I’ll never forget the day I met my neighbor, Dick Parenteau. Deb and I had just moved in next door to him on Peirce Street with our young sons, Peter and Evan. As we emptied the moving van, the parade of boxes seemed endless, as did our to-do list. Oh, and Deb was four months pregnant.
The morning after the move, I took the boys across the street to the basketball court at Academy Field. As we walked back, Dick approached us in the police station parking lot, calling out hello in that strong, clear voice that would become so familiar to our ears. He said he had seen us moving in the day before, but didn’t want to bother us.
Over the next 16 years, I would discover that this was pure Dick. As a neighbor, he was always present and always considerate. The morning we met marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So what was Dick thinking on that first day? I never asked him, but I bet it was something like this: “Are these people out of their minds?” Deb and I bought the Rose Cottage with rose-colored glasses firmly in place; we had no idea of what we were getting into. But Dick sure did. He’d been living next door for years. He knew the plumbing would fail, which it did. He knew the roof would leak, as it did with every heavy rain. He knew the windows wouldn’t open, which they didn’t. He probably didn’t know that a family of possums would find its way into our basement via a hole in the foundation… but when they did, he wasn’t surprised.
A neighbor two doors down met us later that week and said, “Rose Cottage… Someone had to buy it.”
But Dick never passed judgment on our purchase, never said a word about our naivete. And as the contractors came and went, he was the constant: part foreman, part inspector, part peanut gallery, part therapist. “Look how far you’ve come!” he’d exclaim, finding the glass half-full, even in our ghastly kitchen. When our spirits sagged, he adjusted our focus: “How are the boys? How’s Juliana? You have a great family. I love your kids.”
And we loved Dick. In the 90s, he took Peter and Evan to the Patriots’ training camp at Bryant along with his grandson Rick. Years later, he summed up the day: “The boys watched Bledsoe; I watched the cheerleaders.” He helped Deb build out our gardens, planting trees, moving bushes, and setting up an elaborate watering system. Up before six every morning, he would grab the Providence Journal from our sidewalk and place it at our doorstep, and then walk down the street to do the same at the town library. When we went away on summer vacations, he organized our mail, made sure our houseplants survived, and dozed in the chaise on our front porch. We always came home to a house that was cool and serene: Dick had turned on the air conditioners and lights earlier in the day.
Most people knew Dick as the Mayor of Peirce Street, yelling at cars that ran the stop sign at Dedford Street; chiding the police and public works crews; saying hello to the stream of runners and walkers who all seemed to know him; telling people about the majestic elm that stood in front of his house – the one he said he would chain himself to if they ever tried to take it down.
But we also knew him as the kind neighbor who knocked on the door on Christmas morning to give our young children gifts and have a piece of Deb’s coffee cake before heading out to spend the day with his daughter Renee and his grandchildren. With his presents, white beard, and easy laugh, he was our belated Santa.
Dick and I both loved Peirce Street on Sunday afternoons in the summer – quiet and sun-dappled, with breezes washing through the trees. That’s when he would ask me if I was making the gravy. He knew it was my ritual, simmering a tomato sauce for Sunday dinner. He knew, because occasionally I’d need an onion. The first time it happened, I told Deb I was running out to the store, but she said to knock on Dick’s door; he would have one. Which, of course, he did. Months later, when I knocked seeking an onion yet again, Dick opened the door with one already in hand and a smile on his face. “Making gravy?”
Always present. Always considerate. Always helpful.
Some Sunday soon, I’ll need an onion, and Dick will be present again – in my thoughts as I drive to the store, remembering and missing a dear friend.