We were afraid to walk past Mrs. Buckmeier’s old frame house and would run past, shrieking with equal parts fear and silliness. It looked like it was abandoned and haunted, though we knew she still lived there. All the paint that had once covered the house was long gone. You could see the warp in the wood planks used to build it, and the house kind of tilted to one side. My parents told me never to go near the house because it was liable to collapse at any moment. We didn’t know how old her house was, but the house I lived in was sixty or seventy years old and looked strong and sturdy by comparison.
It was set much further back from the street than the other houses on the block, and the area in front of the house—which was once probably what we called a front yard—had reverted back to nature and become a mini forest, with fifteen-foot trees, undergrowth and occasional patches of soil where nothing grew. The narrow cement walkway leading from the yard to the house was crumbling. At night there were no lights on in the house. Some said it was because the house was never wired for electricity, which is possible, as it was the late 1950s and the house was at least eighty years old, possibly older, but I suspect that the power had been shut off due to unpaid bills. It was definitely the neighborhood’s spooky house.
In the house lived Jane Buckmeier. Everyone called her Mrs. Buckmeier out of respect. Thinking back, she must have been about eighty years old, but being kids, we all thought she was more than a hundred. She was small—about five foot nothing—grey-haired and couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds. And she always wore the same fancy black dress and hat, both of which looked like they had been bought eons ago. The fabric of the dress was shiny with age and the hat, sitting perkily toward the back of her head, had a half veil. Completing the ensemble was a black leather purse, worn ragged by time. She was frequently seen out and about when the weather was good, taking her walks, and she always had on the same ensemble. And she had a smile for everyone.
The story was that Jane was the last of a large farming family that had owned much of the land all our homes were built on, perhaps as much as five square miles. The Buckmeier family, it was said, had lived there since around the Civil War, when their home would have been the only one for as far as you can see. The family fell on hard times, however, and was already selling off parcels of land just prior to the turn of the century—that would be the twentieth century. This was about the time, give or take ten years, when Jane married into the family and moved into the house she now called home. No one could remember anyone else ever living there with her. They had all passed. Lord knows, there were lots of ways to die during the first half of the twentieth century: World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, and then World War II. All anybody knew is that, by the 1950s, all the land was gone except Mrs. Buckmeier’s lot and not one person in the community had any memory of other Buckmeiers. Jane had been alone for a long time.
Now, I can’t guarantee that any or all of this is true. You know how people like to fill in the blanks when they don’t have facts, so it could all be fabricated gossip, but I do know the end of the story, the true end of the story.
Depending on who you believe, Mrs. Buckmeier was either extremely rich, having hoarded money that was now stashed somewhere in that decrepit old house; or, and this is more likely, she was dirt poor, unable to buy sufficient groceries to live on. This is borne out by her behavior in the last couple of decades of her life. As a child, I thought what she did was presumptuous, but as an adult, I came to admire her gumption, and in a way, she became one of my heroes.
At the time, most family functions—wakes, weddings, graduation parties—were held in the community. We had Egan’s Funeral Home, where wakes were held for two days, and the third-day burial was followed by a luncheon. Few people traveled out of the neighborhood to a “venue” for wedding receptions, which were commonly held in church halls, VFWs or at home. Same for parties and other events. This made it easier for Mrs. Buckmeier to get to these functions, as they were seldom very far away. Because Mrs. Buckmeier attended these events with regularity. Whether she was invited or not. And mostly, she was not.
She celebrated at your son or daughter’s marriage, grieved with you when your parent or spouse died, said goodbye and good luck to your son as he left to begin military service. This was how she got a decent meal and quelled her loneliness for a couple of hours. And no one ever questioned her right to be there. It was as though the whole neighborhood had decided that Mrs. Buckmeier was welcome everywhere. It makes you feel good, doesn’t it? But this story is not about the kind folks in my community. It is about Jane. In a time before safety net programs, she created her own safety net.
Can you imagine the courage it took the first few times she showed up at a wedding reception for which she had no invitation? A weaker soul would cower at the door and then probably run away, ashamed of their need. Not Jane. She always acted as though the place she was at was exactly where she should be. Not in an arrogant way, but in a manner that implied belonging, connection. She acted “as if.” As if she had gotten an invitation. As if she should be at the wake, both nights, and the funeral and luncheon on the third day too, even if she had never met the family. She trusted that people would show kindness without making her beg. And she was correct in that belief.
And that, I guess, is what I am trying to say. Even in these angry and tumultuous times—especially in these angry and tumultuous times—choose to believe in kindness. Accept totally that there are more people who wish you well than those who do not. Remember what Tinkerbell said: “Every time someone says ‘I do not believe in fairies,’ somewhere there’s a fairy that falls down dead.” It works the same way with kindness. If you do not believe in it, you will never see it, never feel it. And you don’t want to live your life like that.