Sunday, January 07, 2007

My Friend, My Neighbor, Tom

As we make our ways through the world, our lives often have several simultaneous orbits. We have our family world, our work world, our school world. When we become parents, the number of orbits increase. We add in the orbits of our children's worlds. Sometimes our orbits align with other people's orbits for a long time. Sometimes not.

There are people in our lives that we know through a certain context, a certain orbit, and what we know of them is only what fits into that context. We don't know about all of their other orbits. They don't know about ours.

When I first moved into the city, I rented the upstairs apartment of a duplex owned by a friend of a friend. My social life, to a great extent, ended up intertwined with that of my landlord's. We had a little crowd that hung out together. We went to the same parties. We were in and out of each others' lives. That was the context in which I met Tom. He was the boyfriend, soon to be husband, of Maria. He was a carpenter. A master carpenter. A true craftsman. He was a gentle soul, a genuinely nice guy. Maria was an artist, offbeat, wacky, and also wonderful. They got married. Another couple in our little gang got married. My landlord got married and moved out of state. I bought my own little house around the corner. The little group of friends stayed in touch, but with less and less frequency.

Tom and Maria divorced. I saw more of Maria (especially since she became romantically involved with the friend who had been my original introduction to the group). I saw less of Tom.

I started taking ceramics classes at Fleisher.
Tom was an assistant teacher. I learned that not only was he a master carpenter, but he was incredibly skilled at the potters wheel. Tom made pots - huge, gigantic pots. Pots that I could never have had the strength to throw (if I could throw, which I never quite got the hang of). For the next few years, off and on, I took ceramics classes and Tom was always there - helping to teach throwing, and constantly working on improving the ceramics studio - building shelving, cabinets, whatever carpentry needed to be done.

In 2000, we bought our house and got married. Our new house turned out to be around the corner from the home of Tom and his new wife, Pat. Shortly after our wedding, Tom and Pat dropped off a wedding present - one of Tom's fabulous pots. It graced our front window for a while, until it was replaced by Christmas decorations. Somehow the pot never quite made it back to the window. I think it will soon, though.

Now I got to know Tom as a neighbor. He was a regular officiant in the local bocce league at the corner park. He was a mainstay of the community garden and the keeper of the waiting list. After six years, last summer we made it to the top of the list. While waiting though, we still made use of the garden; the sandbox, the picnic tables beneath the pergola built by Tom and of course, the fort, built by Tom. Even as Tom became ill, he was always working on projects for the neighborhood. He was also always quick with a hello and willing to stop and chat.

As Tom constantly undertook tasks to improve the neighborhood, he was also always working on his house and his blue van. When one of his lintels cracked, he found marble and then aged it to match the existing lintels before replacing it. He designed screens that fit over his cellar door perfectly, and painted them bright blue to match the cellar door. Just this summer, he installed wood paneling inside the ancient van. So I grew to know Tom as strong and resourceful and always working.

Although his physical appearance betrayed the ravages of the cancer and chemotherapy - his demeanor never did. Life was never about Tom the patient. It was always about Tom the friend, Tom the neighbor, and the next project.

JR is not comfortable with adults he doesn't know, and he was always reticent with Tom. Tom was okay with that. He was always friendly and attentive, but never pushed. We would see him on the street, in front of his house, in the garden, at the bocce court, even at the Please Touch Museum, where we would run into Tom repairing an exhibit. I always merited a hello and kiss on the cheek. JR would get a hello and, when he retreated behind my legs, Tom was never fazed.

So we knew Tom in many different ways - but tonight, at the Memorial Service held at Fleisher for our friend I learned about another Tom that I had never known. Tom the artist. I wasn't surprised at the number of people (and families with kids) at the Memorial. I wasn't surprised at the stories told. But in all the contexts in which I've known Tom, I never realized that, in addition to his skill at throwing pots, he was an incredibly talented artist. The sculptures exhibited tonight totally took me by surprise. They are the legacy of a piece of Tom that I'd never recognized. He was so gentle, so understated, so hardworking - somehow I'd missed the fact that my friend and my neighbor was also this truly talented artistic soul.

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