The Neighbors Knew What We Were Up To

When I was very young, I thought my father knew everyone in the world. Wherever we went he greeted people by name, and they knew him. Later I realized that most of the adults in our small town either grew up together or worked together at the iron mill. After a few years of school, I knew most of the kids in town just as well as my parents knew the adults. We not only knew the people, we knew a lot about their lives as well.

In walking to and from school, we soon learned that the Knights always did their laundry on Tuesdays and Mr. Cooksey mowed the lawn Friday mornings. The Clydes got a new car every year, and Mrs. Hansen baked bread on Friday afternoons.

When the iron mill blew its whistle at noon, the whole town stopped for lunch. When they blew the 5 o'clock whistle, kids stopped playing and went home to do their homework before dinner.

We had our own routines at home that were just as predictable. Once or twice a week on warm summer nights, just as the sun was setting and the air started to cool, we would go for ice cream. Sometimes we walked the few blocks to the A&W Root Beer stand. Sometimes we piled in the car and drove downtown to Benson's Ice Cream. Sometimes my parents went by themselves to get a little peace, and brought the ice cream home.

We didn't realize how well our own routines were known until the day my mother lost her purse.

Getting four kids and two adults fed, dressed, and off to the right places at the right time each morning was seldom a calm and orderly process. One morning my mother left the house hurriedly for work carrying her purse, a load of clothes for the dry cleaner's, and a briefcase. She set the purse on top of the car so she could open the door. She put the clothes in the back and the briefcase on the seat, climbed in the car, and drove to work. After she arrived and looked for her purse, she realized she had left it on top of the car. It wasn't there now.

On the way home that evening, she searched carefully along her route, but saw no sign of the purse.

To cheer her up, we all went out for ice cream that evening, driving downtown to Benson's. We pulled up to the drive-up window and ordered six "brown toppers." Mr. Benson filled each cone and dipped it generously in the chocolate coating, then Mrs. Benson carried it over and handed it out the window to us. After handing us the last cone, she reached under the counter and handed us my mother's purse.

She explained that the milkman had found it lying in the road and checked the driver's license inside. When he reached Benson's on his rounds, he left the purse there for us, knowing we'd turn up there sooner or later.

The next week, my mother left a special thank-you note with the milk bottles. We knew the milkman would read it just about the time the morning whistle blew at the iron mill.

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