Issue December 11, 2012

Morbid milestones and magnificent memories

In the span of four months this past summer, five former neighbors of the 16-home block where I grew up in Barbourmeade died. Bryan Sumner, 83, of Cape Canaveral, Fla. — the father of my first best friend — was the first to fall, on June 1. On July 5, Ruth Ann Fox, 79, the matriarch of a house two doors from his, passed at a Jeffersonville nursing home. The next day, July 6, Anna Karle, 80, her next-door friend of decades, died at the Episcopal Church Home. We lost Corky Raible, 83, on Aug. 4, after an extended illness. And on Sept. 20, Kent Poling’s life was cut short at 52.

My heart is filled with sorrow and gratitude for the privileged place and time we shared. Ours was a new neighborhood, our parents were young and we were all close. Ours was an extended family, with block parties, bridge tournaments, backyard barbecues, and driveway hoops. We were often outside — walking, bicycling, hiking in the woods — and discovering one another.

My parents’ Derby parties feted the industries that built this city: hospitality, horses and booze. Almost everybody’s folks (except mine) smoked.

It was an era of shared experience and fewer distractions. There were four TV networks and no social networks. Reality wasn’t a bogus show; it’s what we lived. There was such a thing as undivided attention. People were more present in every moment. A family dined together and shared a landline. When the phone rang, we answered it. Before texting became the preferred form of misunderstanding, we comfortably conveyed thoughts and feelings instantly, with our voices. Family, friends and neighbors were more meaningfully connected then.

When my father died in 1972, it wasn’t just a family tragedy; it was a local tragedy. Four decades later, earlier this year, my life span exceeded his.

I’m grateful when mothers and fathers live long enough to know their children as adults.

And I grieve with my friends who are spending their first holidays without Mom or Dad. It’s a deeply shared loss. In the 1960s and ’70s on that cozy block bounded by Coronado Drive, Springlake Drive, Breeland Avenue and Oldgate Road, all our parents led the village it took to raise us. Back then, adults properly corrected others’ children as a civic duty. Some now consider it an act of war.

I have vivid, precious memories of the five who died. They were the celebrities who made Barbourmeade one great neighborhood.

One last remembrance of another fallen star. Phyllis Diller, pioneering comic genius, died Aug. 20 at age 95. Hers was the frazzled face of Louisville-based Paramount Foods, so she was here quite often in the late 1970s. I was overnighting at a friend’s house when we heard she was a few doors down, entertaining at a party, which we summarily crashed.

I’ve never laughed so hard.

She actually asked me — a teenager — “Hey, big spender. Is that a pickle in your pants or are ya’ just happy to see me?” Onlookers laughed as I blushed and collapsed. When I arose and approached her for a hug, she thrust her gloved-hand forward and barked, “Keep your distance, kid; you’re too old for me — and put that thing away!”

I suspect she was on her fifth dirty martini.

I’ve always wondered if her one-liners were rehearsed. They seemed spontaneous. Regardless, she was on a raucous roll that lasted as long as our welcome, which expired when we were busted swilling serial cocktails.

She was brilliant and witty and charming and stunning.

I think that was during the blizzard of ’78, which brings me to the last reason I love my time and place. We had tons of snow — and tons of snow days. We rejoiced as WHAS-11 aired school cancellations to “Bellavia,” a song by Chuck Mangione. He wrote it in 1976 as a tribute to his graceful mother, who has since died.

No other music transports me back to the carefree snowy winters of my charmed and tragic youth — and to my beloved neighbors.

Adulthood is too big; I wanna go back.

“Rosebud” indeed.