I wasn’t sure what to think the first time I laid eyes on my new neighbor. He had ridden across his property on his lawn mower, making a beeline for our little family. I guessed him to be in his 70s, and he was wearing an old ball cap, worn out jeans and a tee shirt. I was hot and tired. I had just half-dragged and half-carried three (yes, three) children through the waist-high grass, briars and poison ivy while my husband waxed eloquent on his plans for our future home. In his excitement, Dave walked about thirty steps in front me…blissfully solo…while I attempted to maneuver our young brood through the various hazards. To make matters worse, I had just spotted my first tick crawling across our one-year-old’s neck. Ugh
Enter Gene Stamper. There was no guessing that this man was ready for a conversation. He drove straight toward us, close enough that I was beginning to contemplate my escape route. Fortunately, he didn’t drive very fast…and he eventually stopped about eight feet from us. He began talking before he turned off the mower.
After a brief hi and howdy, he asked if we’d bought the property. Dave told him we had. After a somewhat lengthy pause in which Mr. Stamper removed his hat and scratched his head, he told us that he guessed that was all right with him…as long as we didn’t “build no [blankety-blank] Walmart”.
From that day forward, every encounter with Mr. Stamper further endeared him to my family and to me. Not only was his wife as sweet as she could be, but he had a certain…ornery charm…about him that grabbed hold of our hearts and made visits with him a true treat. He was as genuine as a person could possibly be. There was never any pretense, never any attempt to impress anyone else. He loved my kids like a grandpa should, taking the time to share their interests and tell them stories about his childhood and his service in the Korean War. He treated them with respect, taking pleasure in their conversation and teaching them how to sharpen mower blades or inflate bicycle tires. He removed the deck of an old lawn mower so the kids could learn to drive on it when they were little. He never tried to buy their affection, like many adults seem wont to do. He just enjoyed them for who they are. No strings attached.
Since our first introduction, Mr. Stamper called me “Theresa”…which I guess is a close second to my actual name, “Trista”. For the first couple of years, his wife corrected him, without success. He alternately called my daughter, Grace, by her actual name and by “Jessica” before simplifying things and eventually referring to her almost exclusively as “babe”. He Round-Upped my shrubs and mowed over my flowers. He fed suckers, sticks and all, to my dogs and invited them into his house, with muddy feet, for treats. Over the years, his dogs have occasionally attacked my chickens, tormented my cats, bayed outside my window in the middle of the night and even forced their way into my house out of fear of a thunderstorm. Mr. Stamper taught my kids words that they didn’t necessarily need to know, and he ran over a young tree or two on his mower. He helped himself to whatever was growing in our gardens and orchards, greatly enjoying the harvest. Most recently and with a twinkle in his eye, he offered to find a good-cookin’, good-lookin’, hard-workin’ wife for my son…who is thirteen.
I don’t know how many times I sat in my living room or on my front porch only to look up and see Mr. Stamper driving his mower across our property. Oftentimes, a visiting friend would show surprise and comment about the “older gentlemen” driving through our orchard, yard, back acreage, etc. I would smile and say that it was our favorite neighbor, Mr. Stamper, and I often followed up with a good story. Here’s one of my favorites:
The fall after we moved into our new house, we were working diligently on seeding the yard. It was a big job that required a good bit of time watering on my part. I tried to make it fun by squirting the kids with the hose—or even letting them squirt me—but it was still tedious. One morning I was singing—loudly—to entertain myself. A couple of the kids were singing right along with me while they were playing on the front porch. I don’t know how he caught us by surprise, but all of a sudden I heard a man’s deep voice right behind me. I screamed bloody murder and jumped a foot off the ground, showering both Mr. Stamper and myself with very cold well water. I can’t, in good conscience, quote him word for word, but he did earnestly swear to never, ever, ever again catch me unawares. From that day on, he came on his mower so I could hear him coming. He was a man of his word. His ears probably rang for two weeks from that scream.
Almost two weeks ago, Mr. Stamper lost his battle with cancer. We knew it was coming, but it still seems like maybe, just maybe, it didn’t happen. I worked outside all afternoon on Sunday, and there were times I stopped and actually listened for his lawn mower to tell me of his whereabouts. I can’t make sense of that in my head, but I sure can feel that empty hope in my heart.
Mr. Stamper was a committed husband, loving father and proud grandfather. I’ve known his family for 11 years now, and I still can’t keep all of his nieces and nephews straight. He loved them all and cherished their visits. He was a sergeant in the Korean War and fought hard to keep other men alive. He made friends everywhere he went, always willing to learn something new and share some of what he’d learned.
As a parent, I believe that one of the greatest gifts anyone can give me is to value my children. That’s what Gene did. He enjoyed them for who they are and offered them what he could of his own life. He left them a legacy of respect, patriotism, acceptance, hard work, laughter, and, yes, a little bit of mischief.
When people acted surprised by Mr. Stamper’s boldness in helping himself to our farm fare, I would always say that he was welcome to whatever we had. He didn’t ask for anything from our family. He just gave of himself. That was worth whatever he could eat in tomatoes and peaches.
How we will miss that beautiful, ornery old man.