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Remembering A Very Good Neighbor

At a time when more than half of all Americans don't know their neighbors' names, a tribute to the very special man next door. (Derek Bruff/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
At a time when more than half of all Americans don't know their neighbors' names, a tribute to the very special man next door. (Derek Bruff/flickr)

“Good fences make good neighbors,” we read in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” At a time when more than half of Americans do not know the names of their neighbors, and a third of Britons reportedly "couldn’t pick their near neighbors out of a police lineup,” it would seem that many agree. I consider myself lucky to have beaten the odds.

...the doorbell would ring at the start of what parents know to be the universal 'witching hour,' and Lou would be standing there with a pizza or a rotisserie chicken.

In 2006, I moved with my family to a small bungalow across from a park. The selling point for our son, then 4, was not the easy access to the swings and soccer fields. Rather, it was the Popsicle proffered by our new neighbor, an octogenarian named Lou. “Welcome, welcome,” he bellowed, like a salesman. “This is the best neighborhood for a family.”

The neighborhood was densely populated, with small city lots. We wondered whether, between the park and the well-intentioned neighbors, we might feel a bit too exposed. Because, truth be told, we had never really made an effort to connect with our past neighbors. We could tell that we were moving into a place where that was not the norm.

Buying that house turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made. Not for the real estate investment, but for its other payoffs.

Lou had lived in the neighborhood for decades. Despite the difference in our ages, Lou and his wife, Mary, became trusted friends to me, to my husband and, most of all, our two children.

There were many nights when the doorbell would ring at the start of what parents know to be the universal “witching hour,” and Lou would be standing there with a pizza or a rotisserie chicken. “You take the night off,” he’d say, disappearing with a wave as I effused gratitude.

Lou, with the author's children, in 2014. (Amy Carleton/Courtesy)
Lou, with the author's children, in 2014. (Amy Carleton/Courtesy)

He would insist on driving us to the airport — “Don’t waste your money on a cab!” he’d holler. He would attend our family parties with his camera and make everyone pose for photos that he would later develop and leave in our mailbox.

When our water heater burst one winter, he insisted that we come next door for showers and baths. And the next month, when a furnace valve failed and we didn’t have heat, he dispatched his friend (another retired 80-something) to fix the faulty system.

On the day we brought our daughter home from the hospital, Lou was in his easy chair perch watching from the window as our car pulled into the driveway. He and Mary rushed out to greet her. “Isn’t that something — a new baby in the neighborhood!” they exclaimed. And, just like that, a new neighbor was welcomed into the fold.

When we moved to a new house, it felt, in some ways, like a break up. Lou sniffed, unimpressed, at the photos of our new place. My husband passed on the honor of mowing Lou’s lawn to another neighbor. And we tucked away our memories, along with those photos.

Two months ago, we visited the hospital for what would be our last conversation with Lou. After a full life filled with much giving and kindness, he succumbed to illness at age 90, still cracking jokes from his hospital bed. My 11-year-old son, musing in the backseat on the way home, noted that Mr. Lou showed kindness far beyond what we normally see in neighbors or even some families these days. That’s just the kind of person Lou was.

“And it all started with that Popsicle,” my son said.

There has long been a history of research espousing the benefits of community engagement and residing in inter-generational neighborhoods. Some of the most recent research even suggests that there might be health benefits to connecting with one’s neighbors, such as reduced rates of heart attack and stroke. But for every one of these positive examples, there are the popular culture caricatures of the “nosy neighbor” or people going to great lengths to avoid superficial chit-chat with those who live nearby.

...there might be health benefits to connecting with one’s neighbors, such as reduced rates of heart attack and stroke.

In my days of apartment living, I, too, had those moments when all I wanted to do was get out of the hallway and be on the other side of my door. With the exceptions of considerate package retrieval or a friendly wave here and there, most of my neighbors and I remained strangers. Even now, at the end of a long day, while trying to herd kids and backpacks and dogs on to the next activity, I am often tempted to run inside and close the door.

But then I think of Lou. And with that, I am often the one standing at the edge of the driveway as dusk falls, catching up with the neighbors and walking inside with a smile.

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