The neighbors I've always wanted

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In my childhood, I lived on a farm. Due to their two-dimensional unwieldiness, farms preclude having many human neighbors. Occasionally Mom would get out her binoculars to watch the doings of a certain woodchuck that had a burrow by the barn, and each spring the return of the barn swallows to our front- porch eaves was a big deal. There just weren't many bipedal residents nearby.

When I went to college, suddenly there were altogether too many. I was assigned to a big freshman dormitory where I was tripled-up in a small double-occupancy room. I felt frazzled by the lack of privacy and all the sounds of people living so close together: the banging of doors, the snippets of conversation heard Dopplerlike from girls passing in the hallway, and the asynchronous beat of competing stereos.

Having experienced both high- and low-density living, I was pleased to achieve a happy medium when, years later, my husband and I moved into our first house. In our new neighborhood, the dwellings are one or two stories high, no two alike, with green space variously surrounding each.

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When the land was developed in the 1950s, the gridlike streets of the old part of town were extended with curves that wended and dead-ended, condemning all future residents to writing tracts of prose to direct first-time visitors to their homes.

The meandering streets mean the lot shapes are strange - polygons so various as to keep a geometry class in story problems for a school year. Our house is at the crux of a Y-intersection and faces north-northwest. I see ever-more-oblique views of the neighbors' housefronts as I gaze down the street. Sometimes I feel that living at this odd angle is like talking to people who refuse to look me in the eye, showing me their shoulders instead.

But despite the standoffish stance of the houses, the residents are friendly. We were not yet the house's owners when the first neighbor introduced herself.

On the cold February day when the real estate agent took us on the prepurchase walk-through of the empty house, the doorbell rang, causing the agent, my husband, and me to look at one another in surprise.

When I answered the door, the eager, coatless lady from across the street handed me a slip of paper bearing her name and phone number.

"Call me if you need anything, dear," she said before scooting back to the warmth of her house.

She was followed in subsequent days by other neighbors, and though no one actually brought a Bundt cake, we felt plenty welcomed. People seemed to delight in seeing the "For Sale" sign gone, replaced by a couple puttering in the yard as spring came on.

When I had a truck bring 14 tons of topsoil and dump it by the street, the act was met with approval, despite olfactory evidence that the soil had been mined at a hog farm.

"What nice soil!" my neighbors raved as they took their walks past. "What are you building?"

"Raised flower beds," I replied, pausing to sop my sweat on the wrist of my brown jersey glove.

"Aaah! Lovely! Would you like some irises from my garden?"

I was amazed at their kindness, and I accepted with thanks all the flower starts people wanted to give me.

The neighbors to whom we were physically closest were actually the most reserved initially. The husband gave me a thumbs up from afar when I had a big diseased apple tree removed from the yard. The wife, Susan, came over to where I was weeding some weeks later to say hello.

After that, the communication languished until one day when I was expecting company and found I was short two eggs for the stuffed shells I was making. I telephoned Susan. Did she have two eggs?

Of course she did. I could hear the smile in her voice as she offered to meet me halfway.

Thus, with the age-old borrowing of eggs, we began neighboring in earnest. I repaid her. They asked me to water their plants while they were away. When we were gone, they watered ours. The two husbands put up a basketball goal together.

I took them homemade applesauce, and Susan returned the dish with a cauliflower-and-pea salad inside.

At some point, we just seemed to confer Most Favored Neighbor status on each other.

Recently, I was on the rooftop cleaning decayed leaves from the gutters. I paused from my rank task to enjoy how the neighborhood looked from that medium-rarefied height. The roofs were on display, like the pates of audience members viewed from a balcony.

It occurred to me that I had friends under most of the roofs in sight and knew dozens more residents by name or face. In the few years in our house, I'd met far more neighbors than in my whole childhood, plus we'd had good interactions: cheery hellos, streetside chats, the exchanges of small favors.

However, if these good neighbors and I had been crammed together as in my freshman dorm, we'd have doubtlessly gotten on one another's nerves.

The green space between our homes allows civility to thrive.

I half expect Goldilocks to move into our neighborhood one day soon and declare it, "Just right." When she does, I need to take her some flower starts from my raised beds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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