Neighborly Question

When I was small, I traded stickers with Shannon catty-corner across Grant street. Rolf (“Not Ralph, mind!”) was born in the corner house that never took down their blue holiday lights. Chris Bullenbocker shared the Grant/Grey corner and we dragged up sewer covers, peeled back milkweed, and buried his dead hamster in the yew. An Airedale lived two doors down and walked his 7th grade boy around the block every day. Janet, at the end of Grey, and I fooled around behind her couch. The middle school vice principal lived directly across Grant and one winter slipped on his steps and walked around on a broken ankle for weeks. Elizabeth and I made mudpies even though I wasn’t supposed to go past the big tree-cracked sidewalk to her house. Every Christmas, my mom sent us out with plates of holiday cookies for our friends. My deepest disappointment was that our immediate neighbors did not have a small someone with whom I could blink nighttime flashlight messages and talk on a can-string telephone.

We moved across the country when I was eleven and the most I knew about the new neighborhood was that a red-headed acquaintance named Tyson lived somewhere nearby. He wanted to be president. We’re friends on facebook and I wouldn’t rule him out just yet. Suddenly, we made a lot fewer cookies to hand around. Since then, I’ve always assumed that my first neighborhood was different. That I am different. That it was two-thirds magic.

Remarkably, it turns out that there’s a grown-up version. At the neighborhood coffee shop we discovered the reason our dog always has his head down the drain across from the farmhouse: “Oh, you’ll have seen Richard Parker, of course. He’s the 15 pound cat that adopted us last week. Used to live beneath the grate.” And Debra headed across the street again this year to put up Sydney’s Christmas tree, “I just can’t lift those tree sections anymore, dear.” Charlie is doing much better since his stroke two years ago and our new neighbors put a fire-pit in the backyard. Now we talk over the picket fence with the friendly folks on both sides. Our elderly neighbors behind us on the hill are concerned about the tree between our fences falling. It turns out that although their land comes right up to the back of our fence, that tree is mysteriously on our land (despite occupying the same stretch). Our cookie list this Christmas is longer than it ever has been in years past.

Which brings me to a question: we have always shared homemade cookies and candy with our friends and neighbors, leaving out chocolate for this one, adding more coconut for that one. It’s a small thing that doesn’t cost much. One of the neighbors we talk to most is elderly and has a daughter who is diabetic. I’m hesitant to send over cookies. Is there an inexpensive alternative? I considered some sort of ornament from RR but that seems like an assumption and RR has yet to demonstrate any interest in decorating or crafting anything. I’m also hesitant to add more ‘stuff’ to lives I don’t know well. Ask first if they’d like cookies? Other ways to spread the cheer (besides helping with the tree)?

 

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If Giles Had a Bike*

After breakfast, I strap on my helmet and push my bike out onto the drive and up to the road. Lately it is chilly, not so much that I need gloves but enough that sometimes I question my judgement to have left them at home. It helps that I’m not moving very fast. You’ll remember we live on the side of a mountain. Well, hill. A hill that takes itself very seriously. It is absolutely unforgiving in its grade and unevenness. Every morning I think, I am just too tired for that hill. Every morning my thigh muscles agree (and then suggest a doughnut). It’s mental discipline that gets me onto the pedals and, eventually, to the top of the hill. Hills, really. The entire trip is uphill.

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Riding means there is joy to be had on either side of the work day. It takes me half as long to get home, a speedy 12 minutes of breezy coasting. Even on the front end, it’s a relief to be AT work, hill happily behind me. Those are the obvious thrills. But one of my favorite parts of the day is the accidental glimpse of my bike leaning in the rack. Unintentionally, I have a vampire slaying bike.

The idea is perfect for fall really. Crisp, brown leaves tangle up in the spokes. There has been one weathered leaf in my black metal basket for a week now. Behind the leaf, and the basket, is a wooden stake. Strapped to the basket with zipties, it’s there to keep the basket from bouncing against the frame of the bike, metal grinding into metal. But maybe it’s really there for the rides home in the ever earlier darkness. What’s just outside the beam of my headlight anyway? What’s around the next bend? What’s that rustling in the leaves?

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My bike doesn’t have a name. Doesn’t need one really, not with that stake strapped to the front. A glimpse of it on a midday walk imbues the day with a sense of danger, suggests an uncertain outcome, provides an alter-ego. Who wouldn’t ride to work?

* As I am a librarian, this is the obligatory Buffy the Vampire slayer reference though I suppose this post could just have easily been called The Biking Dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Norman Rockwell

On Saturday we were up earlier than usual (thanks, RR) and found ourselves wondering how to spend the morning. Usually we go to a music class and the park but, as fun as this is, I sometimes miss mornings spent wandering through the farmer’s market and coming home with a loaf of bread, a pint of strawberries and a bag of kale. We CAN of course, but we don’t. It’s crowded and smothering by the time we arrive at 10 and we aren’t ever out of the house in time to visit in the empty, early hours. Although RR doesn’t ride in an aisle-clogging stroller*, we still move pretty slowly. I just can’t bring myself to contribute to the congestion. Instead, we go to a music class less than a block away from the place that makes me feel 24 again, sun-kissed, in a sundress, my only responsibility a date that night.

Don’t worry, I married her.

So on Saturday, facing freedom for the first time in awhile, we found ourselves at a loss. With no errands to do and too much rain to work in the yard or go to the park, we were left staring at each other. In fact, RR would happily sit around engaging her crayons, grapes and toy lions in complex conversations. And while I’m happy to let her, that was on tap for the afternoon. So what would I do on a perfect morning that isn’t the farmer’s market? Turns out, what I’d do is pop RR into her bike seat and ride with her and my wife to the library, just a couple of miles away on neighborhood streets. Since it looked like rain,we stuck the books to return into plastic bags and set off. By the time we got to the top of our street (and I do mean top – the hardest part of a ride anywhere is getting up the Everest-esque hill), sporadic sprinkles had turned to rain and it remained persistant until we arrived.

I LIKE to be anywhere in the rain. I don’t mind getting soaked through. D prefers an umbrella. Something about glasses and raindrops. I’m happy to find out that RR doesn’t mind weather much either. Any query about her comfort level (we had her raincoat with us but not on her), was met with delighted shrieks: “go mama, yet’s catch mama!” and “I am going so fast!” and “mama would YOVE this!” (mama is right behind us baby, but yes, she does love this). We arrived wet but not at all miserable.

Our library is small and comfortable. The children’s section is as large as the adult section and is incredibly welcoming. RR noticed a dinosaur book on a tiny table and crawled right up on the chair to read. “This is just perfect, mama. Deeyiteful!” She played with wooden puzzles while I looked for new Madeline books and some old standards, including Where the Wild Things Are. I find Wild Things sad and a little scary although my sisters both loved the story (along with, apparently, the rest of the universe). I thought I’d give it another try. It must be good, RR didn’t even demand an encore reading of Madeline when I finished.

As were were leaving we ran into friends from the community. I’ve never lived anywhere else where this happens so consistently and, while it means I don’t honk at the cars who I think so justly deserve it, it does make me endlessly happy. We rode home in warm sunshine just in time for lunch. It could not have been a better morning. July marks our 5th anniversary here. It’s mornings like this that ensure we’ll be here for the 10th.

*There is some sort of space time continuum that ensure all strollers at this particular market take up three times their actual dimensions and move six times more slowly than actual speed.

GET OUT OF THE HOLE

Dear RR,

Before you were born, I looked out at our backyard and spied bits of overgrown bushes and thought, “I’m not cutting those down because someday I’m going to have a child here who wants to turn them into a secret place.  Taking away those bushes would be like stealing that child’s imagination and it won’t be me who’s responsible for that.”

Now, I’d just like to say, GET OUT OF THE HOLE.

At the bottom of the hill at the corner of the fence is a dirty patch of shade under arching canes of forsythia and a runaway boxwood.  It is, bar none, your favorite place to go after racing to the bottom of the hill.  It can’t be seen from the house and you hide there, still as a mouse, until someone says your name.  Then you start shrieking with laughter and the bushes rattle around you, betraying that you’re in your hole.  This is what I am thinking everytime you tuck yourself away:

Your shorts will be filthy
Your hair will have leaves, or worse, bugs.
What if there are spiders?
Oh god, there are probably ticks.
Remember to check that child for ticks.
Are you even really down there?
RUBY REED!!
Aww, I love to hear you laugh.
Can snakes hear?
You better laugh louder, little girl!
Do you suppose there are black widows in the woodpile?
I can’t even imagine a two-year-old with Lyme.
GET OUT OF THE HOLE!
What are you even doing down there?
Am I going to have to haul you out?
Oh, you have a place.  A secret place.  A place to fuel your imagination.  You are the best baby ever.
Please tell me there isn’t poison ivy down there.
There totally is, isn’t there?
I cannot believe I have to go down and get you out.  Again.

Believe it or not, I am much more free-spirited about the hole than your mother is.  You should also know that, because we love you very much, we’ve been letting the bushes grow taller.  Your mother spent most of a weekend clearing out suspicious vines, picking up questionable debris and filling holes where we’d ripped out stumps.  I have double-checked the fenced corner for webs, fangs and dead things.  And we have seen you watching us.  Making sure we don’t blur the magic of your spot.  And we have seen you spying other places to hide and cackle just in case.  Between the compost bins.  Tucked behind the compressor.  Under the holly.  And I have noticed you walking heel to toe, ever so carefully, on the wobbly bricks of the flowerbed mostly out of sight while your mother called your name, looking for you.

These things do not mean it’s okay for you to squat there, laughing hysterically, while I fend off swarms of mosquitos trying to reach in your hole to fetch you out.  Nor should you commence screaming in misery and indignation when I carry you back up the hill and into the house.  And please keep in mind that checking for ticks is not a reason to dance around like a rabid squirrel, cackling and shouting TICKLETICKLETICKLE!

And when you are sixteen and full of angry hormones, I hope you and I both remember that we left those bushes long so that you would have a secret place all your own the summer that you were two.

Love,
Mama

 

 

Neighbors******

In the evenings, we come home from work* and the minute we shut the front door RR says, “Outside.” Gone are the days when we leisurely shed our work clothes, slipped into sandals and meandered outside to throw the ball for the dog. Now we are sharply dragged to the back door, shoved past the dog and charged down the steps into the freedom of the backyard. There is no time to find jeans and a tshirt, no time to grab a snack, no time to do anything but launch ourselves down the steps, into the grass and down the Hill.** Running down a hill is my daughter’s favorite pastime. But that’s not the point.

There we are in the backyard and there the neighbors are in theirs. They have the Hill too, and a daughter (4) and a son (a week younger than RR). I have never seen anything so cute as when the three of them abandon their individual Hill races and race to the picket fence, pressing their faces through the slats and cheerfully shouting each other’s names. Over the cheery shrieking, we have an end-of-day howdy with the husband and wife while he waters the lawn/strings the hammock/plays catch with the kids and she hands us a pile of hand-me-downs or trades horrified gasps over daycare shenanigans. They are our age and perfect. They don’t seem to care that we are gay. But that’s not the point.

Now and again, just enough of the time, dad lifts daughter over the fence to race up and down our Hill with RR. RR is invited to their yard to play on the water table. The kids slip in and out of the adjacent gates (to our horror – stay in the yard, you devils!). We laugh and joke about cutting a tiny gate between yards. We rescued their dog when she escaped and they were gone for the day. They brought us brownies on the heels of a bad week.*** The point is, I couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect house, yard, Hill, family, neighborhood. I sometimes lie awake at night wondering if they will move. I find I’m heartened when they make improvements to the yard that make me think they’ve settled in for the long haul. They built a playhouse. They sunk a hammock in with a cement post.

It’s only fair that our OTHER neighbors would hate kittens or lay around smoking and drinking and carousing. Instead, they wave to us as we grill our suppers. They amble over with a glass of wine to chat about vegetable gardens or their Great Pickle Experiment. **** They have friends with kids that race around their yard in pretty garden dresses waving at RR. Sometimes we bemoan our lawnmowers or the heavier than usual mosquito season.*****

There’s no end to this post. I hope there won’t be. We’ve had more death this week. And disease. Loneliness and despair as we mourn D’s mom. Frustration as we deal with estate issues. Through overcommitments at work I find I have very little personal reserve of strength and no source of replenishment. But our life? You know that whole life picture? It’s awesome, even if sometimes it’s not possible to believe it.

*Maybe little known fact: We work at the same university and carpool to and from work. Surprisingly, we have not run out of things to talk about. Yet.

**The main feature of our yard is an insistent downgrade dead-ending into a spiky wooden fence.

***I’ll spare you the details about Hand, Foot and Mouth but I’ll tell you that I’ve rarely seen anything so heartbreaking as two little girls who can’t play because our family is a biological disaster.

**** Failure.

***** Don’t judge us. We really ARE those people. Sorry if you have been mislead by our repeated tales of drinking at the bars with our hot model friends.

******I would name this We Are Lucky Bastards, but given the turn life has taken of late, that would be absolutely incorrect.