A different era, but some things stay the same

The friends I had as a child were close at hand. Our three-bedroom house on the southern fringe of Rochester, N.Y., nestled between two others that were home to growing families, and all eight of us children moved freely among our bordering backyards, sharing toys, snow forts, swing sets, Dougie's log playhouse, and our big inner-tube trampoline – not to mention a sizable above-ground swimming pool.

The Reiss parents scored big points by putting that up and never seemed cross when we rang their doorbell – bathing suits on, towels and floats in tow – and asked permission to join their children, whose first splash and calls over the fence had us rushing upstairs to change.

We always waited until one of the Reisses went in and always asked permission – unquestioned protocols. For efficiency's sake, Lois developed a wordless nod – I can still vividly picture it on the other side of their screen door. So confident was I in that nod I stood there after ringing the bell with one foot pivoted, poised to bolt around to the back.

The three houses were close enough that we children could talk through the screened windows of bedrooms separated by a few yards of air space. We never had to phone, although we experimented, like many children of the '50s, with tin cans and string. Georgie and I quickly decided we could hear each other better without the rudimentary technology.

It was a blow when Dougie and his parents moved away. At 7 and 6 years old, respectively, we were fast friends, and I couldn't imagine anyone else greeting me from his upstairs window.

In fact, a series of owners – all likeable enough, but childless – occupied what I still think of as Dougie's house for the next 45 years.

Fortunately, the Reisses to the east stayed put with their four children (and that lovely pool) until we were all grown and had moved to our own homes. After that, the visiting grandchildren of both families got to know one another in our parents' adjoining backyards.

By now, the grandchildren are grown, too, and my mother is the only original owner left in the triad. My 20-year-old son, Tim, and I visited her one raw, rainy week in May. We joined a thin crowd of hardy souls on the final day of the city's annual lilac festival, ducking under canopies for shelter from bouts of sleet and a whipping wind.

Finally, near the end of our week, the temperature crept up to the point where the windows were raised. One morning, I gazed out the kitchen door to Dougie's house, occupied by a young doctor, his wife, and their two small sons. There, behind the screen of an upstairs window was a small forehead and two dark eyes, barely visible above the sill. The toddler saw me and ducked away. When he reappeared, I waved. He ducked out of sight again, then reappeared, eyes wide – a game we played for a few more minutes.

Despite what Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can go home again – and back in time. At least for a few delicious seconds of willfully suspended reality.

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