WE SAID GOODBYE to Arthur Holmberg this week, our next-door neighbor of 29 years. He was the last of the four “grandparents” we found living on either side of us when we moved to Rhode Island in 1986. Without them, our gals wouldn’t have had a family elder living within 300 miles of us.
The years speed by and the changes they bring surprise us, as if our time is elapsing out of sight somehow, not right under our noses. Arthur’s wife, Elsie, finished her journey on Earth, then Rusty, then Rusty’s husband, Frank, not quite a year ago, and now, Arthur.
Arthur in the 50s, home from Korea.
Swedes are everywhere in our neighborhood, Eden Park. Some call it Sweden Park. Arthur’s people were born in Sweden, and, as fate would have it, he fell for a woman born there. I loved listening to her accent.
Elsie had that girl-next-door quality.
And dig it, she could do the Hollywood siren look as well. Is this Monroe & DiMaggio or am I seeing things?
Elsie Holmberg and Rusty LaFleur were such good friends I put stairs on the embankment side of our front lawn, so they could cut across the yard to visit each other instead of walking out in the street.
Arthur and Frank were pals, too. When Elsie and Rusty were gone, their widowers had that tough life experience in common. Arthur and Frank started going out to dinner once a week at a restaurant they liked in Warwick, the next city over. They helped see each other into their eighth and final decades in the world.
A color view of young Elsie and Arthur from the Wayback Machine. All these photos here are courtesy of Arthur’s sons, Craig and Steve, and Craig’s wife, Sandy.
Don’t let this spiffy Arthur fool you, he was a working man, a boiler man, proud to get his hands dirty. He worked with asbestos, often high atop downtown buildings. His lungs were good right up to the end, though. Maybe because he never compounded the asbestos hazard by picking up the smoking habit so common to his generation.
He painted houses in his retirement, meticulous about the quality of his work. He was comfortable on ladders and scaffolding and took the time to work safely. Whenever he saw me working 30 feet up on my scaffolding here at the humble manse he’d come over and safety-wire all the planks in place.
Like Frank to the south of us, Arthur to the north was a caring man, a gentle man, a gentleman. His default setting was one of good cheer. It was that way before and, eventually, after his family went through unexpected sorrow, the kind that can destroy lives and relationships. Arthur and Elsie lost their daughter, Lisa, in her early adulthood. Imagine the core strength of character it takes to not come out a ruined human being on the other side of that. Imagine the love it takes.
Everyone who knew Arthur remembers him this way. He was happy to see you.
At his memorial service this week, at the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter, a line from the past popped into my head. Mrs. Turner would say it at every opportunity. She may have taught me the only thing I learned in high school that was really worth knowing: “You are the captain of your ship, the master of your fate.”
Someone who’s deeply missed when they’re gone, they decided to live that sort of life. Others choose to be the old pain in the ass bitching about this, bitching about that, nothing’s any good anymore, wasn’t that good to begin with, blah blah…
Here’s to Captain Arthur Holmberg for being the kind of man who will absolutely be missed. I hope he knew we’d all remember him well; that such an awareness was somehow possible, despite that Alzheimer’s was at the awful thing it does, slowly disappearing the man we knew.
I close with a photo I snapped a few months ago, apropos of nothing, just because it spoke to me. It did again the other day, when I learned that Arthur, at 86, had gone off into the Mystery that awaits us all, the somewhere, the nowhere, don’t ask me.
The stairs I put in for Elsie and Rusty are long gone. These others, I built them for Frank, because he liked to toss his newspaper on our porch after reading it. His knees were bad. This little shortcut from his back yard to our front yard was there to shave a few paces off the walk.
This summer the steps started to fill in, now that nobody walks on them anymore. I thought of demolishing them, then I thought, Nah, Frank’s steps. In years to come I’ll let the garden finish what it started. We’ll think of Frank every time we look over that way.
The point, of course, you already know. The path we leave on the ground doesn’t last much longer than we do. The path we walk through the lives of others, that won’t ever change at all.
Tony DePaul, October 16, 2015, Cranston, Rhode Island, USA