Uncommon Neighbors

by Audrey McCollum | 7/31/01 5:00am

A bluebird alighted on our terrace one afternoon this spring. He perched where Bob, my husband, and I had shared hours of intimate conversation with Half and Susanne Zantop, our beloved next-door neighbors.

Forest dwellers in Papua New Guinea, a Pacific nation in which we have often traveled, believe that birds embody spirits of the dead. Could it be? Could that mystical idea hold truth? We have never been visited by a bluebird before during our 19 years in Etna, New Hampshire.

The lovely bird hasn't returned. Nor will our cherished friends.

About one decade ago, we played a small part in their becoming neighbors. Tom and Katharine Almy, who had built the Trescott Road house with attention to every detail, regretfully decided to sell, but only to people who seemed just right. We knew that Half and Susanne, whose daughters had grown up in Hanover and moved elsewhere for their higher education, wanted a more rural home. We arranged an introduction, and the Almys and Zantops all found what they were seeking.

"We're going to transplant our currant bushes," Susanne exulted as moving day drew close. We saw a storm cloud gathering. The Zantops relished gooseberry jam and currant jelly; they made their own preserves. But our adjacent woodlands included dense stands of white pine. Currants and gooseberries are hosts to a fungus that causes white pine blister rust and slowly kills the conifers.

We voiced our concern, watching with dismay as Susanne's smile faded, and then provided them with documentation from the U.S. Forest Service. There was no debate.

"We don't want to harm the environment," Susanne declared, and her high spirits were restored when she and Half found a foster home for their shrubs on the property of friends where no white pines grew within the mandated 900 feet. They enjoyed their preserves; we all enjoyed the luxuriant pines and the birds they sheltered.

Watching their bird feeder outside the living room window, we learned the delight of seeing finches and grosbeaks and song sparrows really close at hand. Until then, when we had vacationed in the wilderness, I had always spotted the branch where a special bird had just been. My life list of birds-almost-seen-but-actually-missed was awesome.

Half and Susanne inspired us to set up a feeder of our own, and also to take it into the house at dusk to elude our neighborhood bear. They had provided unexpected entertainment at one dinner party when a black bear brought down their feeder with a monumental crash and sped off into the darkness while Half uttered German epithets.

We shared an aversion to adventitious noise. When we all became aware of an intrusive early morning hum, Half followed it through our tangled woodlands. In the adjacent Dartmouth meadow, he discovered biology students at a jerry-built field station lacking enclosures to baffle the sound of their motor. We emulated his polite but firm e-mail protest to the appropriate faculty member.

Half admired Bob's electric mower, with its muted whir. And he knew that in the warmer months, I saw therapy clients with my office door open to the meadow, or sat on the terrace writing. So he phoned.

"I need to use my chain saw for about an hour," he would say. "Is there a time when it would not disturb you too much?" Of course I found such times.

Other calls, going both ways, were about sightings: a doe with two tiny fawns; a flock of wild turkeys browsing in our meadow; a sinister fisher cat. Or news of an impending meteor shower.

The pottery urn outside our front door was a repository where Half would leave an article about global warming or return a tennis tape. Keen tennis players all, we followed the major tournaments in the press. Bob and I taped some to watch during the evening, and when the Zantops' countrywoman, Steffi Graf, played a thrilling match, we offered the tape next-door.

"Thank you, it is so kind," Half would say, "but I have student papers to grade. "

"I have to work on a translation," Susanne would add. "But, well -- maybe just the finals."

"Oh, take the tape and then decide," I often said. They always did watch and return the tape promptly. Just in case.

The standards of excellence they imposed on themselves weighed heavily. We often coaxed them over for a swim in the languorous waters of our solar-heated pool. After a few lengths in a smooth breast stroke ("all German children learn that first," Susanne said), they would float while our conversation drifted across our lives, recapturing memories, venting worries, celebrating triumphs -- until our skins were wrinkled like prunes from the paradoxical dehydration that long immersion produces. Then we would gather where the bluebird later perched.

V&F. Gonzalez pale dry sherry was their drink; with it they savored goat cheese, a pate of white beans, garlic and lemon and Smokehouse almonds. I slid those in front of Susanne, who gradually gave up a pretense of restraint. With her puckish grin, she would simply scarf those nuts.

From her garden, Susanne brought scarlet tomatoes with bizarre clefts and bulges.

"That one's a grumpy old man," she'd say with crinkling eyes. "Or maybe a troll." She might go home with a bouquet of our exuberant tarragon. Or Veronica. When its cobalt spires bloomed in June, the Zantops always came over. Their cherished elder daughter is named Veronika.

The sadness and horror stirred by their tragic murder on January 27th darkened the winter and spring. When we learned that their house, emptied, cleaned, repainted, was being offered for sale, we needed to say goodbye. It felt unbearable to go alone so we asked a kind Hanover policeman, Sargeant Michael Evans, to walk us over during an off-duty hour.

"I'd be happy to do that for you," he immediately said. Soon after seven one Sunday morning, when we were confident we would be alone, we made that journey. Halfway down their driveway I paused, overwhelmed by longing to have them back. Then we kept on trudging, noticing Susanne's drying rack, Half's woodpile and the luxuriant hostas crowding the walk. Step by reluctant step we went to the door, hoping that Half would fling it open and greet us with a hug. This time he didn't. So, in turn, we peered through the glass panel and saw emptiness. Stark emptiness. They were truly gone.

We paid respects to the tranquil frog pond, the peonies going to seed, the vegetable garden lying fallow. Then, as we turned back, Bob saw the bluebird house half hidden among the trees.

Could that have been the early spring home of the bird we saw? Had a bluebird once sheltered by the Zantops decided to visit us as he, too, passed on to another realm?