Tuesday, May 8, 2012

New Neighbours


My husband and I have always wanted to live in the sort of street where kids run back and forth between the neighbours' houses; and we absolutely don't. There are two families on our block, and neither reply when we greet them in the street. Strange, but true.

So we gave up on our actual neighbours with kids; there are only so many rebuffs one can endure. Instead, we tried to get friends to move in next door; then we looked at moving closer to friends; but we never found a place or arrangement that feels right. And so we have lived these last eight years isolated from any neighbours with children.

Meanwhile, my husband's family is what some psychologists refer to as 'totally disparate'. That is, they don't communicate about anything at any time, and we can go months without seeing or hearing from anyone; text messages disappear into a black hole. To give you an idea, although we live in the same city, we haven't seen one of my husband's brothers in five years. There is no animosity or hostility, just a complete lack of interest. For that matter, we found out accidentally that my husband's aunt was dead and buried; no one had thought to let us know in time for the funeral.

My husband's father has been known to forget the very existence of grandchildren; needless to say, there are no birthday cards from him. He rarely communicates, he's abrupt when my husband calls. Again, there is no hostility, just a lack of interest. His partner is the same.

Yet one day this summer, my father-in-law telephoned. He told me that his partner has a son who lives round the corner with his wife and child; and on such and such a day we were to report there for lunch. While I was still trying to make sense of it, he hung up.

It is the first social engagement he has invited us to in the decade and a half that I have known him – and so, of course, I didn't want to go. Neither did my husband. If the couple were anything like my father-in-law and his partner, we didn't have the energy for them. But being dutiful oldest children, we swallowed our protests and grudgingly walked around the corner, assuring each other that we'd eat lunch then slip away as soon as was polite.

Of course we met the most delightfully intelligent couple, with a similar outlook to ours. We share life experiences; we are all passionately interested in early childhood; the men barrack for the same football team; and we are all exasperated by the olds. I asked my host how on earth the parents had organised this lunch and she looked at me as if I were barmy. 'They couldn't organise their way out of a paper bag,' she said, 'I made them invite you.'

We rolled our eyes, then went on talking for another hour or two, leaving only when the kids grew ratty. Their daughter gets along with our girls like a house on fire; they live two doors up from good friends of theirs, who also have daughters, who my girls have now also become friendly with...

And so suddenly we have neighbours with kids; not just neighbours, but a de facto step cousin if you like, with a second on the way! When we see their daughter in the street, she is gleefully swallowed up by our herd of girls. Meanwhile, our girls let themselves out our back gate, run or cycle a dozen houses up the lane, and are at their house. They have spent hours in their new cousin's kitchen, playing with her toys and eating cheese toasties.

Gifts often come from the most unexpected places; and from disinterested older adults who can't remember the existence of all their grandchildren, who fail to respond even to fortieth birthday invitations, who are impossibly infuriatingly vague, has come a longed-for and wholly unexpected gift: a new sense of family, and good neighbours.


  1. Alison this is such a beautiful piece, it made me smile with gratitude for your gift. I am a hitherto phantom reader of your blog, but I have it in my feed and am always eager when your writings show up. Kate.

  2. Welcome phantom Kate! glad you enjoyed it.

  3. When I was a child our whole street of kids would ride their bikes in the street, or climb various trees in our respective backyards, or takeover a backyard pool. On weekends we would all disappear somewhere in the street, someones parents would provide lunch on an unspoken roster system and then we would all head home just on dark. There was always a tag-along dog and we mostly kept out of trouble.

    Those days seem to be long gone.

    I am glad you and your children have found a small piece of neighbourhood.

  4. Hi Daffodil, we had an element of that when we were growing up. I gather it's not so much long gone, but it does depend very much on which street you live in. Quite a few of my friends live on streets where people pop back and forth and kids play in the back lane together - clearly we picked wrong when we bought ten years ago! Either we have to pick better next time... or change the nature of our street!

  5. Not to boast at all but this post made me feel even more lucky to have all the neighbours I have and all the children that frequent my house. I am even thankful for the messes said children leave behind. If it weren't for these neighbours I'd have no babysitters, my kids would be in my hair all day and I'd probably be going crazy. I am however no stranger though to the kind of disinterest you write of. I wish for more closeness, more phone calls more visits for my kids to remember who's who. I love my family but I do wish for more than we get. On the other side, It seems selfish but I miss my mother in laws parcels, she passed away. I miss the popcorn box filling she'd use instead of bubble wrap and I miss her Whitman's chocolate boxes. Everyday I know she is fading from my kids memories, I think I'll have to work harder with family. thanks for this post.

  6. Cherish those neighbours! Sometimes I reckon our closest families are those key people we choose as adults, not the families we are born into. Having said that, I miss our mothers terribly (both died long ago) - among other gifts, they were the glue that held the families together. I am incredibly grateful for the older women who have become friends. Don't know what I'd do without them.


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