SHERMAN - What began as a childhood acquaintanceship for Kate Sweeney Postle nearly three decades ago has recently blossomed into an unlikely, but true friendship.
On Saturday, Kate met with her former neighbor, Bonnie Meabon, for the third time since October of last year after spending more than a year trying to find the woman who she said was a "mystery" to her as she was growing up.
Kate, who is the daughter of Randy Sweeney, executive director of the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation, now lives in Chicago and is currently working on her dissertation for a Ph.D., in English and creative writing at SUNY Binghamton. In pursuit of her doctorate, she has been writing nonfiction in the form of early childhood memoirs - which caused her to think about the eccentric neighbor she had at the time, but knew next to nothing about.
Photo by Gavin Paterniti
Kate Sweeney Postle, left, looks on as Bonnie Meabon unwraps the Christmas gifts she received Saturday. The meeting in Sherman constitutes the third time the former neighbors have met in-person after being reconnected last year.
"When I started off on this search, I didn't know anything about Bonnie," Kate said in a brief article she wrote about Bonnie. "She wasn't family. She wasn't my friend. She wasn't even an acquaintance. She was someone who, 20 years ago, I watched from afar, secretly feared and tried to make sense of by creating stories about her and her less-than-conventional parents in attempts to figure out how they existed in my seemingly normal, middle-class consciousness."
Bonnie, who will turn 61 next month, suffers from a mild mental illness, which made it more beneficial to live with her parents - Herb and June - next door to the Sweeneys when Kate was growing up in their Lakewood home. While several rumors and stories about the Meabons circulated among the younger generation in their neighborhood, Kate said the only thing she knew for certain about Bonnie was that she liked to walk and she was always collecting bottles and cans along the side of the road.
As the years went by, Bonnie relocated to Sherman, unbeknownst to the Sweeneys, and has carried on her tradition of cleaning up the roads in and around the village. According to John Patterson, Sherman mayor, this is a task at which Bonnie truly excels.
"In the summertime, you can't find a single gum wrapper on our streets," Patterson said. "She'll pick up pop cans and papers, and she walks the streets inside and outside of the village every single day. She's such a wonderful person who has had a persecuted life, and she's a very sensitive person because of her limitations; but she's much more intelligent than people might think."
Kate said it was this enigmatic quality possessed by Bonnie that reinvigorated her interest in Bonnie and invoked her curiosity about what she was doing now.
"As I got older, I think I knew that (Bonnie) had a reality that I wasn't familiar with, and I wanted to give voice to that," Kate said. "I know that she has a lot more going on in her life, a lot more that she's seen and learned about, than I knew and could understand when I was a child."
After Kate spent some time searching the Internet for any information that might lead her to Bonnie's whereabouts, Kate ultimately discovered her location when the search came up in conversation between her father and Patterson.
"It was just one of those strange coincidences," Randy said. "I do not remember how I mentioned to Mayor Patterson that my daughter was looking for Bonnie, but when I did, he said 'Bonnie lives right here in Sherman.' And we just couldn't believe it."
Bonnie has been living in Sherman for the past 10 years, and is currently residing with her cousin, Janet Dawley. Though she has never had the ability to read or write, she is now receiving lessons from Dawley's 9-year-old great-grandson, Colton Courtney. Colton and Bonnie have gone over the alphabet and phonetics together, and they are now working on reading words as presented in the formation of complete sentences - something Dawley said Bonnie wouldn't have been able to do even one year ago.
Despite the fact that she is very close to receiving her doctorate, Kate said there are new things that Bonnie has managed to teach her in the few times they have met after being reconnected.
"From Bonnie, I think I've learned a lot about appreciation for things, and to be able to see value in things that most people would think have none," Kate said.
This was illustrated in Kate's article about Bonnie, which concludes: "Here, I want to fall into a cliche, to say how Bonnie helped me 'appreciate the little things,' but that would be inaccurate. For Bonnie, there are no 'little things.' A cup of tea is just as bountiful as the capacity of the human heart. The single snowflake caught in winter sunlight is no less important than the universe."
"People should appreciate what they have," Bonnie added. "If we don't appreciate those things, we can lose them all. That's an old-fashioned saying."
When asked the significance of reconnecting with Kate, Bonnie replied: "It's been nice to meet (Kate) again, and I hope she feels the same about me. Most of the things she put in that letter made me cry, but it's been neat and something different."