As to that age-old question: “What endures longest in the grim battle for sustaining our memory in the mental theater of what makes us well, US—
LOVE OR SPITE?” I would be inclined to decisively chock up a victory for spite.
For I witnessed a powerful example of it in an elderly widow lady in my neighborhood recently and found that it sums up the human condition aptly.
First allow me to back up and tell the background story.
As I came upon this lonely, slightly addle minded neighbor while walking my dog, I noticed that she was gazing very intently at my next-door neighbor, Edward’s, lawn. More than just eying it critically—she seemed to have outright contempt etched entirely over her countenance as she caste a withering glare on the yard and landscaping situation of my next-door neighbor.
After startling her slightly by my abrupt greeting, she turned towards me and promptly stated her opinion on the condition of my neighbor’s lawn in no uncertain terms.
I should note that this was a lady slipping steadily into some form of dementia and who quickly would forget conversations and names and associations; often with having to repeat the same information over again—“So what is your dog’s name?” Her decline was unmistakable. Living alone as a widow only exacerbated her condition.
But of course, the whole gossiping network of our sleepy lower middle-class neighborhood knew this. For some, it constituted their favorite pastime and hobby—commenting on the latest weird thing that Betty was seen doing.
“Did you see her standing on one foot while holding up her tea kettle?”
“Did you see Betty weave around on her feet like she was drunk in the middle of the road?”
“Just today I saw Betty throw trash in Sara’s petunia patch. We should report her.”
On and on the speculation and gossip swirled.
Indeed, the raised concerns for our neighbor Betty’s mental health and bleak future, seemed to have long ago descended past healthy sincerity and struck a pettier, false note as if from a Stepford Wives movie as watchful spouses vied to root out all manner of eccentricity and anything that might bring down overall property value to the neighborhood.
But I always kind of liked Betty. I wouldn’t want to live with her of course or be her lawn service professional, but overall, she was much calmer now and was a delightful presence in greeting me consistently outside with the same quires about how my dog was doing.
In fact, she was the most consistently kind person for just “how’s the weather?” chit chat by a long shot on the entire block.
I mean who cares if I always had to repeat the age of my dog and his name over and over again?
Given her age and solititude, coupled with her diminishing independence, I figured a little compassion was in order.
But when it came to my next-door neighbor Edward and the state of his lawn and landscaping, Betty was clear as a bell and unrelenting.
And the sad thing was, though Edward could be very cranky and stand-offish himself, he had just recently done a very kind act for Betty that same very week she had cast judgement regarding the state of his property.
On Valentine’s Day, he had taken time out of his schedule to take Betty out for dinner at her favorite Chinese Restaurant. It was as proud as I have ever been of Edward.
My wife and I too had taken Betty out to the same place a year earlier. It was the least we could do.
I’ll never forget her reaction. She had even hugged the waiter when she got there, so glad was she to be out in public again.
And like I said, Edward’s good deed of taking Betty out had occurred just a week before.
And when I pointed out how nice Edward had recently been, Betty could only draw a blank and say that she had no memory of being taken out for Chinese food by Edward.
In fact, she doubted that this same man had done anything of the kind for her as it sounded most unlikely.
The only thing her mind was registering was that she did NOT approve of Edward’s lawn and felt it was a real inconvenience that his property was so shabby and positioned right across the street from hers.
She was quite plainly on a roll and could not be dissuaded.
But our neighborhood was full of critical chain reactions—privately and not so privately. For that same Edward had caste many an aspersion on our many weeds in our yard in the previous months. And he had more than implied that the greenery we gazed upon was mostly fraudulent when it came to our lawn.
And for some lucky reason, Betty picked on Edward’s lawn but was surprisingly full of praise for ours, even for the slightest thing we did like laying down one bag of new mulch around a plant.
And we in turn, despised Edward’s trees that reached over too far across our yard.
This caused Edward to despise the way we trimmed his arching branches without asking him first. More resentment formed when Edward was seen brazenly walking on to our property to scoop up the fallen branches from his tree that we had trimmed.
And Sara hated the way Betty dropped trash and sticks in her yard. And Betty and Loretta distrusted our old dying Maple Tree that posed a threat to dropping heavy branches on their parked cars.
Egg shells were walked under with every shaky alliance on our block.
And it is also SO true, that If you LIVE BY THAT GAME of endlessly stacking yourself up against others, YOU WILL ALSO DIE BY THAT GAME.
And you will die looking over your shoulder and wondering what others were saying about you outside of earshot.
You were just dying to know.
The line is very fine and unforgiving in this kind of world view. Suffer one setback, incur one bad drought, and suddenly your best bridge playing friends may suddenly stop inviting you over for coffee.
All the more reason to grow old in a fuzzy, friendly haze rather than a precise, crystal clear vendetta against the world around you.
But our Betty stands as a great example of how wickedly effective having a beef or vendetta can be in terms of fueling your memory and reason to live longer.
Good deeds such as taking someone out for lunch can be quickly shuffled to the back of the cranium when it comes to good old fashion bile and resentment being aroused live and in person.
The stubbornly aging brain of the senior citizen can ask “what have you done for me lately?” while old feuds continue to be nursed.
And of course, personality traits tend to stay the course throughout it all. If you like complaining you’re going to rely on it even more in your golden days.
And I would venture to say that somewhere, in every corner of every suburban mailing address, there is another forgetful Betty type vividly being reminded about something that galls her while erasing all recollections of a nice lunch out.
Spite wins again–game set and match over love.