When my husband and I moved into our first home in Dallas, a duplex, the childless headmistress downstairs, who endured the wailings of our newborn son, generously relieved the early confinement of motherhood by taking my baby Jack to her church school nursery once a week. When we moved to our first real house in Highland Park, in the early seventies, the neighborhood homemakers welcomed me with a tea party and subtly taught me the things I might have learned from my own mother had she not been working with my father at the newspaper office. One borrowed my slightly rusty cast-iron crepe pan, a wedding gift I had used once, and returned it properly seasoned along with an inoffensive little note about the maintenance of cookware. Another frequently repeated what I thought was a rather pointless story of her early married days in London when a young boy came on bicycle with a bucket and a rag to clean her windows. Once I hired someone to wash our windows, she never mentioned the lad again. Without these gentle grown-ups, would we have known that gutters had to be cleaned? My impulse was to rip the loaded, leaking receptacles off the house and be done with it. Without neighbors, we might have even planted bamboo.
As the years passed, I realized that those kinds of people began to disappear from my street. The face of my neighborhood is changing, and it’s not just that the Mediterranean McMansions are winning architecturally. Bulldozers arrive almost weekly to scrape my favorite homes, the ones with welcoming porch swings, interesting histories, bois d’arc paneling, and wooden stair rails polished by the hospitable comings and goings of four generations. In their place, we get fortress-like structures that often house two people who live there only part of the year. I used to be bothered by the lack of scale and the excess of wine cellars, fitness rooms, and media centers, but now what concerns me more is the air of isolated self-sufficiency that these monuments give off. “Who needs neighbors?” they seem to say.
Reasonable property values that existed in Highland Park when we bought that first bungalow meant that a pleasant mix of schoolteachers, university professors, and even a retired journalist surrounded us. The journalist, Mr. Gard, and his wife, Hazel, were the oldest people on the block. I seldom saw him wearing anything but a three-piece suit with his Phi Beta Kappa key swinging from his watch fob chain. They lived in a two-story unair-conditioned house with the windows open most of the year. They had no car. For entertainment they walked to performances at nearby SMU and took the bus for downtown outings. Dinner in their tidy home was a carefully planned ritual. Guests were given a choice of tomato juice or sherry. Mr. Gard passed the hors d’oeuvres, tiny cheese biscuits, one of Hazel’s specialties. Dessert was homemade ice cream (store-bought would have melted on her walk home from the local grocery) served alfresco on the small slab of concrete they called the patio.
I never imagined that the people living near me could have such an effect on my life. My writing career began with Mr. Gard’s bringing me books to review from his Friday visits to the Dallas Morning News, his former employer. I flattered myself in thinking that he brought me the books because he perceived that I was well-read and insightful, but now I’m fairly certain that he saw it as an excuse to have a weekly visit with a young woman. I innocently accepted his invitation to have lunch at the Zodiac Room, at the downtown Neiman Marcus, on his birthday and was surprised that Hazel didn’t join us and even more surprised when he lunged for a kiss after we’d finished our meal.
A move to a larger house brought my husband, John, and me new Highland Park neighbors. Mr. Woodward across the alley kept chickens and a garden like something out of Alice in Wonderland. He grew things, not for manicured beauty, but for the joy of seeing what came up. The narrow strip behind his garage had a well-established asparagus bed, and the price of his fresh eggs often included a tour of his latest beanstalks or yellow-stemmed chard. His own children had grown up knowing how to fix a leaky toilet, unstop a sink, rewire a lamp, and change the oil in the car. One of his capable sons was the contractor for our first and subsequent renovations of this old house.
Across the street were the Wetzels. Mr. Wetzel, an MIT-trained engineer, inventor, astronomer, mycologist, and early environmentalist, from time to time invited my sons to spend the night on his roof so he could awaken them for a meteor shower or a dramatic lunar eclipse seen through his fancy telescope. He recycled before it was fashionable and delighted the kids on the block with his foot-operated can-crushing device. Because he had suffered polio as a child, Mr. Wetzel was always inventing things to strengthen his weak, braced leg. What fun to see him pull out of his driveway in his carefully designed pedal car, with a tall safety flag flying, to “drive” to work in downtown Dallas!
Mrs. Wetzel, an indefatigable volunteer and patron of the arts, taped my sons’ early artwork on her walls. She organized the neighborhood children for caroling at Christmas, providing tambourines, cymbals, triangles, bells, castanets, and odd African instruments acquired on her far-flung travels. The kids and a few parents rehearsed briefly at my house. Then, oblivious to freezing temperatures, sleet, or snow, Mother Wetzel zealously marched even my reluctant, hardheaded sons to fa-la-la the neighbors with their raucous band and mumbled, off-key renditions of the old standards. She rewarded their efforts afterward with red punch and as many hot dogs as they could eat. Mrs. Wetzel also offered her extra tickets to plays, musical events, and operas to our family. Thanks (or no thanks)