When I saw the obituary, my initial reaction was surprise. A nanosecond later, guilt.
It was somewhat surprising that I saw it at all. Perusing the obituaries isn’t a regular part of my morning routine. The news, the editorials, sports, features, weather — yes. Fixating on obituaries, however, has always struck me as being a tad ghoulish. I skim the page and, rarely seeing a familiar name, move on to other things.
But there she was, smiling from the page where none of us is in a rush to be: Anita N. Bader, 1920-2016.
One of the sweetest women I’ve ever known.
She was my favorite neighborhood mom, apart from my own, during my growing-up years. The guilt was over a voicemail she left several years ago. It had been decades since I’d heard from her. The voicemail asked me to return her call, but I got sidetracked and lost her number. I had every intention of tracking it down and calling her back but didn’t get around to it. One of those things you mean to do but don’t, and then it’s too late.
Mrs. Bader, as she was known to the neighborhood kids, had four kids of her own. Bill Bader — Billy in those days — was one of my three best friends in the neighborhood. She also had a daughter Michaele (pronounced Michael), a daughter Janie and a son Danny, the baby of the family.
The Baders lived in one of the neighborhood’s largest and nicest homes, on the corner of 25th and Lemp streets. It was rumored that Mr. Bader made $1,000 a month, an impressive sum in the mid-1950s. The average U.S. income was less than half of that. Whatever he was making, it was enough to be able to afford what was, for the neighborhood boys, one of the reasons for hanging out at the Baders’ house. Billy’s model train set was flat-out the nicest, most elaborate on the block, and most likely for blocks around.
We spent hours in his basement with all the lights turned off, mesmerized by the lights of the trains and the signals, the smoke, the whistles, the clatter of the trains on the tracks. Knowing how difficult it was for young boys to tear themselves away from that kind of enchantment, Mrs. Bader would bring us snacks and sandwiches to keep up our strength without missing any of the fun.
Occasionally she’d issue a dinner invitation. Dinner with the Baders qualified as an event. It meant not only sharing a meal with the wealthiest couple in the neighborhood, but sitting at the same table with beautiful Michaele, who was several years older and with whom all the neighborhood boys were hopelessly infatuated. And on at least one occasion, it was the setting for an incident that, had it been caught on camera today, would have been a sure winner on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
The main course that night was lima beans and ham, served from a large kettle in the center of the dinner table. Dinner was just getting started when the family dog, a cocker spaniel named Sandy, leaped from a sitting start on the kitchen floor into the lima beans. It was rather graceful, actually, a perfect arc from the floor to the main course, ending with a clunk, a splash and beans flying everywhere.
Mr. Bader was furious, but his wife took it in stride. I think she might even have laughed a little. And in years to come, Sandy’s belly flop into the lima beans was laughed at countless times in the old neighborhood.
The Baders were unique in the neighborhood in belonging to Hillcrest Country Club. None of the other neighbors could have afforded such a thing. Howard Snyder might briefly have belonged to Ducks Unlimited, in the faint hope that it would allow him to bag an unlimited number of mallards. Roy Moore belonged to the Bartenders Association, and several of the neighbors belonged to bowling leagues. None of them would have dreamed of joining a country club. It was about as likely as one of them attending the G8 Summit.
For friends of the Bader kids, however, the country club was a summer jackpot. Mrs. Bader would load us into the family car, a DeSoto if memory serves, and treat us to an afternoon at the country club pool — a far cry from the noisy, crowded public pool to which we were accustomed. It was beautiful, the people who frequented it were beautiful, and Mrs. Bader invariably sprang for country club delicacies for all of us. It was there, I think, that I came to understand the difference between the haves and the have-nots.
That’s not to say that she was a snob. Far from it. She was friendly to everyone — on good terms with all of the neighborhood women, a second mom to a lot of the neighborhood kids. The Baders lived in Utah after leaving Idaho, and it was no surprise to learn from her obituary that she was voted Utah Mother of the Year in 1986.
She didn’t even get mad when I knocked Billy’s front teeth through his lip. We were playing baseball in his back yard. He was pitching; I hit a line drive that hit him in the face with a sickening smack and sent him to the hospital. I felt terrible about it and was certain I’d be punished, but aside from a few moments of panic, Mrs. Bader couldn’t have been nicer. She even hired me to water the family’s lawn when they left for a week’s vacation later that summer, paid me the unheard-of sum of $15 for doing it, and complimented me in front of the other moms by saying “the grass grew a foot while Woody (my childhood nickname) was taking care of it.”
She had her share of heartache during her life, losing both her husband and two of her children too soon, but remained a cheerful, positive force. Ninety-six when she died, she was the last of the moms from the old neighborhood. Mrs. Hally, Mrs. Robertson, Mrs. Moore, my mother, all gone now.
Her passing reminded me of a survey of elderly people who were asked what they regretted about their lives. Very few said they regretted things they’d done. Almost all said they regretted things they hadn’t done.
Not returning her call is something I regret. Now I’ll always wonder what she wanted. We tend to let months and years go by, thinking there will always be time to return the call, mend the fence, set things right ... later. Chances are there won’t be. Quicker than we realize, later is too late.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.