Mighty Neighborly of You by Deb Jenny

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.
jen’s cover

16 Replies to “Mighty Neighborly of You by Deb Jenny”

  1. Well, deb Jenny, you have beautifully defined the definition of good neighbors. Like you, I have had the privilege of living in such a suburban paradise, in two disparate parts of the U.S. And now? I live in just such an environment, in an apartment building half a world away, a place where fellow residents wave at one and another from windows, hold doors and mail for each other, and express interest in my writing, even when it’s in a language they can not understand. A place where my daughter and her friend have strung a pulley between their bedrooms, across our building courtyard, where my neighbor thanks me for brightening up the building facade with my flowerboxes. I have to say that no one could be more astonished at finding such a sense of belonging, of home, in a foreign country, in the midst of one of the most crowded neighborhoods in the most population dense city in the western world. But there you have it – good neighbors know no geographical limitations. Thanks for that reminder. Therese

  2. Aren’t neighbors great? We live in a similar Mayberry–kids running back and forth, moms chatting over the fence, stickball in the street, we love it all. And the moment I knew my kids “got it” too? At my son’s high school graduation party when the neighbor girl next door said, as we were reminiscing, “we had a great childhood.”

  3. Jenny,I too moved from DC to a lovely cul-de-sac. Though I adore my neighbors and the relative safety, as soon as my youngest is off to college, I’m heading back to city life. I miss being steps away from everything. And while your Pleasantville does indeed sound pleasant, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t live among animals that could kill one of us. Copperheads? Wow!

  4. You really lucked out in the neighbors and neighborhood department! While we also live in a suburban neighborhood, it hasn’t always been Pleasantville…

  5. Amy, I guess Therese does show that it’s not necessarily city life that is anonymous, but where you are and how you can establish yourselves. I know what you mean, having everything at your beck and call *is* awfully nice. Things we gave up here–we’ve got lousy movie theaters, lame shopping, more expensive groceries because of lack of competition, etc. The flip side of that is we can attend a concert–tonight we’re going to the Police–and be home afterward in 20 minutes time. Things are definitely more user-friendly here. Oh, and the airport–the airport just cracks me up. Maybe two people in line to get through security. You park like a couple hundred yards away from the terminal. But we don’t have a Trader Joes 😉 LOL
    Judy–that sorta brought tear to my eye–how awesome that they do appreciate it. My kids have their moments of lamenting smaller town living, and I expect they’ll probably end up back in DC some time (well, in a smaller town it would be hard to be young and single with very slim pickings!). We did a family vacation last year w/ 3 other families sailing, and it was a fabulous, fabulous trip. Toward the end one of the kids said, “We should do this every year, because these are memories we’ll have for a lifetime.” So true…Now, if only we can afford that trip every year!
    And Therese–that’s so awesome that you have such a lovely sense of community in such a spectacular city. AND you can see the folks in the bathroom below 😉 (have they fixed that hole in the floor yet?!)

  6. The neighbors with whom we shared a backyard fence recently moved, and I’m still depressed about it; we used to exchange Christmas gifts, watch each other’s houses during vacations, and her son always came over to play with our dog or sell me fundraiser-type things. Our other neighbors are all various degrees of “odd,” but sweet in their own quirky, dysfunctional ways.

    It sure is nice when you can establish such friendships with neighbors!

  7. Great post!
    Our family moved nine times in seven years (thank you, corporate America) before settling in a fabulous little neighborhood in Florida. The kids play together, the moms hang out at the bus stop and chat, and the Halloween block party ends up being as much fun for the grownups as it is for the kids.

    I love my neighborhood, can’t imagine living anywhere else.


  8. I’m reminded of the movie Funny Farm with Chevy Chase where they buy a place in Redbud, this cute town, and it all turns very bad and they have to pay the locals to pretend to be nice so they can sell the house again. LOL Okay it was funny.

    I’ve stayed in this crappy 1977 tract house (which I’ve lipsticked up like the pig it is) for far longer than I should have because of the neighbors! They are a great bunch. During a terrible storm here they all came to our house because we have an insert fireplace- we all huddled in my livingroom and kept warm. Besides all their toilets were frozen. People do come and go, and the face of the area I’ve lived in so long has changed- lots of very rich folks moved –but not on my street LOLOL>

    So Heartwarming Jen, to know you’ve got a good base camp! Suz

  9. I love this post, Jenny. I’ve lived in suburbia and in downtown Toronto and we actually LOVE our neighbors and feel that, for a city, we have a really lovely neighborhood. (I never had that neighborly feeling in suburbia.) But now and then we start talking about moving to a small town and trying to find exactly what you have. Where to look, though and how to know that’s what you’re getting?! Your kids are so lucky that you created such a great life and home base for them.

  10. Eileen–block parties, better than blocked writer 😉
    Suz–I LOVE Chevy Chase movies–never saw that–will have to some day. But your freezing over the insert fireplace reminds me of the week post-hurricane somebody or other a couple of years ago. We were all w/o power for days. My husband had had the foresight to run out and buy one of the last generators in town (at my behest!) 2 days b/f the storm, so we were fortunate enough to have some power with the generator (which is so loud you have to pick your times). so after a couple of days sans electricity, we had people from all over the neighborhood come with their foods that had been on ice but couldn’t last much longer. We cooked what we could on the grill, on the stove, etc and had a huge feast, mostly in the dark. It was a lot of fun. Strange to look back on a hurricane with fondness!
    And D, you might be best just where you are. When we lived in the DC area we were totally in suburbia there, but it just lacked any sense of belonging. But look at Therese–very happily ensconced in the heart of Paris. I guess you make what you can of it but it helps if the elements are there for it to be much more than just a place to reside.

  11. Great post – Jenny! You’re such a social butterfly!

    When my husband and I moved onto our current street (a one block street of about 25 houses) we were quickly swarmed by the street’s residents asking a lot of really personal questions (did you rent or buy? how long are you planning on staying? any kids? any plans for kids?). It struck us as very weird and we felt like we were always being watched – we even found out our next door neighbour, the biggest busybody of them all, had keys to our home, which he never offered back (hello locksmith!).
    We dubbed our new neighbourhood ‘Stepford’ and joked with each other about street parties – until we got the invitation to one.
    We are VERY private people and were burned by previous neighbours so we ignored the invitation and have never gone to the street parties, even though they go on right in front of our home. My husband thinks it’s funny to order pizza right in the middle of the block party – I think it’s kind of embarrassing, but who am I to turn down pizza?

    Now this isn’t to say that I don’t nod a ‘hello’ to people on the street, but I don’t need people up in my business. And really, I tell my mother to MYOB when she asks me about more grandchildren, so what gives my neighbours the right to ask those kinds of questions?

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