When a Cradle Gives Notice on a Suburban Lawn

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ON a perfect September weekend in the suburbs, a wicker cradle appears on a neighbor's lawn. The young wife spreads papers beneath it, shakes a can of white paint, and begins spraying. Soon the cradle is left to dry - a charming announcement of impending parenthood, carrying all the regenerative promise of a crocus on the lawn in spring. Later, the prospective parents provide more details: The baby is due in November. The new mother will take only eight weeks of maternity leave, the maximum allowed by her employer. The soon-to-be father shares her concern about dual roles, but hopes she will continue working. ``If she doesn't, we'll be eating a lot of Spam,'' he says cheerfully.

Their happy news should have come as no surprise. They have, after all, been ``nesting'' ever since they bought this gray ranch two years ago. Inside, they have papered and painted, furnished and fixed up. Outside, they have pruned and planted, fertilized and watered with the kind of industrious enthusiasm that characterizes first-time homeowners.

Still, those of us who have watched their daily comings and goings in their shiny red Miata - the 7 a.m. dash for the commuter train, the 6 p.m. return, the week-night dinners out - have viewed them more as dual-career professionals than as parents. Now we will see them in a new role as they join the world's oldest club: family-with-children.

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As if to offer a further reminder that neighborhoods have their seasons, a few doors away workmen have spent the summer renovating a pale green Cape. Until recently, it was occupied by an elderly couple whose children long ago married and moved away. Now, with its new roof, freshly painted exterior, and updated kitchen, the house is ready for another young family just starting out.

Eighteen years ago, when we moved into a white Colonial on the corner, we were that young family just starting out. I have always suspected that the previous owners accepted our lower-than-hoped-for bid because they saw in us a younger version of themselves - and liked the idea that the house would be home to a new generation. ``Our daughter was exactly the same age as yours when we moved here,'' the wife of the couple selling the home said softly as the real-estate agent showed us around.

At a time when America is still regarded as a nation of nomads - one in every 10 houses changes hands every year - sociologists and demographers see evidence that once-mobile baby boomers feel a longing to settle down and stay put. A longing for community, they call it.

Yet a sense of community can be hard to come by. The small rituals of kaffeeklatsches and backyard barbecues that once brought neighbors together have largely disappeared. Today friends must settle for hasty greetings at the door of the day-care center or in the aisle of the supermarket. For many people, the office has replaced the neighborhood as the new community. But does the new substitute really work?

``Community,'' sociologists are quick to add, can be a nostalgic myth in the minds of baby boomers yearning for a Norman Rockwell childhood. Yet there is a realism, as well as a romanticism, to this determination to make a decent home, a decent neighborhood, a decent world for the next generation.

As our neighbors prepare to welcome the baby who will sleep in the white wicker cradle, the cycle of family begins anew on this quiet street. Next summer, they will push a stroller along sidewalks shaded by towering trees. Later, they will sit in tiny chairs on Parents' Night at the elementary school. They will drive car pools to soccer games and decorate bicycles for Fourth of July parades. Eventually, they will gather on the high school lawn on a balmy June evening and watch the long-ago baby walk across a makeshift stage to receive a diploma.

As they do, they will join an invisible neighborhood of all those enduring nurturers who, in mansions or in huts, have made a home for the future of the race.

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