This essay in honor of my late friend and neighbor originally appeared in Wolf Moon Journal in 2004.
I was under my wife Beth’s VW, changing the oil, when I heard the slow crunch of gravel at the end of the driveway. A moment I had been dreading had come—the stranger from across the street had finally crossed the road.
It was the fall of 1977, and as naive first-time homebuyers in a market of rapidly rising mortgage rates, we’d bought the second house we looked at. The sellers briefly mentioned the people living across the road, describing them as being a grumpy old couple with whom they had a sparse and strained relationship.
Their comments, coupled with our harried attempt to get the house into livable condition before winter, had left little incentive to make the first move. Now, that option was being taken from me.
I finished the oil change before sliding out to look at the person who had been standing patiently beside the car. I had to admit what I saw didn’t look terribly menacing. The man looking down had an overly large nose, thinning white hair, glasses and hands that had seen their share of hard work.
I stammered, filling the growing silence with bits and pieces of personal history: who we were, where we worked, etc. All I got in return was “I’m Sam Morrison.” I managed to continue the one-sided conversation for about fifteen minutes before Sam nodded and walked back across the road to the neat two story house that sat between the road and a massive power line stretching eastward toward Windsor.
As Sam had uttered less than ten words during the entire conversation, there was no way for me to tell whether or not he truly was the grumpy soul the previous owners had described. I went back to worrying about our new home’s lack of insulation and drafty windows, but developed the habit of nodding or waving whenever I saw Sam across the road, and he usually raised his chin or hand in acknowledgment.
One day in November, Sam introduced me to his son Maynard. In the course of our conversation, I learned Sam had retired the year before from the V.A. hospital and that his supposed grumpiness was really a natural taciturnity—the kind people from away believe lurks in the heart of every true Mainer. I also realized that Sam was at loose ends, and retirement was boring him to death.
Sam’s wife, Edna, had a delightful pessimism about nearly everything and a tendency to talk about her husband as though he were among the recently departed. It took a while to adjust to this. Watching Sam’s grin as Edna discussed him in the third person, past tense, made it easy for me to be in league with him, egging her on about nearly everything in town from corrupt selectmen to the awful condition of the road that separated our houses.
When winter arrived, I turned to one of my favorite pursuits, ice fishing. On a whim, I invited Sam to join me. Within a month, Sam’s family had outfitted him with new traps, a sled, and a pack basket, and we were out on the ice every weekend. During the remainder of the winter, I learned a valuable skill, that of being comfortable around someone who seldom spoke, and I gained a friendship that grew until Sam became the father-figure that had been missing from my life for a long time.
When spring came and brooks began running normally, Sam and I would hop into my truck after supper and head off to see how many trout we could fool. He never had to tell me how he felt about these trips, the grin on his face as he dropped several fat fish in his kitchen sink when we returned was all I needed to know.
The backyard of our new home was a disaster. It began about three feet from the kitchen window and consisted of a decaying pigsty, large rocks, and a bumper crop of burdocks. I was determined to tame this mess and spent endless hours digging and sifting to remove broken glass and rusty nails from the slowly shrinking wilderness.
Sam, an inveterate gardener himself, developed the habit of walking slowly across the road after supper each evening and sitting on a convenient rock. He watched and listened, lending a hand as needed as I chatted about everything that came to mind. We made a good team—Sam, the willing listener and I, the endless talker.
Like most Maine gardeners, Sam raised a set group of vegetables each year. I, on the other hand, was wont to try at least one new one each year. As the harvest progressed each summer, homegrown treats passed from one side of Route 226 to the other, enhanced by strawberries, both wild and cultivated as well as raspberries and blueberries from our family farm in Union.
My mother, a garden writer for the Camden Herald, met Sam on several occasions and did a feature story on Sam and his fifty years of garden experience. Despite being a man of few words, there was little doubt regarding the pleasure Sam got from the experience of seeing his picture in the newspaper.
Sam Morrison really didn’t need words to define his life. His deeds told a far better story. Whenever I found I didn’t have the necessary tool to fix something, I trudged across the road and borrowed Sam’s. For almost fifteen years, we shared his carefully maintained rototiller, and whenever I was too harried to get the driveway cleared before we had to leave for work, Sam found time to get the plow drifts out of the way so we could get our cars safely off the street when we returned after work.
Beth will never forget the day I was at work and one of the hoses on the washer let go. Since the washing machine was in the kitchen, the potential for disaster was immense. Sam was on the scene immediately, turning off the valve and returning momentarily with a replacement hose that he just happened to have hanging in his storage shed.
When Sam began to succumb to the infirmities that come with being eighty-something, I was able to return some of the endless favors he had bestowed upon us over the years. With each mailbox cleared or roof I shoveled off during the winter came a small spark of satisfaction that comes with paying back spontaneous generosity.
When Sam began begging off going fishing, I knew something was wrong. Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with cancer. That summer, the tilled plot behind his house was a sorry collection of green. His family tried to have the kind of garden that Sam tended each year, but none of them had inherited the knack, and Sam was too tired to remedy it.
The nightly walk across the road became much harder. There is a terrible sadness that accompanies watching someone you care deeply about fade away. When his cancer became too much for the family to manage, Sam went to the Maine Veteran’s home. The last time I went to see him, he waved me off, almost as if he didn’t want me to see what he had become. Sam died on Sept. 18, 1994. I was humbled and grateful to be one of his pallbearers.
Ice fishing lost its lure the following winter. It wasn’t the same without Sam sitting on a sunny spot on the shore of one of our favorite spots, sharing a sandwich and a thermos of coffee. He had taught me the meaning of companionable silence, but it takes two for the experience, and I was now a solo act.
The following spring, I wondered if gardening would have lost the same appeal, but soldiered on anyway. Once my garden was tilled and the seeds were in, I discovered something both wonderful and unsettling. Late in the evening, when the sky had faded to dusky purple and the still air was broken with the soft, but sharp twee of bats, I began to catch an image out of the corner of my eye. Whenever I turned to look at it, it would be gone, but the sense that Sam had returned to sit on the stone wall and visit while I weeded or cultivated persisted. It was strangely comforting. After a while, I began talking like Sam had never left. After all, he had always been such a great listener. Why would his ghost be any different?
Over the next nine years, our daughters grew, I changed jobs, we survived the great ice storm, and Sam’s wife Edna died. My trips across the road happened only when Maynard stopped to mow the lawn or work on the house he was trying to sell. Sam, however, continued to appear just beyond my direct line of sight while I was gardening.
We sold the house in June of 2003 and moved to Hartland. I made arrangements with the seller to plant a garden at the new place before we closed so I wouldn’t lose an entire growing season. We made an immediate connection, and she told me that the back yard was full of spirits who enhanced the success of anything planted there.
Our first harvest led me to believe she was right. We had the best squash crop in ten years and ate strawberries until the first week of November. I saw no ghosts, but had an almost spiritual sense several times while working in the gardens near dusk.
When spring arrived this year, I looked forward to another successful gardening season. Cold damp weather quashed those dreams early on, leaving only a bumper crop of damp, heavy grass that sometimes took a full week before it was completely tamed by the mower.
One evening, as I was trying to finish the last bit of lawn and found myself mowing around fireflies, I looked up and froze. There in the shadows was a familiar shape—Sam’s ghost. It took him a year to find our new home.
I’ve seen or sensed his presence several times since that evening. Somehow, it makes this place a bit more like home.