We lived in the Washington, DC, area for many years. And while there was plenty to love about the region, one thing that was sorely lacking in the anonymity of suburbia was a sense of community. We yearned for real neighbors. Not that we didn’t have them. With the density of building that goes on in the sprawling metro area, we had plenty of people in very close proximity to us. But they weren’t neighbors. Rather, they were people who lived next door or nearby, but who left early in the morning, locked their houses up tight, closed the garage door as they departed the driveway, and didn’t return until dark, at which point they’d open the garage door long enough to pull inside, close the door back up, and leave little hint of their existence other than a light or two burning inside. Sure, along the way, there were one or two folks who counted for more than that, but overall, it was something that barely existed, despite living in a lot of different parts of the DC-area.
What we wanted were neighbors as friends, companions, co-celebrants of daily living. People you talked to when you retrieved your mail. Someone with whom you might crack open a bottle of wine and sit on the porch as the sun sets. Someone who had kids our kids’ ages who didn’t get carted off to day care at pre-dawn hours and only return at bedtime.
Eventually we moved away from the big city. While living there had its charms and many conveniences, we chose to trade those things for life in a smaller town. And with this move, we hoped very much to find that elusive community that seemed so sorely lacking in the larger impersonal metropolitan area.
My first impression of the neighborhood in which we eventually built our home was this: what’s the catch? People seemed so nice, so friendly, so outgoing. No one locked their doors. People strolled through the neighborhood at all hours of the day. Kids played in the streets. They even rode bikes (something we would not have dreamed of letting our small children do in our previous neighborhood because of the traffic and preponderance of strangers in that transient region). Something had to be wrong. They were tricking us! It was a marketing ploy. It was all very Stepford.
Nevertheless, in search of that holy grail, we took the plunge, bought property, built a house, and established ourselves in this newfound Pleasantville.
Immediately we took to our neighbors. Our youngest child, a pre-schooler at the time, became fast friends with a girl her age across the cul-de-sac from us, and each morning upon awaking would rush to their house (and return with a telltale Oreo ring around her mouth; she knew she’d get no cookies for breakfast at our house). The mom and I became close friends, and spent many a dinner preparation hour at each other’s houses gabbing over glasses of wine. As other neighbors moved into the neighborhood, the circle of friends expanded.
When summer came, 20 or more kids would play capture the flag in the surrounding yards, followed by flashlight tag at night. For the Fourth of July, all the neighborhood kids decorated their bikes with bunting and ribbons and paraded throughout the community. On snow days the steep hill in our backyard was often converted into a sledriding mecca (albeit a treacherous one). And many a time we’ve hosted impromptu potlucks with more people than our deck could handle.
Certainly there can be a downside to having such close neighbors. People get to know a little too much about each other sometimes. And there have at times been teen vandals (and local workers), who got wise to the unsecure state of homes and cars; ultimately everyone has resorted to locks to protect their belongings from itchy fingers.
But the upsides are many. Like the medical emergency in the middle of the night with a host of nearby friends willing to help out with the other kids when one of ours had to be rushed to the hospital, and the endless supply of meals that arrived daily as we held vigil at the hospital. Or the time my husband was away and I nearly stepped on a copperhead while watering my herbs, and put out the call to find a dad in the neighborhood to come dispose of the snake before the kids or dogs encountered it. There’s always someone to call to feed the dogs at the last minute, or let them out to go to the bathroom if we’re stuck at a soccer tournament in another city for longer than expected. Friends, not just neighbors, to help out in bad times, to slog through the mundane with, and to celebrate in good ones.
Over the years, friends have come and gone from our neighborhood. It’s tough, having established bonds with these people, to bid farewell to them. But we’re so fortunate to have had that time together.
When we moved from the city, we had our fears. Uprooting, leaving family and friends and everything that seemed so established was hard. But what we gained for the sacrifice was so worth any trauma and hardship it may have caused. We have earned so many friendships, mountains of memories, and given our children a sense of home and community that we hope they’ll one day want to pass onto their children.
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