On Being a Neighbor

On the night of December 26th, we were hit by the Snowpocalypse. Or maybe it was Snowmageddon. Or, perhaps, Snowzilla.

Take your pick of weather-related doomsday names.

Whatever you call it, we got about 16 inches of heavy, wet snow that night, followed by another 6-8 inches over the next few days.

True locals–that is, those who have lived here multiple decades–will tell you these kinds of storms used to happen every few years, but in the past decade, we’ve never gotten more than a few inches at a time. Our poor trees, weakened by drought, weren’t able to handle the weight. Ten years’ worth came down on a single night, cascading into each other like dominoes, falling across roads and on top of homes and into power poles.

In our county, which boasts a population of just over 100K people, more than 30,000 PG&E customers lost power because of downed lines.

One of those lines was across the entrance to our road, a dead-end country lane eight miles out of town.

And so, from middle of the night Sunday until late Thursday afternoon when the line was moved, we were well and truly stuck.

(Jonathan would like me to note that, while the line might have been moved Thursday, by the time power was restored, it had been out for a full two weeks. Two. Weeks.)

Ours isn’t exactly a close-knit neighborhood.

Oh, we’re friendly enough, waving when we pass on the road, chatting if we see each other at the mailboxes, texting about the very important life updates. S. & L. bring our kids Christmas gifts each year. C. dropped off a homemade lasagna a few weeks after Emmeline was born. We put together a basket of local goodies for E. & H. when they moved in.

But we aren’t one of those neighborhoods where we’re constantly in each other’s homes, where we know everyone’s business. I couldn’t tell you anyone’s political leanings or religious beliefs. I don’t know everyone’s last name and I can never remember whether the guy with the dogs is Jim or John. During the past few years, especially, we’ve gone long stretches of time without talking to anyone else who lives on our street.

Aside from our geographic location, I sometimes wonder how much we actually have in common.

The kids and I took a short walk up our road on Monday, for the first time in months.

I have the best of intentions. I want to be a good neighbor, one who knows and is known by those who live nearby. I can picture my kids building beautiful, mutually beneficial relationships with the retired couples on our street. I would love for them to have friends, both young and old, within easy walking distance.

But something always seems to get in the way. The kids have colds, or it’s raining, or it’s cold, or the effort involved in getting all of us dressed and out the door with cheerful attitudes just seems like too much.

(I’ll be honest; it’s that last one that gets me 99% of the time.)

But we did it this week. I’m not sure what it was that gave me the push I needed to make it happen.

Maybe it was the empty lasagna pan, staring up at me from the kitchen counter for going-on-two-months. Maybe it was the girls’ thank you notes which had been languishing on my desk since the week after Christmas. Or maybe it was world headlines, the thought that, if I couldn’t do much for my neighbors on the other side of the world, at least I could rekindle relationships with the ones on my street.

Our newest neighbors moved here the summer of 2020. They’re the only other family with young children, and my kids were eager to get to know them.

We had a few outdoor playdates. Katie and Abby and Miles, with that magical ability that seems innate in young children, were at home with their two kids almost immediately, and it seemed like we might have some built-in friends right here in our neighborhood.

Sometime in the middle of last year, however, a difference in the ways we responded to Covid created a rift. It was an amicable rift, with gentle words on both sides.

Still, it stung, and I mourned a fledgling relationship that hadn’t yet had the chance to fly.

On our walk Monday, the girls ran ahead of me to S. & L.’s. By the time Miles and Emmeline and I made it up the driveway, they were already inside. L. greeted us with a grin and ushered us into the living room.

S. was in his recliner, watching coverage of Ukraine on Fox News. The girls were mesmerized.

“What’s it showing, Mama?”

“It’s that war we talked about, kiddo. Those are some of the towns that are being attacked.”

“It’s terrible,” L. chimed in with a pointed look at her husband. “And it isn’t something kids need to know about.”

He got the hint and switched it off. We chatted about the art on the kids’ thank you notes, about property clean-up, about our desperate need of rain. The kids fed their dog treats. And then we were on our way.

I had thought our differences might have driven a wedge into the relationship, but, in late October, the other young family left a Halloween goodie bag on our front step. I texted her to say thanks.

“Our pleasure!” she replied. “We were thinking about you even if we can’t hang out in person just yet!”

After leaving S. & L.’s on Monday, we trekked to the very end of the road to return the lasagna pan. C. was out of town, but D. invited us in. He chatted with Abby and Miles and complimented Katie’s latest crochet project and gave Emmeline the admiration she was due. He offered us seats but we couldn’t stay long; the day was waning and dinner was calling.

As we headed back up his driveway toward ours, he called out after us.

“Be sure to come back and show me your project when it’s done!” he said to Katie.

And to me, “You take care. We love you guys!”

Ours is one of six houses on our road. When that line came down and blocked us in, we knew we were a low priority, that it would be some time before we could expect power to be back.

But in the days after the snowpocalypse of 2021, the texts and the phone calls flew thick and furious.

“How are you?”

“Need anything? We have food in the freezer if you run out.”

“We’ve got extra firewood.”

“A friend dropped off gasoline and we’ve got some to spare.”

“We’ll be running the generator this afternoon if you need to charge anything.”

“Any news on when the power might be back?”

Our phones gave us access to our friends and family and to the latest headlines but, more importantly, perhaps, they kept us connected to our neighbors, to people who were stuck right along with us.

For those four days, our world shrank to this immediate circle, to these six houses perched on a hill in the country. We were here, together. And, while I’m grateful for power and transportation and fellowship with our friends and family, a part of me misses those four days of quiet simplicity.

As we were walking home on Monday, Abby flashed me a big grin.

“Mama,” she said. “We have the best neighbors in the world.”

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