When we bought a small weekend home needing big attention 10 years ago, we got to know our New Harmony, Ind., neighbors in no time. Everyone on the block was curious about the foolhardy couple from Bloomington who'd bought the old Wilson place.
Its west wall listed alarmingly, its roof sagged, the chimney was crumbling and cockeyed, and the interior flooring – clearly visible through cracked windows – abruptly ended halfway across the bedroom.
There is no way of explaining why we bought it except to say the house's quiet brick visage spoke to us the evening we strolled by on a rare vacation from our dairy farm up north. We'd just passed it from the opposite side of the street when we turned in unison and gazed at its faded red front.
Looking back on the moment, Charlie and I agree: The unassuming, yet clearly historic little structure somehow radiated a welcome and mute appeal for help, and we two were tuned in. And the rock-bottom price behind the For Sale sign was right.
Whenever we could get away from the milking parlor for a weekend's restoration work, we headed south with tools and coolers of food. Our lovely new neighbors came as a huge and unexpected bonus.
Nellie, next door to the west, literally opened her arms when we arrived, offering us an aproned embrace and then the use of her water spigots. Clifford, over the property line to the south, strolled across his yard to chat. Gene and Doris, to the east, provided us with an umbilical cord of electricity from their garage, an early gesture that expanded into several years of free power (despite our repeated offers to pay) until we had our own place wired and connected to the grid.
Just down the alley we made shy new friends in sisters Opal and Armythy. Our home's former owner, Joe, came by in his pickup to check us out. He'd thought about restoring the old place himself, then come to his senses.
All of these neighbors were a good deal older than we were, and every one has since passed away. To have met them at all was a stroke of serendipity – the kind one's life can pivot on. We wallowed in their amity and warmth – and in their names, so evocative of another era.
Who dubs a baby boy Clifford these days, or a daughter Nellie or Doris, not to mention Opal or Armythy? Clifford and Nellie's last names (Hames and Hays respectively) aptly evoked their country upbringing. Clifford had once worked horses in harness and knew all about brass hames – which fit over the collar and feed the reins. As a child, Nellie had ridden a hay wagon to and from her rural Posey County school and to picnic at the old dam on the Wabash River.
We finished restoring the house, down to the porches, wiring, and plumbing. We have more time to travel south to enjoy it these days, surrounded by a blend of new and original neighbors. Don and Gayle (immediate friends when we first arrived, who ushered us into their home to use their phone those first few years) are still across the street, as is Neva – another quaint name, of Spanish origin, which by all rights should translate to "benefactor of stray cats." Frank and Virginia remain in their home just around the corner, where they graciously offered us yellow tea and scones late one afternoon, just when we most needed a boost in energy and encouragement.
But when we sit in our backyard enjoying our gardens and songbirds – the four surrounding homes abuzz with new occupants – we keenly miss those others. We still sometimes imagine we hear Clifford's quiet greeting and see Nellie's open arms. We half expect Armythy to come down the alley on her daily walk to the deli for her and Opal's lunch, or Gene and Doris to come our way with frosted soft drinks, eager to see and approve our progress in the restoration.
Neighborhoods morph and evolve, like fashions in names, and nothing lasts forever. But as one proud little brick house might say, some things on the verge of extinction can be brought back. New parents could do worse than name their children after beloved community elders. Nellie and Clifford would be honored.