Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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A neighborhood in northwest Phoenix (Glendale) Arizona, from the slopes of Thunderbird Mountain.

I noticed the neighbor girl at the same moment Danny, another neighbor, did. She was huddled on a big rock in her front yard with her head in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. Danny and I looked at one another, and moved in from opposite sides of the street.

I’ll call the girl Kim. Though at 23, she’s more woman than girl, at least physically. She has milky white skin, pale blue eyes, and a mass of thick chestnut hair that falls in natural ringlets about her shoulders. She is what today we call special needs, and her manner slides on a scale between sweet and child-like on one end and anxious and fearful on the other.

I’ve known Kim and her parents, Karen and Joe,ย  since my husband Tom and I moved in down the street on New Year’s Eve three years ago. When we emerged from unpacking to go in search of dinner, theirs was the first house we noted; music was blaring, a bonfire was crackling, and revelers were awaiting the countdown to midnight. The following year we joined the party, in what we learned was an annual event Karen and Joe hosted in the neighborhood.

Last autumn Joe was in a freak motorcycle accident around the corner from home. He was driving 30 mph when he lost control of the Harley. He skidded and crashed, fracturing his skull and severing his spine. Karen was forced to get a job, something she had never done since her daughter developed a brain aneurysm at the age of 11 months. Now, as Kim will tell you each time you chat with her, she has to take care of her dad while her mother is at work. She has to take care of her dad while her mother is at work. She has to take care of her dad while her mother is at work.

The day I found her on the rock, I think the stress of these changes had simply overwhelmed her.

This episode made me think, as I often do these days, of neighbors and communities. We’ve been pulled deeper into this neighborhood since we landed here three years ago, intending to rent for a while, to recover from our own personal housing disaster and somehow thrive without taking root. But the threads of that illusion spun themselves out even before yesterday evening. They fly like tattered flags over our house, in face of the kindness of our neighbors and the stories we have come to know about them.

Take Dave and Cristine across the street. We hardly talked to them at all before this last Christmas, except to chat briefly on Halloween as we stood outside our houses surveying the number of trick-or-treaters. Then Cristine came bearing her annual gift of homemade Yuletide tamales. When we locked ourselves out of our house on a chilly night three weeks ago (without even a cell phone), Dave and Cristine stepped up like old buddies. They plied us with beers, found a locksmith, and urged us to wait it out in comfort at their house.

We know so many stories now about our formerly anonymous neighbors: smart, efficient Jennifer next door who lost her father this last year; Lewis the communications consultant on our east side whose brother died of a drug overdose long ago, and who leaves weekly shopping bags bursting with oranges on our doorstep every February; German Ilse down the street who photographs dogs and lost both her mother and her beloved black Lab at Christmastime; Lewis’s wife Liz who is crazy about crafts and scrapbooking and runs an annual holiday cookie exchange; Sharon, whose 22-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident the year before we moved in; and Karen, Kim’s mom, who was about to divorce her husband Joe at the time of his accident and now cares for him as he recovers and adjusts to life without the use of his legs.

Someday, if we ever want to own a house again, Tom and I will have to move from here. But my neighbors are going to make it very difficult to pack up and leave. I have never lived in a neighborhood so caring and embracing. A neighborhood where a dozen people will show up at your door with complete dinners should you experience some tragedy, as happened when Joe had the accident. And yet, it is just the kind of neighborhood I used to disdain. Just another safe and boring suburban enclave cut out of the desert, I thought, one house barely distinguishable from another, manicured lawns, cars duly backing out of garages each morning and returning each evening. But now, I’ve come to see the community behind the houses. And I regret that my days here are likely numbered.

Back to Kim. The night she broke down, I walked with her up and down the street. The other neighbor, Danny, and my husband Tom came to check every ten minutes and offer advice. Mostly they stood there, impotent, as I was. Each time Kim and I stopped walking, the tears and shudders would start again. Dark fell. Kim texted her mother. She had forgotten that this one night Karen was out for a brief respite: a couple of hours with a friend at a Mexican restaurant. Kim oscillated between anger and weeping. At last, her father, who had been knocked out on meds all afternoon, woke to find a ruckus in his carport. He bumped over the threshold in his wheelchair, rolled down a ramp they’d installed after the accident, and stopped before Kim. “Come on in Kimmy,” he said weakly. “Everything’s going to be all right.” Danny, Tom and I chimed in, imploring Kim to go inside and watch a favorite television program. She finally followed her father into the house, her shoulders sagging. She did not look back as she punched the garage door button.

A few days later I walked down the street again to the mailboxes. Kim was ambling around outside her house at the end of the block. “Hi Jeanne!” she called.

“Hi Kim,” I said. “Everything’s okay now, huh. Did you watch your shows the other night?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling at me. “Thank you for helping me. I really appreciate it.”

What Kim didn’t realize was that somehow she had given much more to me than I had given to her. She had pulled me one step further into community.

This post is a response to the latest flash fiction challenge from Carrot Ranch: January 27, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about how a community reaches out. Who, or what cause, is touched by a community “spoke”? Do you think communities can impact change and move a “wheel”? Why or why not? Explore the idea of a community hub in a flash fiction.

While Charli’s challenge prompted the above thoughts, a different thread was also going through my mind after reading accounts of the settlers on the American plains in the 1870s. The flash that follows owes its inspiration to that bit of history. And I think it speaks to the crux of what community is.

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A Community of Two

Mrs. James McClure. Lucy McClure. Is that who I am? I hardly know. Look at me! Living in a dirt house. My only music the godforsaken wind. The space outside my door maddening in its infinitude. I wish I’d never heard of Kansas! But they say there’s another woman on these plains. I’ve walked hours to see if itโ€™s true. And Lord above, it is! We look at each other across the mean, trodden yard. We daren’t breathe. Then we break. Fall into each others’ arms. Laughter and sobs leap from our throats. Oh, neighbor, how sweet the name!

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

  1. Waiting for the tears to clear so I can type! Oh, beautiful so beautiful both post and flash. It matters not the matching homes or the widespread rambling places. People. That’s who matters. Neighbors who become friends who become community. I can see how you are knit closely to yours, one person, one tragedy, one triumph at a time. Even if you do leave one day, those stories are written on your heart. You’ll leave your rental but not the place you gained in that community. We had a special neighbor back in Minnesota and we still talk with him and his family. He still feels like my neighbor!

    What amazes me here is how you built up this powerful emotion in your post and then poured it into a 99 word flash as if you distilled your story into a fictional account. In those two prairie women, I see you you and Kim. Magnificent!

    1. I started this post Charli in response to last weeks prompt on a boy and his dog. Didn’t get it done in time, and if the element of vulnerability and need was there, the dog theme wasn’t, except in the flash I was formulating. Happily when I saw the next prompt was community, I felt the idea had been simmering for a reason. I’ve lived in neighborhoods where aside from immediate neighbors, I felt no sense of community around me. Now as I sit at my desk in my spare-room study, I feel the presence of good people out there, of unique individuals whose path I get to share for a while. It gives me a simple happiness, but one that strikes at the core of a person. And you’re right, whatever happens now, their “stories are written” in my heart.I expect I will keep in touch with some of them.
      As for the flash, I thought of you and your touching scenes of Cobb and Sarah and Mary. I imagine the lives our ancestors had, not all that far back, and wonder at their fortitude and resourcefulness and tenacity in the face of such crushing loneliness and biblical, elemental challenges. So thank you for the validation. I had not veered off from the post like that before, but that’s what called. And thanks especially for visiting the site and leaving your feedback here!

  2. I read your flash when it appeared on Charli’s blog but didn’t make it over till now to read the rest of your post, which is very moving. One of the great things about a close community is its capacity to support the more vulnerable members to everyone’s benefit.
    Your Flash, however, reminded me of when I was travelling through South America for three months with my husband. We got on well and we met other people, but it wasn’t until I connected with another woman in one of the places we were staying that I realised how much I’d been missing close female companionship.

    1. Great to see your comment here Anne. I am afraid I am very remiss at getting my posts out in the larger world, and I know it is hard to click on everyone’s links from the Carrot Ranch site. So it’s always a treat to come back and find someone has made it over. As for the post, the experience that provoked it was so moving for me. It underscored a feeling that had been growing in me for over a year that we really were part of something, and that somehow we had moved from the fringe to members through the very thing you hit on: we were called to respond to a need, to step up to the plate and commit more of ourselves. As for women friends! I think I was in my 30s when it hit me how really important women friends were, as opposed to just friends. Maybe males have something similar, but I love how women somehow connect wordlessly. We Americans are of course more forward than some anglophones (I remember being rebuffed a couple of times in England for being a “nosy parker” when I was just doing what we do this side of the pond: commenting about something without a proper introduction. But I was lonely over there for a spell when I first arrived, and eager to connect whether it was standing in line at a store or walking down the street admiring people’s front gardens. Anyway, I digress ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. Being in South America, the added boost of finding woman friend in such a totally different environment must have been a small heaven.

  3. Oh Jeanne, I am at at last getting a chance to read your beautiful and powerful post. You took me right back to those days when we rented, hoping to ‘thrive without putting down roots’. I’ve been there so many times. Bought, sold, lost, rented, bought again…now, 8 years later, hubby, Aspie D and I are looking to move. But that’s another story. Your story about Kim reminds me of my daughter in a way, her sweet, child one side but her anger and anxiety on the other. Except that, of course, my daughter, doesn’t have to look after anyone. But, your post is such a powerful illustration of how important it is to take the time to get to know those people living behind closed doors in our neighbourhood. These days, here especially, so many people don’t bother. They go to work, come home, eat, watch TV, sleep…but how many are battling every day just to get through the day, to cope, to manage, to survive? Your flash is beautiful. I felt that recognition, a reminder of times when I’ve felt so lonely and then someone comes across my path and offers friendship…so many times in my life, when I knew nobody. Wonderful post, thank you Jeanne.

    1. Sherri, it is so true what you say here about the importance of taking the time to get beyond those closed doors and preconceptions of people. I tend to look and people and think they all have such superior lives to mine, that they have made better decisions (financial among them) and have perfect children and harmonious marriages. The whole bundle. It is such a childish mindset to have, since the reality is that life is tough. No one gets out of it unscathed. And then you find that those seemingly happy people are carrying the same burdens you carry, or heavier ones. The sense of shared humanity washes over you and you are empowered, emotionally and psychologically, to carry on. And yes, the renting…. I have come to the conslusion that there are those settled, safe kind of people who have 30 year mortgages and ride the market cautiously, and then there are people like me who never wanted the chains of a mortgage until well into adulthood. Would I give up the experiences I had abroad in my 20s and 30s for more stability now. I guess not. Thanks so much for visiting with me here.

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