Tuesday, November 24, 2009

At the House of the Friendly Neighbors

Once upon a time, my mom, who's a retired social worker, used to run a program called the Waikiki Friendly Neighbors. The program coordinated volunteers to assist the sick and the elderly in Waikiki (that would be Hawaii...for anyone who wondered)...especially those who lived in high rises (which is pretty much all there is in deep, downtown Waikiki) and couldn't easily get out and around. Just before the end of my sophomore year in high school, in 1987, my parents bought their very first home...which began the era of bringing a some of the "friendly neighbor" spirit to our house every Thanksgiving. I can't even tell you what year my parents started their big Thanksgiving celebrations, but whenever it was, from that year on, we would have a house full of people. Every year, there was Barbara, one of my mom's volunteers who was a Vietnam era nurse who was, permanently injured in the war, but still gave her own time to help others who were even less mobile than she was and there was Mildred, a beautiful little elderly southern belle, who had, for reasons I don't recall, ended up in Hawaii all alone, with no family and would travel with Barbara up to our house every year. There were also many friends...sometimes mine, or my sister's, or my mom and dad's...often military people stationed in Hawaii and far away from the rest of their family. We'd come together...my dad would make a gargantuan turkey and all kinds of fixings on the side...smashed taters...delicious Filipino dishes like lumpia and pancit...his favorite Greek salad...and each guest would be asked to bring something with them...a side dish or dessert...and we would EAT for hours. I'm talking "have to let out the button and the zipper on your jeans" eating where, when you were done you felt like rolling yourself into a corner and sleeping for the next week.

Of the many different souls who gathered at our house for Thanksgiving, there's one who I will always remember. Her name was Florence Austin...she was a client of my mom's program and...a little firecracker. She had to have been in her late 80's when I first met her...that first Thanksgiving where we were lucky enough to have her join us. The thing I remember the most was that sparkle...the little twinkle in her eye that let you know that even though she might have looked old and sometimes frail, that inside there was the mind and the spirit of a young soul. She was the kind of person who always saw the brighter side in life and who would never let you get down in the dumps about what was going on in your life. It was her outlook on life that amazed and touched me the most...because you see...

Florence had originally come to Hawaii with her husband, John Austin in the 1940's. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor and was assigned to the USS Oklahoma...and was on board the day the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. Chief Austin went down with the boat when it sank...but had made it out safely. Rather than only save himself, he went back into the ship...saving 15 other men...and never made it back out.

After his death, Florence...who was left a widow with two young sons, spent many years traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard of the US working in hotels as a housekeeper to support her little family. I honestly don't know when she went back to Hawaii, but in her later life, once her sons were grown, she moved back...to be close to the man she loved and had lost long ago. Florence hadn't lived an easy life...but I'd have never known. She was the kind of person who rarely had a bad thing to say...about anything. Whenever she'd call the house to talk to my mom, I'd always be greeted with a sunny little "Oh hi honey, this is just old Florence". She'd ask about how school was going...and urge me to do well and tell me that I'd "better be a good girl and finish college." If I'd heard from my mom that she was unwell, like the year she broke her hip, I'd ask her how she was feeling...and she'd brush it off, telling me "oh, honey, I'll be fine and back on my feet really soon."...and she was too. There was no such thing as keeping this little lady down. She walked all over Waikiki...strolling along with her walker...riding the city bus to get where she wanted to go, even after the hip break. I lucked out this morning and happened upon a picture of Florence from 1998, with her ever present walker...

She'd been attending a conference on hospice and elder rights. I don't know her exact age in this picture, but if I'm right, she was in her late 90's...and she passed away within the next year...though she outlived my dad, who was at least 30 years younger than her, by about 6 months.

I'll never forget those Thanksgivings gatherings...those years of being the "friendly neighbor" and sharing a special day with so many different people..and I am grateful that I got to know Florence and her beautiful spirit. Now that I have my own little family, I hope to build some new, lasting Thanksgiving memories of my very own.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving and I hope you get to spend it making memories with your family!


  1. Aw, Alyssa... that sounds so special!! So glad you have those memories and Florence sounds like she was such a wonderful person. Thanks for sharing!

  2. WOW! That's so lovely! My family on my mom's side is huge, so we were never lacking for people gathered around the table, but now that we're out here in TX just us, I'm wishing for the big Holiday gathering. I think we'll just be making our own special memories! Thanks a bunch for sharing such a great story!


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