I remember the first time I met Gene.

It was a cold, wintery day at the farm. I had been researching the wooded area north of the broken fence of our property. I wanted it. It had a natural little dry creekbed running a tangent through the approximately three acres. There were tall pines and an old American sycamore and it was a haven for birds. I had walked it several times and I had gone to the court house to find out who owned it.

Then I’d gone to the address of the people who were paying the taxes on the place since 2001. I had knocked on their door several times and no one ever answered. I wasn’t giving up but I wasn’t sure what recourse to take. Mother kept pushing me.

Apparently coincidental with my visits but not exactly at the same time, Gene had also gone to the county tax office AND to the home of the same tax payer AND was attempting to purchase this SAME three acres.

Except he was more clever than me.

He left a note on their door with his cell phone number.

And he bought the property.

He was sneaky.

I saw him the first few times, as he was doing his personal survey. In the country, there’s nothing wrong with talking to a stranger.  I told him we were hoping to buy the place. He said he already had. (I would know later, he had lied a little bit then.) The deal done, in my mind if not on paper, I began an assault on his good will. Actually Mother told me to offer him a fairly decent return on his money in a very short time.

He said no.

Gene and I had completely different philosophies on life. Gene hated the tall pines on his property and he spent the next several months, ‘improving’ the property which meant he felled almost every tree on the place. By the last day of logging, the only trees left were the few that stood a yard or less from our combined property line.

“Jan,” he said, “which of these trees do you want me to keep?”

What you might not know is that there are a only a few people who call me Jan. These people don’t do this because I ask. They do it automatically with a familiarity that from the day they start calling me, they use the shortened version. Gene and I had developed one of those relationships, that despite our differing life views (there was way more to this than tree love) and age (I actually don’t know what the difference was) that over the fence that separated our places and most of our lives, we figured out we liked who each other were. To me, it felt a bit like a surrogate dad finding out he liked the person his daughter had become. Maybe for Gene, I was that daughter, the woman, who was an endless source of interesting amusement. He was a natural born cowboy, having settled and built places, with at least a couple of wives, all over the county. He knew more than we did about running a small farm. Over time, he didn’t hold it against us that we were city folk, because we might fail at what we tried, but he never saw us fail to try.

When Gene asked me which tree he wanted me to keep on his property, well, any body with a heart knew what he was saying.

Gene was a good neighbor. He was a good man. I shared my garden produce when he wanted it and he teased me every time we met at the fence. Over eight years, he’d collected enough little stories to always manage to put that twinkle in his eye which meant he was anticipating the smile he knew he was bound to provoke on my face through his teasing. Gene liked me and I liked him, through no blood, but because and in spite of who we were.

For me, well, I had decided that as much as I truly lusted after what he  had and pretty much hated everything he did to it (he put his trailer cattywomped in a very un fung shei location, as close as he possibly could to our fence line assuring me that one fine day a hedge row would popup and disguise the fact) I knew God had put him and Debbie there for a reason.

My cell phone rang yesterday. My smart phone said it was Gene.  Gene rarely called, mostly to tell me he’d put up a stray calf or found a gate that we’d left open.

I knew before I answered.

“This is Debbie. I wanted to tell you we put Gene in Hospice on Tuesday. He had two  massive strokes. I know he’d want you to know. He thought a lot of ya’ll.”

Gene, this is Jan. I pray that God doesn’t let your body linger much longer here. I pray for your family. Thank you for being my friend. And in Heaven, very tall pine trees never fall on any houses so don’t ask God to cut anything down. Just enjoy them. See you on the other side.

JoshTallPinePhoto Credit: Joshua Siefert, November 2013