During the 1980s, my parents began migrating to Florida for the colder months, spending more time there with each passing year. I, on the other hand, had headed west, returning to the northeast after a year and a half of trying out life in L.A.. staying in Half Moon for most of that winter while my parents cavorted among the palm trees, 900 miles to the south.
One Saturday morning in November, the doorbell rang. On answering, I found a 70ish man standing out on the stoop, a wan version of the Mr. Matthieson I remembered from childhood. Shorter, smaller, red hair fading to gray. I opened the storm door, we shook hands, saying hello, our greetings producing breath mist in the chilly air. When I asked if he'd like to step inside, he refused with a shy smile, saying he didn't have much time, though appearing pleased to have received the invite. He said that he and his wife wanted to get in touch with my parents but didn't have their Florida phone number. I wrote it down, handed it over. A moment of small talk, we shook hands again, he headed down the driveway, waving briefly as he moved off.
That was the last time I saw Mr. Matthiesson, though not the last time he impacted my life. If it had been, I'd have a fine closing to the story -- tidy, concise, slightly poignant. Not always the way life wraps affairs like this up.
Two or three years after my last encounter with Mr. M., things had improved between my parents and him to the point that they asked him to look after the house during their months away -- stopping by on a regular basis to make sure everything was all right, agreeing to be the person the security alarm outfit would call in case of problems.
And a day arrived when the Matthiesons' phone rang, someone from the security firm calling to say that one of the security sensors in the basement had gone off. A sensor indicating water accumulation.
Mr. M. pulled on a pair of rubber boots, took a walk down the road to the house. Where, on entering the basement, he discovered that the hose to the water pump had come apart, that water was indeed pouring in, beginning to accumulate. The solution: flick off the pump's wall-mounted power-switch -- the flow of water would cease, clean-up and damage would be minimal. Or at least more minimal than if the pump were left on.
Apparently, despite sporting rubber boots, despite a couple of nearby, in-plain-view, grabworthy lengths of wood tailor-made for switch-flipping, Mr. Matthieson could not overcome a fear of electrocution. And after some panicked blithering he fled, returning home to call my brother (located an hour and 40 minutes south of Half Moon). My brother made a hurried drive north to shut the pump off. By the time he got there, the basement contained a foot of water.
An unpleasant development in any house. Particularly unpleasant in this house, run by my mother, a professional pack-rat who'd passed many enjoyable decades hoarding cartons and bags filled with dreck. Much of which had ended up on low shelves and storage spaces in the basement.
My brother pumped out the water before returning to his life and 9-to-5 job. I had a more flexible situation, meaning the remaining clean-up became my responsibility.
What I found on arriving: damaged furniture, ruined carpeting, mold and fungus blossoming in corners and hidey-holes. Rusting tools. Many boxes of now-dead tchotchkes, knick-knacks, keepsakes, memorabilia. And many large garbage baggies stuffed with scraps of cloth -- remnants of maternal sewing projects (held onto because you never know when you'll need them), perfect for soaking up water and becoming heavy as cast iron.
As you might imagine, Mr. Matthiesson was summarily relieved of all duties connected to the house. I don't believe I ever heard my parents mention him again.
There are no sweeping judgments to be made from all this. I hardly knew this man, know little about the person he was. I know nothing, really, about his internal landscape, am not qualified to judge him. He was someone who passed through my earlier years, who struck me as a decent human being. Someone whose mid-life years brought a series of left-hand turns, beginning with a blow to the head and extending out from there -- the kind of unexpected shifts big novels are sometimes constructed around. Though in this case, to my knowledge, not building to a dramatic climax. (On the other hand, what do I know? Some of this life's most dramatic climaxes may be of the small, quiet variety.)
Just an individual who passed through this world, impacting the people around him in various ways, as we all do. With some moments of genuine drama and others of unintentional comedy. Same as the rest of us.
And worthy of mention. As we all are.
Springtime in Madrid, along el Paseo de Recoletos: