew up children and spit them out.
She spent her days stuck in an easy chair, staring at windows, watching people walk the sidewalk.
One day, she and the boy started to talk.
She was on her back porch, with her nurse when she saw him pass her.
“Get up here,” she said to him, puffing a cigarette. “Introduce yourself to me.”
And, even though nobody saw it coming, their friendship blossomed. He opened like a camellia. He talked to her about everything. He spoke about life, about day-to-day things, and what he’d seen in the news.
They became fast friends. They stayed that way through the years.
Her lawn was overgrown; he’d cut it. The siding on her home was rotting; he’d repair it.
She taught him to love books. He taught her to be nice.
By his early twenties, he was helping care for her. He called to check on her often. He grocery shopped. He brought in the mail. He carried her to appointments.
And each year for Christmas, he bought her a balsam fir. A live one. He’d place it in her living room, front and center, decorated.
Her face would grow fifty-years younger when she saw the lights. Little lights have strange effects over people.
And each year: gifts under the tree—wrapped and everything. Some from her. Some from him. They took turns pretending like they were a family.
Once, she’d even written him a card:
“I have not a child,
You have not a mother,
Maybe this year,
We’ll adopt one another.”
And on her last year alive, they spent a nice Christmas together. They ate until they were sick, then stared at a fireplace until she fell asleep. He helped her into bed.
A few nights later, he was at work when he got a call. She was having chest pains. He dialed 911. She passed in the ambulance. There were no dramatic last words, no final hand-squeeze.
He arranged the funeral. And on the day of her service he stood before a small congregation and stuttered sweet words about two unlikely friends. A boy, and an elderly woman.
He stood at the graveside when they lowered her. He thanked her. He said goodbye.
And he will visit that grave this year—just like every year. This year, however, he will bring his children to visit for the first time. Because this year, his two kids are old enough to ask about his old friend.
And he’ll tell them a story a lot like what I just told you.
Except when he tells it, he will call her “Mother.”
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and radio show host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored seven books.