For 25 winters I have watched the smoke rise from the chimney of my neighbor's wood burning stove. Russel tended to the fire for most of those years. It had been his duty and he had done it happily since 1950, the year he built the home with his own two hands. Then, five years ago, Russel passed away. He was 89 years old.
Ever since Russel passed away there has been a definable absence in the neighborhood. His duties were taken over by his sons and wife but his presence could never be duplicated. The lawn is still mowed and the driveway still plowed but the peaceful, smiling man in the train conductor's style hat hasn't been sitting on the riding mower for years now and I miss him. We all miss him.
But no one has missed him more than Gloria, his wife of over fifty years. Gloria and Russel had been a pair, a duo, a matching set. Where one went, the other went, too. Russel mowed the lawn, plowed the driveway and fixed everything around the house. Gloria cooked, baked and tended the flower beds surrounding their house. The two loved to drive out to the local hunting camp and enjoy afternoons with friends at the lodge. They had a small group of faithful companions they met regularly for breakfast. They had a life that was simple yet they were content. They had a steady and happy routine that suited them.
Today I walked over to visit Gloria and her sons. Just a short month or two ago I received word that Gloria was sick with terminal cancer and that she would be denying all treatment. At 91 years old she didn't want to put up a fight. She's lived a good life, a full life and now she's ready to go home. She's ready to go see Russel again.
As I walked the short few steps across the street and up to Gloria's back door I was met with a familiar scent in the air. The wood stove. From the rooftop I could see a faint cloud of smoke rise up and touch the gently falling snow. So much had changed across the street. Russel was gone and now Gloria would be soon. But the wood stove still burned.
Inside Gloria was lying in her bed under a mountain of blankets. She smiled when I entered her room and thanked me for coming. We chatted in that awkward way you do when there is so much and so little to say all at the same time.
In the background Gloria's radio was playing some of her favorite old standards. As our conversation quieted and came to a close, as if on cue, Frank Sinatra began to sing, "Smoke gets in your eyes."
I made my way out of Gloria's bedroom, down the hall and out through the living room where her son was tending to the old wooden stove. I told him how much I loved that wood stove. I told him how the smoke that rose from their chimney comforted me each winter. It's always smelled like home.
Jerry agreed as he poked around at the hearth. He was carrying on his father's job of keeping the home warm and toasty, as it has always been. But in that moment I know my heart was warmer because smoke was still getting in my eyes. Things have changed across the street. The comings and goings of Gloria and Russel are no more. But the wood stove is still the same. The scent in the air still reminds me of home.
I made my way back across the street breathing a bit deeper, breathing in memories and years gone by. And when I breathed out all I could say was "thank you." Thank you to a couple who showed me what a simple, quiet and beautiful life looks like. Thank you to Russel and Gloria for being steady and sure in love and commitment to one another. Thank you for keeping an eye out for this young girl across the street, for putting up with her lose rabbits and rambunctious dogs.
And thank you for never letting the wood stove burn out in the dead of winter.
Today, I noticed the smoke that has gotten in my eyes for the past 25 years and realized how the life Gloria and Russel built across the street has so profoundly impacted my own. I am the person I am today because of my neighbors and the smoke of a faithful wood burning stove that has been a blessing to my eyes.