To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all – Oscar Wilde

There is a small, disorderly looking house that sits on the corner across the street from my childhood home. In the early 1960s, the young couple who lived in the house divorced and the wife moved away. When she left, the man pulled down every shade on every window in the house. Once in a while I’d see him walking to and from his car or mowing his lawn, but he always kept his head down and never said a word.

Nearly 20 years passed and I moved back into my childhood home. The man still lived alone in the house across the street with the window shades pulled down. By now the house was crying out for some tender loving care. It was in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. The shrubs in the yard were growing wildly out of control. Time had also taken its toll on the window shades. They were tattered around the edges but continued to adequately perform the job of keeping the world away. Once in a while I’d see the man out in his yard, but he kept his head down and still had nothing to say.

And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years. – Abraham Lincoln

Another decade passed and everything stayed about the same at the house across the street. By now it had a fresh coat of paint thanks to an order by the city. On the edges of the badly worn, pulled down shades in kitchen window, you could see what looked like rags but were actually the remnants of faded rose-patterned curtains.

One afternoon last spring I was sitting on my front steps as I had countless times before looking at the house across the street. The mailman walked by and asked me if I knew anything about the man who lived in the house. He was concerned, because his mail was piling up. It hadn’t been taken in for several days. The mailman decided to have the police check on the man. The man was taken away, because he was sick with colon cancer.

About six months later I learned that the man across the street had died. It wasn’t long before a young man took over the house and began tossing out piles upon piles of old, worn out belongings. There was furniture dating back to the late 1950s, including a couple of black and white television sets that still used tubes. There were five old lawnmowers representative of each decade he’d lived in the house; two ancient washing machines and two rust-worn cars in the garage covered with even more junk. It seemed the man had a habit of keeping worthless belongings he no longer had any use for. How ironic that a house so empty could be so full.

The young man who bought the house said he was the friend of the old man’s nephew. It turns out the man had one sister. He’d apparently lived on bologna sandwiches and had saved most of his money. His sister and nephew were the beneficiaries of his lifelong frugalness to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars.

I asked the young man if I could have a look around the house that had been closed off for a half century. It felt strange to be standing in a room the sun hadn’t touched since before John F. Kennedy was elected president. The living room had been painted a pale green-or at least that’s what it would be if the dirt and grime were washed away. The back bedroom was a rosy pink, while the front bedroom was a soft, pale yellow. Even after all these years the old house had the faded hint of a woman’s touch. The attic space that at one time might have been considered as a space for future children remained unfinished.

When I walked by the house across the street today, I took another look at the piles of junk waiting to be hauled away. I couldn’t help but wonder what had been going on in his head all those years. It seemed so sad that he didn’t get more joy out of his life. Why did he reject the sunshine and fresh air for all those many years? Didn’t he care about everything that he was missing out on?

Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love, to work, to play, and to look up at the stars. – Henry Van Dyke

Once in a while, very late at night, I would look out my front window and see the man across the street taking a walk. I hope he thought to glance up at the sky.

Karen Barta-Gaskell is a native Minnesotan from Minneapolis who has worked in radio and television journalism for more than 20 years as a newscaster and reporter in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Oklahoma City. She continues to work in communications, in addition to her freelance writing. Contact her by e-mail at kjgaskell@att.net Copyright (c) 2001 Karen Barta-Gaskell

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