TAMPA — For three hours one afternoon in May, people in a small South Tampa neighborhood unlocked their doors and poured outside, uniting in a way people do after a hurricane or a fire. Mary Cashwell had wandered away from home and nobody knew where she was.
A sheriff's chopper hovered over Woodlynne Avenue. Hounds sniffed the street. People bolted their gates so Mary, 83 and suffering from Alzheimer's disease, wouldn't fall into anyone's swimming pool.
Nobody knows how many people passed by her that day as she sat inside the next-door neighbor's car, obscured by tinted windows, the heat slowly taking her life. By the time they found her that evening, it was too late.
• • •
Mary lived for a half-century on Woodlynne Avenue, in a house with a brick facade. But her home was the entire Southern Pines neighborhood, a community straight out of a '60s TV show.
Everybody knew the Cashwells. On Saturdays, Mary's three boys would take off on their bicycles and while away the day playing in tree huts, racing milk carton cars and gambling at penny poker. Mary and her husband would chat outside with the couple next door.
The two couples were almost inseparable. Mary's husband had a grand name, W. Wallace Cashwell,but she called him Bug. He was a practical joker who tinkered with electronics. Next door, Margaret Howell's husband, O.D., was a serious, law-and-order judge.
Together the four grew roses, which they entered in contests. The neighbors often saw them tending to their prized flowers in the lot between their homes. The Howells owned half the lot and the Cashwells bought the other half so no one could build a house to separate them.
• • •
Time passed. The kids got married and moved away. The couples grew too weak to garden.
Judge Howell died. Then, Bug. Then, Margaret. New neighbors moved in next door to Mary, whose memory faded as her illness progressed. Two weeks before she died, she shared a wish with her oldest son, Wally.
"I want to go home," she said.
"Mom," Wally said, "you're home. This is the house Dad built for you."
"No," she said. "I want to go home."
• • •
The other day, the neighbors came together. Judge Howell's daughter arranged the reunion.
Wally Cashwell leaned against the wall, scanning the name tags around the room. These were the kids he had grown up with. They had moved away to South Carolina, Alabama and all parts of Florida. Wally himself had settled on the opposite side of Dale Mabry Highway.
Many of them had learned of Mary's death on the news and had seen each other for the first time in decades at her funeral. They were glad for this chance to get together again.
"We've needed to see each other for a long time," Wally said.
They reminisced about the rubber band wars and the Halloweens, about the carpools and the moms who served Kool-Aid.
Mary's death had brought them home.
• • •
Mary had no need to leave her house that day in May. Her caretaker had fixed her hair and dressed her before leaving for church. But Mary wanted out.
She found spoons and used them to pry the lock open. She walked next door to the Howells' old house and saw a garnet-colored car, the same color as Bug's. She got in. They found her there, perhaps waiting for him.
Mary was reunited with Bug at the Garden of Memories cemetery. The Howells rest nearby, about as close to their friends as they were on Woodlynne Avenue.
And once again, they're all surrounded by roses.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.