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At one point, after we had grown up and moved away, we counted 28 children in nine houses on our block of East 18th Street in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Across the street, the schoolyard stretched the entire length of our block, a playground and a Little League baseball field beckoning all hours of the day.
Our small world was as safe as it gets, or so we thought: a long row of back yards, open and unfenced. Open kitchen doors with mothers’ heads leaning out to see if anyone needed a drink. Garages that never held cars, waiting to be transformed into imaginary houses, laboratories, department stores, circus tents. Somebody to play with, always.
Everyone knew everyone else, it seemed. We all knew Nancy, the only divorced mother, a single mom with a job who wore stockings and heels and real dresses every day. We knew all the couples, moms and dads, by joined first names: Don and Dean, Doreen and Joe, Gene and Jeanetta, Harry and Jaycel.
We were oblivious to the problems inside the houses that were our safe fortress from the rest of the world. In that block of nine houses, a microcosm of trouble and sorrows just beneath the veneer of daily comfort, or waiting to emerge. Diabetes, emphysema, leukemia, depression. Unemployment, infidelity, alcoholism.
I think of that neighborhood often as I view mine each morning from the front yard, hose in one hand, coffee cup in the other, soaking the garden in hopeful, perpetual battle with what’s beginning to feel like permanent drought. Across the street, a young couple and their well-dressed little blonde daughter, a toddler, load into their cars by no later than 7:30 each morning, headed to work and day care. I watch them as they concentrate on their tasks, ignoring the interloper in the middle distance. The mother is enormously pregnant, and when she arrives home at 6 at night, slowly drags her swollen body out of the car, then goes about the uncomfortable task of unleashing her little girl from the intricate restraints of her car seat.
I don’t know their names, though I suspect they know mine. I became their neighbor through a real estate exchange precipitated by the very public death of a family member, and moved in last year under a cloud of mourning and transition — the long assembly line of family gathered to grieve, friends toting casseroles and cake pans, a parade of human frailty and kindness.
What I wonder while watering the dry grass is whether that mother has a doorway in the neighborhood that she can stick her head through and say hello, unannounced, off the cuff, when she just wants a break, a quick connection. Do any neighbors do this anymore? Or have we finally extinguished the kind of neighborliness that knows everybody’s name, their small joys and minor difficulties, that requires no invitation?
On the Fourth of July, the golden retriever and I watched as a throng of neighbors marched and biked and scooted past our house, decked out in red, white and blue, en route to the annual neighborhood kids’ parade, an event my sons rode and marched in nearly 20 years ago. It was heartening to see multiple generations of inhabitants in this very old neighborhood, coming out of their fenced yards and their carefully constructed dens of privacy, to hang out in the street together for a couple of hours. It felt odd to count myself among the older ones as I watched the young families, babies in strollers, friends and brothers and sisters racing, mothers and fathers juggling dog leashes and backpacks and water bottles. On this day, a holiday, we gathered briefly to say: Here I am. Your neighbor.
I walked home with a friend and the golden retriever, admiring gardens along the way as the sun began to bake our shoulders and the tops of our heads. The next-door neighbor stopped and talked with us. She nodded across the street to the young couple’s house.
“They had their baby yesterday,” she said. “Nine pounds, eleven ounces. A boy.” She told us the new baby boy’s name and his big sister’s, admiring both names for their sturdiness and dignity.
By the next morning, I had forgotten their names, but watched once again as the father loaded up his little girl into her car seat. Just before he got into the driver’s seat, I yelled “Congratulations!” then, awkwardly, “He’s a big one!”
It was the first time I had ever spoken to my neighbor. It won’t be the last.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.