Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Great house, shame about the neighbours


What does it mean to love thy neighbour? I'm confronted by this question every day, because I don't.

On one side is a disgruntled older woman who loathes us because we, to her, represent gentrification. We know this not because she talks with us – she won't even acknowledge our greetings – but because, having refused to meet with us regarding our renovation, in a surprise move she took us to the building tribunal to complain. When we appeared before the panel, her issues turned out to have nothing to do with the building; instead, she and her adult sons ranted about the yuppies who were changing the suburb, and told everyone how hard their lives had been in the post-war migration period fifty years earlier. Notwithstanding that they now drive a large late-model Mercedes, they are, apparently, life's victims and we are the privileged ones they love to hate. It's been five years since our renovation, and they still haven't forgiven us; and I am beginning to realise they never will.

Yesterday, I discovered a sturdy five-foot-long wooden bench in the hard rubbish. As I carried it home, my two year old tripped over and skinned her palms. She began to wail, so I put down the bench, sat on it, and gave her a big cuddle. I had a vague thought that we may have presented an amusing picture, even charming – mother and daughter having a moment on a green bench in the middle of the footpath – but clearly not. My neighbour bustled around the side of her house to see what the commotion was; but when she saw us, she ignored my cheerful greeting, hissed through her teeth, and turned her back on us. Again.

A few doors up in the other direction is a couple who moved in perhaps four years ago, then had a son. I've greeted them every single time I've seen them in the street or bumped into them at the local shops, and the mother is yet to do anything other than stare straight through me.

There's another guy who doesn't acknowledge my greetings; the invisible people who scurry from their back doors to their carports and so out via the lane; and the family across the street which, although I have dropped in with gifts of quinces and cake, still do no more than wave if they're caught directly in my line of sight, and I wave first.

For a few years I thought that perhaps we hadn't been here long enough, and that if I kept smiling and greeting and waving, then we'd settle into the street. But lately I've realised we've been here almost ten years; before I know it, one of us will be carted out in a pine box and our neighbours will barely register.

When I was a kid, we were in and out of the neighbours' houses. Kids flowed between four or five houses in the street; neighbours stopped to say hello and swap lemons and figs; there was always someone around when we needed an emergency babysitter. Our street was choked with traffic, but we'd climb the tree in the front, hang over the footpath and give pedestrians a start; we'd share rides and walks to school; we'd hang out after school and play. Here, this is unimaginable.

It's not that I want my neighbours to be my best friends. But I'd like a cheerful greeting, a bit of 'how's the weather', or a cup of tea in someone's kitchen from time to time. I could use a safe house to drop my kids in an emergency; and I'd love to have a neighbour's kid come by for a play. For that matter, I'd even appreciate the simple courtesy of people returning my greetings. Yet with the exception of a busy older couple who live across the street, I have no indication that anyone else wants any form of interaction at all.

And at some level, why should they? They, like me, must have dozens of friends and companions and fellow-travellers; why add the connections of neighbours? Who really needs to know anyone else?

And yet, why not? Why pretend we're all islands? We overlap at the shops, at the library, at school; our cars jostle for the limited parking out front of our houses; the cats explore each other's yards. Could it be possible that a little interaction might make our stay here a little more enjoyable, a little easier, perhaps even a little bit fun?

A couple of years ago, I wrote about some of my efforts to connect with my street. Sad to say, beyond calling 'hello' left right and centre, we haven't kept it up. We've hardly been encouraged; and in any case, there are times when it feels like whenever we go out front someone across the road is screaming abuse at someone, or our most dotty neighbour is shuffling past, shrieking. For a while, my kids wouldn't go out the front without me.

But they're older now; and we have a new bench. Yesterday's find is on the veranda beside the front door. It's exactly the right height for me to dump my groceries while I fumble for the key; but even better, it's perfect for a kid to sprawl on. The wood has been rendered soft by decades of other people's bottoms; this is one comfortable wooden bench. So comfortable, in fact, that last night, for the first time, my kids asked to go out the front and wait for dad to come home. They turned on the outside light and took books; he found them curled up in a pool of light, on the bench, the oldest reading aloud to the youngest.

It made me wonder whether it's time to dig out the chalk again and let them loose on the footpath while I sit out there shelling almonds. Maybe we can find a way to be present on the street again; maybe someone will smile at the kids; maybe someday someone will return my greeting.

And if not, then at least I will know we have tried.


  1. This reminds me of how I have been feeling lately about how disconnected humans are with each other out in the wide world, even within our small communities. I have become an onlooker at Kinder, looking on at the friendships already formed ,the mums whom always say hi but little else. I hate this I wish we could all just lose the facade and realise that we are all the same.
    I am so grateful for my street and my neighbours, our rental is shonky, and dark my neighbours are the only reason I am here, I love them.
    Get out that chalk you have a right to enjoy your veranda and your path. I'd even have your kids be overly freindly, surely they could melt such cold hearts.

  2. Alison you make me feel blessed to live in a place where I, last week, used the lawnmower belonging to the gang up the street, a few weeks ago fed the chooks who live over the back fence with the family who babysits for us, and who recently proffered (over the back fence) a gift of quince jelly, and a week before that had a lovely dinner and wines down the road with not one but two sets of neighbours!

  3. Glad to hear some of you have terrific neighbours and that the world is not totally frozen over but boy, am I envious! And how depressing to think that we picked the wrong street... now what to do about it??? alison.

  4. Alison, I wish could be your neighbour and you mine! I have the same problem with my neighbours - on both sides, they are post-war migrant families, now grandparents, with grown up sons living at home. Rude, litigious in attitude (one has instigated mediation simply because he doesn't like the trees we have planted along our driveway; the other told us he'd prefer we call the cops than simply speak to him directly when we politely asked him to stop using power tools at midnight). I long for the sort of friendly neighbours I had as a child. Wish I knew what the answer is.

  5. Hi Stompy, Kathleen Norris writes about a friend who, consoling a dying mother, said 'in heaven, you'll see everyone you love' and her mother rebuked her, saying, 'in heaven, I will love everyone I see'. I sort of think that about my neighbours - I'm supposed to love my neighbours, not become neighbours with those I love. But when they emphatically don't want to be loved - now there's the rub!


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