Following is an essay I wrote for English Composition this semester about a neighbor at home. His name has been changed.
“Don’t mess with Ronnie Piper. You get in his way and he’ll curse you off the property if he doesn’t shoot you off.” This was the warning my parents received when they bought a rundown house a quarter mile down the road from the Pipers. He and his wife had lived on that corner for years; our house was once owned by her grandmother. A coarse, sailor-like appearance and a belligerent attitude made Ronnie seem like a neighbor to avoid, but seeing him as the ‘butterfly man’ revealed an unforgettable contrast.
The coarse, sailor-man neighbor towered over me as I stood timidly at his front door. My eyes, focused on the floorboards, saw scuffed, brown, work shoes. My eyes traveled up and up. His thin, checkered shirt hung well below his waist, noticeably so because his pants were hitched up over his stomach. Huge, thick hands held open the screen door. He looked down at me through wire rimmed glasses held up by a hook nose. “You need some Worcestershire sauce?” he bellowed over my head. Shyly I held out the small, Tupperware container my mom had sent. “I’ll let Sheri fill this up. Hey, I’ve got some ice cream bars out in the freezer. You and the rest of the kids at home want some?” So it became a tradition; we borrowed from them and never left without ice cream. As we walked home licking Schwann’s ice cream bars, we giggled over his frequent question, “How many to home?” We could predict his question, but he never could remember how many kids there were.
Stories of Ronnie’s reputation were woven into my community’s recent history. Ronnie and Sheri had eloped in their late teens, their first child already on the way. He had little chance of making a good impression on his mother-in-law. His size, brusque manner and lack of respect for God’s name thrust him neatly in a truck-driver stereo-type. To his distress, Amish neighbors came over to borrow the phone; it was one of these men who warned us to avoid him. Although he was respectful around my family, I knew by the stories Ronnie told that the Amish man’s caution was valid. There was the time the coyote hunters requested to hunt in his woods; in no uncertain terms he told them they could never hunt in his woods. Another time he heard noises outside his house at night. He kept a gun handy for a while, not to shoot them, but to let them know someone was home.
Ronnie as butterfly man began almost by accident. In a conversation with Ronnie, my dad casually mentioned my mom’s hobby of collecting and raising monarch caterpillars. Ronnie was hooked. First, he brought worms to our house to add to my mom’s nursery. He asked for information and did his own research. Soon he was going on caterpillar hunts with my mom. He called regularly or puttered in in his gray, beat-up Ford like a little boy, thrilled with his latest find. He found his own gallon jar and filled it with milkweed and caterpillars. He Facebooked, posting what he found in the field and online. His wonder grew when my mom started tagging the butterflies headed to Mexico. Seeing the big man searching for caterpillars in a field of weeds did not seem to fit his character.
Ronnie’s looks were not deceiving. Some people experienced a quarrelsome, cantankerous red-neck. When he drove past on his motorcycle, it was easy to imagine him as part of a wild gang. But how many people have seen his heart, softened by the deaths of his son, mother, and wife in the last five years? When we stepped away from all the labels stuck onto him, we found a nice neighbor, one willing to do chores and lend cupcake liners.