I wrote this piece around three years ago, on another social media site that I no longer use. I was thinking about it this morning for some reason, and it took me forever to find it, so I’m moving it here.

My neighbor Anita passed away this past year; her son still lives in the house. The neighborhood is still pretty much as I described it, and I still like living here.

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When we first moved into our house, there was an elderly woman named Elna living across the street. She rarely came outside, and when she did, she seemed uncertain and unstable. My husband suspected that she was drinking, but I wasn’t so sure.

I was home all day at the time, finishing up my dissertation. I remember looking out the window one afternoon, and seeing Elna in her own driveway, stumble and fall. She hit her head on something, and was bleeding. I rushed outside, of course, and so did Anita. I asked if there was anything I could do, but Anita hurried Elna back in the house, and clearly didn’t want me following. She seemed mistrustful, and maybe that’s not so surprising; we were new in the neighborhood, younger than most everyone else on the block, and I got the clear impression that we’d been labelled “dot-commers,” whom nobody had much use for. A not entirely unfair characterization, I suppose.

I paid more attention after that; that’s why I’m sure Elna had no visitors except Anita and my other across the street neighbor, another elderly lady named Xenia. I only remember seeing Elna outside once or twice after her falling incident. And then one night an ambulance came.

I don’t remember seeing Elna’s relatives, ever, though I was probably working and out of the house by then. I do remember the estate sale. It was the first time I (or most of the people there, all neighbors) had been inside Elna’s house. There were no relatives present. What I remember most clearly was the pile of old photos on the table, which several of us sat and went through. A younger Elna and another woman, in military-looking uniforms, standing next to a shirtless young man on what appeared to be a Pacific island. Younger Elna in a rickshaw. Photos of exotic locales, which escape me now, except for the two I’ve mentioned. Everything in the house was for sale, including the photos. How can anyone sell a relative’s photos?

I thought about buying some, but it seemed ghoulish. Instead I bought the two-volume Complete Sherlock Holmes, not so much because I’m a Conan Doyle fan (I am), but because I felt like at least some of the books ought to go to someone who (sort of) knew her, someone who cared about where they came from. They’re stamped on the inside cover with her name, and her address — the house across the street.

Anita’s still here. She’s been in her house since 1950, a single mom that whole time; she can’t live alone anymore, and her son has moved back in. I work out of the house now. So does at least one of the women who bought Elna’s house, and the mother of the family who now lives in Xenia’s house. The neighborhood is much younger now, and almost every house on the block has someone who’s home all day, who’s out and walks around, with their dog or with their kids. I like it. It’s much better than the bedroom community I grew up in, better than the way this neighborhood was when we moved here. I still feel like I don’t know the neighbors as well as I ought to, but I know them some. We look out for each other. The way home prices are around here, we’ll probably live in this house — well, a long time.

We don’t have kids. I wonder who the Sherlock Holmes will go to, next.


Featured Image: The corner of Monterey and Gennessee, looking towards Mt. Davidson, 1940. Not my street, but my neighborhood. Source: OpenSFHistory.org

The books are my copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Photo by Nina Zumel.

4 thoughts on “Mementos

  1. Fascinating for so many reasons! The kind of semi-journaling / semi philosophical writing that I did, and still occasionally do. I used to pass by an occasional house which had obviously been vacated by an elderly person, and see all the contents of the house piled up at the curbside awaiting the trash truck pickup. people would be picking through the items, looking for either usable possessions or metal srap to sell at the scrapyard. I would sometimes stop and contemplate the items – family photo albums, old shoes, records, letters… these things which were all that remained of the lives of those who had dwelt there. And I wondered who would go through the piles of MY accumulated years when I departed this life. Things that were once meaningful tome would be considered old junk, refuse, or items worth the scavenging for scrap. Your article summed up so much of that. And the Sherlock Holmes – my precious wife had a huge, two volume set called “The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Annotated” and the notations themselves were worth the price of the book set! anyway – thanks for sharing this!!!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I agree, it can be sobering to think about how all the things that can be so important to you … just aren’t, to other people, after you’re gone.

  2. I wish there was a program for a library or museum to take in all the old photos, scan them to the web, & preserve them for posterity. A few things end up in antique stores. I always thought that going through antique stores was a bit spooky–thinking that all those lovely things belonged to someone who isn’t here anymore.

    1. The OpenSFHistory collection where I got the featured image from this post is a little bit like that. I believe the bulk of the images (if not all) were donated by a private collector, and I’ve seen shots in it (of people, mostly) that look like casual snapshots and other amateur photography. I imagine the private collector *did* buy all those discarded photos and such (of San Francisco) of the kind that I hesitated to buy.

      I’m glad that there is someone out there doing this. It gives you such a look into the life of the city that doesn’t always make it into the history books….

      I occasionally buy things from antique stores. Sometimes I wonder what the things that I bring home from there have seen…..

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