When my husband and I went house shopping years ago, each of us had a mental checklist. Bob wanted a spot on the main floor for his weighty electronic keyboard. He was tired of lugging it up and down stairs for every music gig. I longed for a space to do yoga and write, though not simultaneously. So we chose a place with room for both, and compromised on other things.
Many of our original neighbors were our age, with kids off at college, if not installed in their own humble homes. They would drive over for cookouts and holidays, but spent most of those visits inside.
Now we seem to be the oldest couple left. New people moved in, some with young children; others lost no time catching up. Suddenly, children are everywhere. Babies take the air in jogging strollers; toddlers pedal plastic cars up and down the walk; grade-schoolers and preteens climb trees, soak each other with hoses, squirt Silly String at outdoor parties, and tend to the neighborhood’s dogs, cats, and poultry.
The chickens are free-range much of the day, and so are many of the children. Far be it from me to protest. I, too, grew up with a neighborhood gang that was, for the most part, benign. We hit plastic balls with plastic bats, rounding home plate over and over as the other team searched for a ball stuck in the Goulds’ lilacs. We called out, “Annie Annie over!” as we heaved tennis balls over the Carstensens’ garage, sheepishly shouting “Pigtails!” if they hit the roof and bounced back.
The grown-ups organized watermelon feasts, at which they showed great interest in our rock collections, arranged with care on folding tables. When Dad put up a split-rail fence, we girls pretended each section was a horse, draping our steeds with beach towel saddles and giving them names, then dismounting to build a tent over Mom’s clothesline, pretending to cook dinner in a cozy Little House on the Prairie.
Winter’s deep snows became forts and mazes, but only in backyards, never in front. We wouldn’t dream of messing up the Luicks’ snowy lawn, nor of cutting through the yards – front or back – of the few households with no kids, only “old people.” We didn’t dare annoy Mrs. Allen or Mr. Scherff.
These days, two-year olds demand of me, “What’s your name?” and I don’t think twice about calling back, “’Pam!’ What’s yours?” Kids of all ages cut through our patio on the way to their buddies’ yards, the ones with the swing sets and treehouses. After all, we don’t have an alley, so all the yards blend together, spooling out one endless green park.
We’d been touring Colorado when our new next-door neighbors moved in. As we pulled wearily into the driveway, they looked as alarmed as us at the near-collision of our RAV4 with a mother and child strolling down the drive. We waved and went on, because, well, that is the way we get our car into the garage.
The garage itself is a terrible temptation to any kid old enough to walk past it. Our yard is steep, the garage built right into the hill. This means, once you trudge to the back, you can walk right on top of its roof. If you then amble from the back of the roof to the front, and lose your footing, you will fall fifteen feet to the unyielding concrete below.
We don’t want that to happen, no matter what the age or audacity of the daredevil on our property. I’ve thought of nailing up “Keep Out” signs, but who will decipher them to the curly-haired moppet next door? And who will explain that it’s not such a great idea to clamber up our decrepit crabapple tree, or sled the steep slope from the yard behind ours right into our porcelain bird bath? (Which we keep out all winter, a small heater warming the water just enough for a drink, if not a bath.)
I don’t want to be the Mean Old Lady on the block. When I find mud and rocks in the birdbath, I might say, feigning confusion, “I wonder how this happened? I’ll bet the birds won’t want to drink such dirty water!” and hope the guilty parties are within earshot. When we come home from church and find a toddler standing at the edge of the driveway, I roll down my window and beg, “Go over there by your brother!” pointing at the slightly older boy watching nonchalantly from our front steps. I am prepared to get out and lead him by the hand out of harm’s way, as long as he doesn’t cry bloody murder. We have a first-class screamer on our block, and with my luck, this is the one.
Someday, I want to live in a house with a perfectly level backyard, one with an alley (one of Dubuque’s green alleys, please!) and a place to plant a garden and set up a table and chairs. I’m not asking for a private fort, although I’ll never forget how aghast our guests from Australia were to discover our yard wasn’t surrounded by solid walls. That’s how do it there, and in England, too. I like my privacy, but I’d miss my conversations with the serious little girl who herds the chickens back home, and the sight of bundled-up tykes swooshing down a slide into a mound of snow.
Like marriage, neighboring is about compromise. We’ll do our best to be the nice neighbors living in the midst of the playground, if you will – please! – keep an eye on your beautiful children.