Nearly twenty years ago, my husband and I purchased our
first home for sixty-nine thousand dollars. The real estate agency described
the house as having old world charm, a nice way of describing its many
The kitchen tiles were yellow and chipped at the corners
like aged teeth, and when we caught a square with a foot in just the right way,
we’d dislodge it and send it skittering across the room. A previous owner had
painted the bricks of the fireplace tan. Someone else had cut a hole in the
floor of the living room, replacing it with a 4 by 6 piece of plywood. And
despite my best intentions, the stairs would never quite come clean: Eighty
years of dirt and grime and dust had accumulated in the space where the tread
had divorced itself from the riser. The shower leaked; the bathroom floorboards
were rotted; the basement was musty. A monkey had been raised in this house.
Yet it was in this house that my husband and I learned how
to be married as we discovered the stresses of homeownership; as we began a
family; as we both privately wondered whether our new and fragile marriage
We shared the neighborhood with retirees and young families.
Apartment dwellers whose car alarms would suddenly shriek in the middle of the
night. In three minutes, we could walk to a restaurant; the grocery store; the
I’m not sure how we first met Anne, our neighbor directly
across the street. Likely, she brought over dinner, a hot casserole in a
covered Pfaltzgraff dish, steam condensing on the underside of the lid. Anne
and her husband had raised a houseful of boys who were now scattered around the
United States. Their last son, younger than the eldest by twenty years, had
just gone off to college.
Anne gave us a rundown on the neighborhood: Our house was
sandwiched between the houses of sisters. The couple to the left had a daughter
whose greatest ambition was to be a firefighter. She volunteered at the
station. She worked out every day. Yet it was widely understood that her she
would be rejected from the program due to her tiny frame. To our right lived a
single mom doing her best to raise her son alone. Across the street an
unmarried lawyer lived in the house she’d been raised in. Her sister and new
husband lived one street over. A couple doors down, there was a family of four.
And near Anne’s house there was a woman my age who babysat to supplement her
husband’s income while she stayed at home with her young son. Her husband was a
cross-stitcher who hid his—gorgeous—work in a cabinet while he was at work. And
then, there was the drug house; a house full of people coming and going at all
hours of the day and night; a house with the kicked-in front door; the house
whose roof caught fire in the middle of the night.
Every day, when I got home from work, I would change into my
tennis shoes and Anne and I would walk. We’d talk for hours—about her boys;
about my pregnancy; about my family; about Catholicism, Anne’s long-term
religion and the faith I’d adopted after marrying my husband.
Putting on the rules and expectations of my husband’s
religion was difficult for me; uncomfortable and constricting , like squeezing
into a tight pair of jeans. I often wondered aloud how much of myself I would
have to lose in order to have a proper fit.
I couldn’t accept purgatory, this limbo between heaven and
hell, where lost souls resided until enough people prayed for them, winching
them out of purgatory with the weight of their prayers and thrusting them into
their rightful place in heaven.
Anne nodded at my expanding stomach and told me that she didn’t
believe unbaptized babies went to purgatory but straight to God. If Anne, a
live-long believer, could question and disagree, then I could too. And I felt
the bonds of our shared religion loosen ever so slightly.
My husband resented the amount of time Anne and I spent
together. We were still practically newlyweds, after all. And we had a lot to
do to prepare for the baby. But, eventually, as twilight settled upon the
street, Anne and I would round the final corner and head home.
That first summer, my husband mowed our tiny lawn in his tee
shirt early Saturday mornings after the dew had evaporated. I hung out the
laundry in the back yard. In the evenings, after the weekend chores had been
completed, we retired to the relative cool of the front porch—the big box fan
and window air conditioner doing little to dissipate the day’s heat that hung
within the house.
The front porch ran the length of the house. The floor was
painted blue. In the ceiling, I could make out the individual strips of brown
lumber. A white trellis invited ivy and roses to grow along the east end of the
porch. There were a couple of ceiling hooks there, too, intended to support a
porch swing. I imagined swinging there, under the shade of fragrant blooms and
the buzzing of bees.
On that porch my husband drank cheap beer from sweaty
bottles and listened to the Indians game turned low on the portable radio as we
watched the day quietly slip into night.
Invariably Anne and her husband would mosey over. They would
sit on the crooked stairs we were too broke to fix, Anne’s arms wrapped around
her legs, Ron’s legs stretched out before him to accommodate the large stomach
that entitled him to play Santa every Christmas. As the dark settled in and the
lightening bugs began flashing, we’d slap at mosquitoes and talk, calling out
greetings to other neighbors on the street.
On summer evenings, it seemed, the whole street would gather
on porches, chatting with passersby, admiring new bicycles and new basketballs
and new babies.
By next spring, we had a new baby of our own. Anne continued
to visit; continued to talk; continued to want to walk. But I began to resent
the time she took from me, time I wanted to spend with my child. I began
shutting my front door, in spite of the heat, for a few minutes of privacy.
A few days before Easter, as I sat on the loveseat in my
living room, I heard steps upon my porch. I groaned. I wasn’t prepared for a
visitor. I didn’t want to take a walk with Anne. I heard quiet huffs of
laughter, but no one knocked.
The footsteps went away. The front yard went silent.
I peeked through the window. Anne had decorated a bush in
the front yard. Plastic eggs—yellow and pink, soft blue and purple—bloomed upon
Our family grew; our ambitions grew: We wanted a larger
house, a house in the country. We wanted a house away from the drug house.
Without telling anyone in the neighborhood, we put our house on the market.
And, one day in October, as the days shortened and the
pumpkins ripened, we excitedly emptied our house, tucking our belongings in the
U-Haul parked in the center of the street. When we’d finished, Ron stepped
outside onto the street. “Anne’s too upset to come out and say goodbye,” he
We promised Ron we’d be back for a visit; we’d bring the
kids soon. We’d take a long walk.
Then one day, a few years later, I received a letter from
Ron. Anne, always a worrier, had had a massive heart attack and died. And I’d
never said goodbye.
My husband and I purchased our third house for a ridiculous
price. It has four bathrooms and four large bedrooms. It’s far from the city.
Safe from drug dealers. Far from interesting restaurants. The house is in a new
development of identical houses. The front porch is poured concrete and
measures roughly 4 by 8, a suitable spot for the mailman to put oversize
packages. A place to put a planter of flowers.
Visitors stand on the porch, ring the bell and wait to be
admitted or turned away.
No one, to my knowledge, has ever moseyed over to sit upon
The house has a large backyard deck. Clotheslines aren’t
Our marriage has held together and strengthened. We have
three terrific children. Yet I am still unsteady in my faith.
Every year, around Easter, when plastic eggs bloom upon
trees, I’m reminded of Anne.
And I’m reminded that something is missing.
I miss the old world charm of neighborhoods.
I miss my low mortgage payment.
I regret going back on my promise; not going back for
another walk, for another visit.
I missed my opportunity to say goodbye.
Our next home will have a big front porch. A white trellis
with ivy and roses. And a porch swing.
The neighbors will be invited to sit upon it with me and
watch the world go by.
And we will, all of us, keep the promises that we make.
Labels: Creative non-fiction, neighbors