Our Old Gilbert Street Neighborhood, Part Two

In the 13 years since I wrote the 1999 column, we have all moved away from that beautiful neighborhood of green lawns, big trees and wide streets. We moved south, we moved north, we moved downtown. But we all stayed in Austin and stayed in touch, as we changed and the city changed around us.

My friend Martha died of metastatic breast cancer in 2002. She was only 44. Don’t ever let anybody tell you “your attitude is everything” when it comes to cancer. Martha had an incredible attitude and she did everything she could to live. But she died anyway.

Lee and our son went to different colleges, graduated, then came back to Austin. They both work at a software company here in town and have stayed close friends.

Skylerr works and has a beautiful young daughter. Her brother J.J. recently graduated from college. I hadn’t seen either of them in a few years, but had kept up with them through their mother and another close family friend.

It was that friend who called on Sunday night in mid-April. She was so upset, I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Finally, I did: J.J, age 26, had died in a car wreck.

So, we were all together again, this time at J.J.’s mother’s house, then, a few days later, at a small college chapel for his memorial service. We talked about J.J., of course. To me, he was still the gentle kid with the sweet face who’d befriended our son and made him feel welcome when we first moved to the neighborhood.

But he had grown up — as all our children had by now — and become a man with his own ambitions and passions. Since he died so young, he would forever remain a 26-year-old with great dreams. It was heartbreaking, it was wrenching, it was unfair — and the goddamned sun kept coming up and going down, day after day, in this pitiless fucking universe.

No wonder we huddle so closely together at times like this, no wonder an old neighborhood re-forms overnight. It’s freezing cold out there, random, unpredictable, terrifying, and anything can happen. How could we have forgotten that? And who wants to be alone and isolated now that we realize it once again?

So, we talk, we drink, we embrace, we cry. And, as usual, at times like this, we also laugh and remember lighter topics. Like the neighbor who used to get drunk and announce her husband “required” her to have sex every night; she was currently petitioning, she said slurrily, for Thursdays off. (They are now married to other people; the status of the “Thursdays off” petition remains unknown.) Or another neighbor who, upon hearing the Thursday petition story, begged everyone not to repeat it to her husband. He always suspected everyone else was having sex a lot more than they were — and now, here was the proof.

We recalled how our sons had conducted votes about whose mother was the “nicest,” whose mother was the best cook. (I always lost those contests, big time.)

I said how, after Pam’s mother died in ’99, how impressed I’d been that everyone had gathered night after night to bring food and wine, to talk, to comfort her. “But it was really like that all the time,” someone else said. “We were always in and out of each other’s houses, sharing meals, having parties.

“When you think about it,” she said, “when we were there, it was really the golden age of Gilbert Street.”

Oh, yes, the Golden Age. Like any other era or event, you don’t appreciate its luster till you look back at it. We toasted our golden age, our past, our children — lost or grown. We toasted and drank wine because, really, what else could we do?

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)

For a loosely related post, read about yogis and wine snobs.




23 comments… add one
  • You couldn’t do anything else. It is, as you say, a pitiless fucking universe.

  • Cindy D. Link

    I put off reading these two posts because I knew they would break my heart. You are able to capture the essence of people and situations so purely that they are universal. I haven’t faced a death recently but I’ve been ambushed by that fucking universe a couple of times. Huddling close is the only defense we have. My heart aches for you and J.J.’s mother; there is no greater tragedy that to lose a child, born from your body or not.

  • Craig Link

    Very nice bookend posts.
    In spite of all the ramdon heartbreaks there is a lot of comfort in the interconnectedness of your neighborhood.
    I don’t have the energy to rage rage against most anything

  • It is wonderful you all have kept in touch and are there to support each other when tragedy strikes.

  • JJ’s mother and I have a great deal in common. I am almost two years ahead of the hell she is currently in. We will never be the same and for those of you who love her, brace yourself – you now have a different friend. Don’t let go of her because of that change . . . love her even more. As for her children – stay close by. Their lives seem full, but they are missing a chunk of their hearts.

    Talk, drink, embrace and cry like never before!

  • Steve Link

    Attitude IS everything when fighting cancer, to the extent that attitude means your approach to life. Will it cure the cancer? No. No more than faith in God will cure the cancer. The pitiless universe moves on. We’re just along for the ride. But we get to choose how to ride.

    I recently stood on the floor of an amphitheater at UTMB where 55 years ago medical students and doctors quizzed me, a five year old, about the childhood lymphoma they were treating. What a long, crazy ride since then–55 more years, a thyroid tumor, another cancer. What a great ride. Why me and not Martha or J.J. or my brother? I’ve no clue. I can only accept it with thanks and look forward to the next dip, valley, swerve, or climb.

  • Libby Belle’s comment was the tipping point about the parent and surviving children. Now I am sobbing. My Louisiana daughter-in-law Katie lost a childhood friend in an automobile accident when they were in college, different colleges, different states.

    The families were Gilbert Street close. My son Jeremy and Katie’s wedding was around the time of the anniversary of the friend’s death, a time Katie fell apart every year. Instead, in the midst of the wedding rituals, she and Jeremy executed a simple plan they had decided upon to remember the friend who would have been there for Katie. Together they placed a white rose at the front of the sanctuary. It was a special huddling moment.

  • Sheryl Link

    I loved reading these two posts, Ruth. It’s wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time to return to the old neighborhood and find out what’s happened so many years later. I have my 40th high school reunion coming up this summer, and I’m a bit frightened and unsure of going. Things inevitably change…and not always the way we want them to.

  • I enjoyed reading both of these posts, especially the after version. Although there have been heartaches, the bond of sharing life on Gilbert Street has carried you through. As a corporate wife who followed her husband around the South, I don’t have a Gilbert Street.

  • Nothing softens death’s blow, but love and companionship makes it bearable. You write beautifully and you say fuck in all the right places.

  • How sad to see that you have lost some of your friends. This all makes me wish I lived in a neighborhood like that where everyone knows each other, supports each other, and are friends.

  • I loved both of these posts, Ruth. You brought the universal feel of life and lost. Most of us have a “Gilbert Street,” whether in our distant past as children as mine is or as it was for you, raising your children. I can also empathize with how you felt at a funeral for such a young person. I hadn’t been to one of those in a long time, but my husband and I attended one last night, for the 39-year-old daughter of a friend. While she wasn’t as young, she was still young and there’s always that feeling of what they didn’t get to do in life.

  • You spoke to me. To all of us. Going back. The old neighborhood. Our kids. A poignant piece.

  • This post reminded me that I need to finish my novel about the neighborhood in France where I lived for 20 years.

  • J.J.’s death caught me by surprise. Doesn’t it always? I’ve never lived in a place where the neighborhood was close like that, and than you for sharing the bittersweet experiences your neighborhood/family shared.

  • What a lovely tribute to your neighborhood, then and now. I lived in a place like that once, but have totally lost contact with everyone of the people we used to spend hours with playing board games, dancing and talking. Our neighborhood is nothing like that now – I couldn’t even tell you the names of most of my neighbors. So sorry about JJ but lovely that you had good stories to share.

  • What a beautiful post~
    You’re lucky to still have connections with your neighborhood. So often, people just move on and lose touch.

  • sharing grief with friends does lighten the burden and the harshness of it — and, as Libby points out above, it is a continuing situation, until those sunsrises become miracles once again. may seem like a cruel joke this close to loss, but it does happen, and freindship helps. glad all of you from Gilbert Street were able to share your friendship, and hope you continue to do so.

  • Reading through these posts–it’s both about capturing moments isn’t it and holding on to those.

  • It’s so true that anything can happen and life is completely unpredictable in tragic and joyous ways. I was just searching for photos for my son’s graduation board and open house invitation. So many of our friends and family are gone now.

    The life we’re living now will be the golden age at some point. Life is crazy and strange and lovely and sad.

  • That’s a lot of loss, Ruth, and laughs too, and isn’t that what life is all about: Building a network of support to celebrate the good stuff and to hold each other close during the terrible, dark days (and nights) when life seems cruel and unfair?

  • b condra Link

    Thanks…again, Ruth…for making me a better and more humble person. At 5:23 am my heart is aching with memories and how much I have personally changed since finding you…and the amazing comments of your dedicated followers. I was having a ‘moment’ and will seek some reflective rest after this beer which I raise in toast. Honest. What timing.

  • A lot of my neighborhood memories are hidden in my short stories. I spent my entire childhood in one home. How rare is that these days? Sometimes I even dream of little things like the bathroom, (we only had one!) the hall way, (that my mother painted an entire forest on) the coat closet (where I hid and made a hole in the wall so I could see into my brother’s room when he had a cute buddy over). Yes, the memories are priceless. We should all write a book together and share our stories. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

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