Just Another Neighborly Day in the Beauty Hood

Say, who are the people in your neighborhood,

the people that you see each day?
        —Sesame Street

It was an inopportune time for the water to be shut off. Dirty dishes filled the sink—of course, that was the morning I decided to cook a big breakfast. And two stacks of dirty laundry awaited their turn in the washer.

I tried the faucet one more time: a hiss and a fizzle, then nothing. I clipped the leash onto the dancing little dog. Off we went for our morning walk.

Phyllis was out weeding in her magical garden, with its radiating brick walkways and its wildflowers and bursting colors. In the center, a wise old stone rabbit surveyed the riot of blooms. And Ace, who looks like a smaller, longer-haired version of Lassie, came over, his beautifully coifed mane floating, to stick his regally long snout through the fence slats, sniffing at Greta.

I asked Phyllis if she had water.

No, she said. She’d noticed something going on around the corner on Norwood, and figured the city was doing something with the pipes.

We chatted a moment, inconsequentially, and then I nudged the dog to move on.

“Hey,” Phyllis called after us, her gloved hands deep in mulchy soil, “keep an eye out for poison ivy. It’s everywhere this year!”

We meandered, Greta and I, to the corner of Norwood, where there were cones in the street and a bold orange ‘road closed’ sign. Halfway down the block, workers in lemon-yellow shirts stood around some sort of digging machine which had its munching proboscis deep in the earth beneath the street.

The dog and I both sighed. Missions accomplished, we headed back.

*********

At home, James was up and had discovered, for himself, that water was not running from the pipes. He brushed his teeth with filtered water, and we took a ride over to the nearest dollar store. I was a little leery–I remembered water outages where all the bottled water had quickly disappeared from the store shelves–but there in the entryway was a huge display of shrink-wrapped water bottles. We loaded two twenty-four packs into a cart and went in search of gallon jugs. We added four of those.

The friendly clerk asked if we were going camping, and when we told her her about the water shut-off, she said, “Uh oh.” She lives on Norwood.

Fortunately, she said, no one was home, and maybe, if she was really lucky, the water’d be back on by the time her shift ended.

“Hey–have you had a problem with poison ivy this year?” she asked, handing me the receipt.

********

We lugged the water into the house, a two trip endeavor, and put gallon jugs in the bathrooms. We opened one plastic wrapped package of serving-sized bottles and slid them into the fridge.

“Jeez,” I started. “You’d think they could have warned us! What if we had health problems? What if we were shut-ins and couldn’t get out to get water?”

As I whined, my eye wandered over the hedge to Shirley’s house, and my thoughts wandered to Shirley, who DOES have health problems, and who IS a shut-in. I dialed her number and got her voice mail.

I’m leaving a gallon jug of water on your front step, I told her.

Shirley called later. By then the water was blessedly back on, and I was contemplating things I take for granted, like the never-ending supply of clean fresh water I enjoy, unlike people in, say, Texas, right now, or in many other parts of the world, who do not always enjoy such bounty. Shirley said thanks and told me she was feeling pretty good, all things considered, and asked how I liked retirement. Just before she clicked off, she said, “Oh, honey, I have to tell you. When Merilee was here yesterday, she noticed there’s poison ivy all around under the hedge between the houses.

I went out and looked. Leaves of three: let ’em be. Leaves of five: ‘sakes alive.

***********

That night before dinner I mowed the backyard and Mark, freshly changed into grubby clothes after work, mixed up a batch of weed killer and walked slowly along the hedge that wanders the property line between our house and Shirley’s, decimating the invidious poison ivy. After a thorough scrub down, we grilled our supper and then took an evening walk.

We passed Jeff, the serious young pastor down the street, walking with his two children. Jeff’s little guy is about two; he was struggling along on a tiny bicycle with training wheels. His face was scarlet with exertion, but he refused to get off and walk. He chattered, every sentence beginning with “DAD!” His thoughtful sister, aged four, maybe, was much quieter. She held tight to her dad’s hand, slogging along in knee-high rubber boots paisley-patterned in pink and yellow. A glittery green cape whooshed gently behind her; every moment or so, she tugged at its knots as they tugged at her neck. When she spoke, Jeff leaned down to catch every word.

We smiled and waved (“A little quiet time for the mama?” Mark suggested), and we waved, too, to the tiny woman, sun-browned and jaw-jutting, mowing the yard at the little house down the hill. She and her teen-aged daughter are the newest neighbors.

***********

I took my tea out to the patio just as the light began to wane; I opened my book, but didn’t read. I listened to the birds, and to the trilling of the cicadas, and then Sandy slipped through the passageway from next store with a seriously lumpy gift bag in her hand.

It was a collection of Avon stuff–lotions and powders and potions and blushing colors–with a woman of a certain age and of a certain retired status in mind. (Sandy’s daughter works at Avon and gets a nice discount, so now I luxuriate in scents and unguents I would never, being fervently frugal, buy for myself.)

We talked about Sandy’s recent foot surgery; she is NOT, by her own admission, a compliant patient, and she was out in the yard, watering, the day she came home from the hospital. Two weeks off my feet? Bah, she scoffed, although she allowed, ruefully, that her doctor was not too happy with her. And she was worried about mobility; she and her boyfriend are embarking on a cruise in just a couple of weeks and she wants to hike and dance and  explore.

We talked about getting the neighborhood together for a picnic, and we talked about the best colors to paint houses, and about what flowers the darned deer will leave alone. And, when the bugs started biting, we both reluctantly got up, stretching, to head inside.

“Oh,” said Sandy, “you might not have noticed. There’s poison ivy all through the hostas on your side of the line.

***********

The next day, Mark came home from work and mixed up more plant poison. While I chatted with Becky across the street, and played peekaboo with her pretty niece-baby, Eleanor, Mark trudged up and down the property line on the Sandy-side, spraying for poison ivy.

************

During the law school years back in Ada, we lived in a mobile home court, our trailer on the very edge, bounded by the street, an unending corn field, and one neighboring trailer. I remember, one night, taking a book about modern life out on the little patio we created in front, and reading about the dearth of neighborhood interaction. It used to be, that author (his name, and the title of the book, long-forgotten) opined, that people new to an area gathered their information from their neighbors.

Where to shop? Which dentist to see? The most patient teacher for a reluctant-to-learn third grader? Once moms would glean that information from other moms who lived nearby, or dads, as they grilled hit dogs or tossed a ball to young Bubba, would transfer knowledge. Nowadays, said the book, people do not talk to their neighbors, do not interact beyond perfunctory hellos. They often don’t even know each other’s names. Work has become the new neighborhood, the place where people socialize, and exercise, and answer the questions, and share the wisdom, of every day life.

I thought ruefully that the author might have a point, and lifted my head from the book to see one of the neighbor families out for a walk—mom, dad, the four step-stoned little ones, three boys with close blond crew cuts, one fragile little girl with long platinum hair. They all waved and said hello, the children exquisitely mannered. They went to our church on Sundays. Then they were dressed to the nines in buttoned-up shirts and little bow ties–Dad, too–and mom and the tiny girl in flouncy dresses.

On nightly walks, though, the kids wore shorts and slapped along in flipflops, and Dad, who was a tattoo artist and shaved his head to show off the art on his scud, often had his pet boa constrictor wrapped around his noggin.

That night, the snake was there. I waved, relieved they declined to stop and talk, and laid the book down to contemplate the neighborhoods we’d lived in. I remember thinking about how lucky–how blessed–we had been. Our neighbors had been unique–funny and empathetic, traditional and wacky, young and old and in-between, and ethnically diverse and distinctly and differently abled–but they had always been people who knew our names and shared our worries and celebrated our joys. We’d lived in many neighborhoods; we had always felt surrounded by people who cared, people who would drop everything to help in emergency times.

We’ve lived in two neighborhoods since the law school days, and I continue to be warmed by the knowledge that those who live near to us are people we know, people who share, people who laugh and nudge in the good times, and who pitch in to help in the trying ones.

We just never know when we move into a new neighborhood who we’re going to meet. The ages, the family situations, the economic habits, the spiritual beliefs and political values, the lawn-mowing habits–all these things may be vastly foreign to ours. What ties us is the land beneath our feet, the air we breathe, and the proximity we have to each other.

It’s joyful, in these new retirement days, to renew and strengthen those everyday ties, to realize, as Mr. Rogers’ and Sesame Street’s words wove so firmly into our social consciousnesses, just how important are the people we see each day.

**************

Mark hacks down bushes and overgrown shrubs, getting ready for the painters to come, creating access to house walls and clearing serene clear spaces in the yard. He totes the rambling cuttings in the new wheelbarrow, dumping them into the parking area behind the garage.

When he is done, when that space is filled, Buddy, from the house behind us, comes out to see him.

Every neighborhood has a ‘mayor’; Buddy is ours. A single fellow, not employed, he keeps an eye on things. He is helpful and observant. He talks with everyone.

Now he talks with Mark. What, Buddy asks, does Mark plan to do with all those rangy cuttings? The two men hunker, examining the five-foot deep pile that extends two car lengths.

Mark talks of chopping, bundling, packaging and mulching, saving some large pieces of woody growth and some small pieces to dry out–kindling, maybe.

 

Nah. Buddy disagrees. I got a friend, he says–my friend Curtis–he’ll come in his pickup truck and take the whole thing away. Give him, maybe, twenty bucks a trip; he’ll take it out to his place in the country, chip it up for mulch.

Two trips, you figure? says Mark, and Buddy says yeah, two trips ought to do it.

That evening, Curtis comes in his truck, hauls away the brush. Buddy comes back over, stands with Mark, and they survey the newly clean parking place.

It’s good, they agree.

Buddy asks about the painters; he approves of the folks we hired, discusses with Mark the garage, which we will paint ourselves. What about the garage door? Buddy asks. Same color or contrasting?

Mark tells him what we have planned. Buddy contemplates, then offers his opinions.

They shake hands, finally, and Mark turns. He’s envisioning a fire in the fire pit; he’s thinking of two fingers of that nice single malt–iced, maybe–that comes from the village in Scotland where my mama’s family lived. And then Buddy calls him back.

“Looks,” he says to Mark, pointing, “like you got p’ison ivy climbing up that pole. Best get on ‘er.”

Mark looks, and sure enough. He sighs and trudges off, off to mix more plant poison, to work to quell that scourge, to dampen the eternal pop-up of that dangerously itchy plant, to insure we’re not promoting the spread of something harmful to the people who live around us.

It’s what you do, after all, for your neighbors.

 

*****

Some names have been changed to protect the unsuspecting…

Walking in My Neighborhood, Several Stories Deep

Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood...
Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood…

I clip the leash onto the collar of my wacky little dog, Greta, and pull open the back door. Greta stiffens, and I look down to see Maxie, the new mayor of the neighborhood, standing expectantly outside the storm door.

Maxie is a black cat with a priest’s collar; his head is the size and shape of a squashed softball. He is sleek and talkative. He waits in the ivy, under the shrubs that line the drive, when I come home. As soon as I open the car door, he starts his approach, spouting a long line of complaints: Yowlyowlmewwwwrrrryowlyou! MEW.

He always ends decisively, waiting for a response.

I usually give him a little piece of frozen turkey from a baggie in the freezer; he accepts this, but seems none too thrilled.

Max lives with the Next-to-Newest Neighbors across the street–a lovely mom and her just-college age daughter. Max was the daughter’s friend’s cat. When Daughter’s Friend was going off to school, Daughter’s Friend’s Dad calmly informed her he was going to shoot the damned cat.

Apparently he wasn’t kidding; so, Maxie came home with our next-to-newest neighbor.

He’s an outdoor guy, Max: he only goes in when the weather is too cold for cats to sleep au naturel. Meantime, he prowls the neighborhood, making sure everything is safe. He spends a lot of time with Shirley, our elderly, widowed neighbor. He naps in her window well. She provides food and drink in case Max needs a little nosh.

Sometimes I’ll pull up the driveway and see Max sitting outside Sandy’s Florida room next door, staring hungrily through the window at her squawking gray parrot, who is not amused by the visitation. And for a while, Max decided he wanted to check out the Newest Neighbors’ home across the street. He would stand by their front door and warble insistently. From the house, deep ominous barks resounded. Maxie was unfazed, but the Newest Neighbors did not seem inclined to let him in to explore.

Today, Maxie glances at Greta on the leash, then looks at me in disgust. Really? he registers clearly. Walking that stupid dog??? He gives his sleek shoulders a shake and ambles off toward his nest in the ivy. Greta rumbles deep in her throat and pulls me toward the yard and the front walk. Let’s avoid that scary cat, she’s implying.

We head out to the street. Maxie forgotten, Greta settles in to a nice sniffing meander. We don’t get two steps before she finds a fascinating pocket of scent. We stop, and I gaze across the street, at the lights down below, twinkling out this early morning. A walk with the Grets is a stop and start affair.

Our neighborhood traces a ravine; my house is on the firmly planted side. Across the street, where Next-to-Newest and Newest Neighbors have their sparkling white abodes, the houses perch. Front yards are lovely; back yards drop off abruptly.

The ravine is long and steep and wooded, a refuge for a herd of deer who wander up, unabashed, almost daily. We watch the babies grow up during the summer; we watch the wary relationship between Senior Buck and Junior Buck. Greta snuffles up their scent, fascinated, and they obligingly leave lots of it around, sometimes in freshly steaming piles on the pine needle carpets in our backyard.

Woe to my plantings; they’re fast food for deer. But this Spring—hah! I have a recipe from my woods-and-fields-savvy friend Theresa. I’ll be dousing my hosta, my impatiens, my everything, with the Theresa Formula. Take that, you foraging deer.

There are gray squirrels and black squirrels in the neighborhood; they bore Greta, who just ignores them. There are bunnies, too, and chipmunks, — although, come to think of it, not as many sightings occur since Maxie’s moved in.

Having read her olfactory messages, the dog snorts and we move on. Phyllis’s house is the last on the street, ravine-side. It has a lovely side deck, between the house and a little woods. The driveway leads right up to that deck, which overlooks the ravine, and, at night, a beautiful light display: you can see the busy commerce and industry of Linden Avenue just below; off to the southeast, the lights of the city glitter in the night sky.

The way Phyllis’s house is situated, the street at the corner leads right into her driveway.

One night, shortly after we moved in–congratulating ourselves on landing in this quiet neighborhood–(Mark would stand outside at night with his eyes closed and his arms at his side, palms parallel with the ground, murmuring, “It’s so QUIET.” Our vacated neighborhood was NOT.)–I went to bed early, worn out from the strenuous haul of moving and unpacking. I was reading in bed, eyelids drooping, when the sirens began, a low whining that grew closer and closer.

And closer. Soon, one could hear speeding cars, tires on pavement, brakes squealing; that grew rapidly closer, too. And then, very close, a crash!

I heard Mark’s startled exclamation, heard him scuffing into his old shoes, heard the front door open as he ran out to see what was going on. “Oh. BOY!” Jim said; he was, I could tell from the placement of his voice, standing at the front window.

I considered going down, but knew the Markmeister had it under control. He would tell me the story when he came in.

And so he did. Hotly pursued by a police cruiser, a car drove up the street, couldn’t make the turn, and flew right on to Phyllis’s deck. The driver jumped out and ran into the backyard, where he didn’t expect a ravine. He tumbled over the edge.

Mark stood with Phyllis and her husband Terry as the drama unfolded. The hapless driver, thinking to avoid arrest, crawled up the ravine at the other end of the street. The police, who’d been nonchalantly watching his progress, cuffed him and threw him into the cruiser, called for a tow truck, and took all the necessary information from Phyllis and Terry.

Mark, who works for a county government unit and gets all the juice, brought the details home next day.

Seems Driver Man was from a notorious ne’er-do-well family. Needing some weekend drinkin’ cash, he called for a pizza, thinking he’d take the delivery guy’s stash. Driver Man lived in an isolated country locale.

Delivery Guy arrived, got out of the car, and was confronted by Driver Man, wielding a pistol. Delivery Guy was big, and not a man for nonsense. He slapped the pizza box into Driver Man’s face and took his gun away. Then, when the pizza box fell off Driver Man’s face, Delivery Guy popped him a good one.

Down went Driver Man. Delivery Guy pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. As he was talking to the dispatcher, Driver Man scrambled to his feet. Delivery Man popped him again.

Down, again, went Driver Man.

Now stop hitting him! the dispatcher purportedly said. Get in your car and drive back to work, and an officer will meet you there to pick up the gun and get your report.

O-kay, said Delivery Guy, reluctantly, but when Driver Man got up again, talking some smack, he couldn’t resist knocking him down one last time. By the time the police arrived, Driver Man had wobbled into his own vehicle, and the chase began.

They drove darned near all over the county before Driver Man flew his vehicle onto Phyllis’s deck, decimating it.

By the time the luckless felon crawled up the cliff, he was battered from the repeated poppings, scraped and cut from the fall down the ravine, and ready for medical attention and a comfortable bed in a cell.

The insurance rebuilt Phyllis and Terry’s deck, but it was one of the last times we saw him, that kind, friendly, helpful neighbor. He was hospitalized shortly after the Deck Event. He never came home. Now Phyllis and her sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren enjoy sitting on that deck, talking softly on starry summer nights. But we know how much they miss Terry.

Greta makes her mandatory sniff-examination of Phyllis’s rose bush; satisfied, we wander across the street and up the long curving driveway of the Helen Purcell Home. Helen Purcell had been the sickly daughter of a local family in the early 1800’s. Since she was puny, anyway, she was designated as the one to stay home and care for Mamaw and Papaw. Her siblings went to school, got married, moved away; Helen learned to sew. And she was pretty [I so want to say ‘darned’] good at it. She took in sewing and made a little extra money.

And then, the parents both died, and there was Helen, suddenly and sadly free. She packed up her sewing stuff and her belongings and she moved herself to Cincinnati, where she set up shop. And she succeeded; she was a sought-after seamstress, and an independent woman.

Until her brother got sick. Then Helen was called home–her role, after all, was to care for the sick ones. She left her beloved independent life. She nursed her brother, but she never forgot her taste of freedom. She, the sickly one, outlived all her family contemporaries. When she died, she left her estate in trust, to establish a place where women in need could recover from whatever vicissitudes plagued them. It was a healing home for independent women needing to get back on their feet.

Now it is a home for the elderly; not so very long ago, they agreed, finally, to admit men, too, and the facility offers independent and assisted living and managed care. The staff is lovely, the residents energetic; there is a van that takes people out and about, although many of the residents park their own vehicles in the long carport that faces our house. In the lovely common area, with its polished paneled walls and massive fireplace, there is always a jigsaw puzzle in progress, and always clusters of people visiting and laughing. Not bad neighbors to have.

We round the expansive driveway, and come out on Norwood Boulevard, near the Mission Oaks Gardens. The park, open to all from dawn to dusk, is reached by crossing the Hendleys’ driveway. The Hendleys had a vision of a winding, meandering park within the city; they bought the house and acquired grounds abutting their property, then acquired more, and the gardens grew. We walk there in the good weather, sometimes sitting in the rustic log tea house; we watch throughout the summer, as the plants shoot up and bloom.

There are rhododendrons, local of root; all kinds of hosta; native flowers and imported flowers; trees and shrubs. There is a vast conifer garden. There are two ponds with tall waterfalls, and there are benches and gazebos and many places where a bride can splendidly pose.

It is not a place for Greta to walk, though. I am not sure, prissy city dog that she is, that she’d even consent to walk down the grassy paths; she’s a sidewalk girl, my Greta. But it doesn’t matter: she’s not invited. The park is home to an aging Scottie dog, who greets all visitors and likes a bit of a scratch. When we moved into the neighborhood, there were a pair of Scotties; now this guy remains, alone. He’s awfully glad to walk a ways with a visitor to the garden.

But it’s cold and muddy January; this is not a Mission Oaks day. We walk the sidewalk by the gracious, Spanish-style home on the property instead. This house, with its lovely upper deck (what a great place for morning coffee, I always think) has a Past. It was the abode of a wealthy businessman’s mistress, who lived brazenly there and entertained her paramour while the respectable wife held court across town.

Deer at the Hendleys

Now the Mistress’s House is the gateway to a great gift to the community. You just never know, I figure.

We start down the street past the Hendleys’, but Greta abruptly changes her mind, turns around, and leads me home. We take the sidewalk, the fast way. We encounter no feline or otherwise furry friends.

It’s not a long walk, but it certainly is a story-filled one. We all know how exhausting stories can be to a tired little hound, one who has to protect a house all day and contend at times with an ornery neighborhood cat.

Greta waits patiently for me to treat her with frozen coins of hot dog once we are safely inside, and then she jumps up on to the couch, paddles down the throw, and snuggles up. I get my book and join her. She puts her heads on my leg and snores; I travel vicariously to Scotland.

We’ll find more neighborhood tales on future days, as we deepen our relations with our neighbors, share their memories, hear their adventures.  It’s one of the perks of coming to such a stopping place: here we can send down our roots, several stories deep.

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The cover photo on this site shows one of the ponds from Mission Oaks Gardens…