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) to her, my middle son saw Madame Butterfly and Turandot before he was old enough to protest. When he agreed to study piano at age seven, the Wetzels allowed us to “purchase” their fine little spinet for $125. They even helped us move it across the street. We owe them big time.
As young parents, we were surrounded by useful, knowledgeable neighbors who lent us their wood clamps to repair our furniture and dissuaded us from removing the whole roof of the house just to make the old bricked-up fireplace in the living room operable. Best of all, these dear neighbors didn’t call the cops when the loosely supervised kids (mine included) on the block engaged in the small acts of pyromania, theft, and vandalism that used to be part of growing up. The pyromania usually entailed attaching Black Cat firecrackers to Star Wars action figures that were catapulted off our backyard fort. Theft, I think, was limited to neighbors’ discards in the alley, although the demise of the M. E. Moses five-and-dime store, in Snider Plaza, prompted one of my sons to wistfully comment, “Where will Park Cities children learn to shoplift now?” The vandalism involved broken storeroom windows, water balloons, and a giant slingshot so effective that I still keep it buried under a bunch of quilts in a cedar chest in anticipation of a Christmas when I think my sons (now 41, 39, and 34) can be trusted with it. That swarm of neighborhood boys all somehow grew up, and except for our own sons’ brief visits on holidays or more extended stays when they are “between opportunities,” we now have the house all to ourselves. Pesky realtors have begun to make inquiries about our downsizing, to which we reply, “Not yet.”
I am new to being the old-lady neighbor on the block. I have no chickens, gardening advice, or household improvement suggestions. The great god Google quickly answers any question one might have once asked a neighbor. Want to know how to keep tortillas warm for a crowd? Don’t ask the neighbor who entertains frequently; just Google it. (The crock pot, of course.)
Just when I thought the neighborhood experience we knew as a young family might be a thing of the past, a couple with four children bought the house next door. With no grandchildren at the time, we glommed on to the younger two girls. Our experience with three sons was so completely smelly socks, wrestling, and one-upmanship that we couldn’t resist the novelty of girls—especially such a winsome pair as Alice and Ellen, who were then about four and six. Our houses on this block are so close together that we could see the family having breakfast through their bay window, which is only a driveway’s width from our side porch. The endless pile of laundry being folded on their dining room table brought back my own former life. When I closed my upstairs bedroom shutters at night, the girls often waved to me from their bunk beds.
Alice and Ellen were always welcome at our house, and with the confidence that accrues in children who know they are well loved, this barefoot pair was in and out of our front door so often that we considered them our extended family. Their hide-and-seek games with their friends often required a run through our house for access to secure hiding spots in our backyard. When I refused to let them walk the dog with me without shoes, the little pharisees ran home to retrieve flip-flops, which they carried in their hands. They made us cards for every occasion—get well, birthday, welcome home, and thank-you—with elaborate Magic Marker drawings of us and our pets. They practiced for their dance recitals in our living room with or without accompaniment. I inventoried all the girl books that my sons would never sit still for—The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women. John thought our role might be to subvert their girliness, so when I got my fill of Amelia Bedelia and Junie B. Jones, we also read some quirky Roald Dahl books, one about a nine-year-old boy who has to drive a stick-shift car to rescue his slightly profligate father and another about a giant who drank something carbonated called frobscottle, which sent bubbles south to make whizzpoppers. We invited the girls to bake bread with us, and they appeared in full chef costumes: toques, aprons, and ready rolling pins. They made Thanksgiving pies with John using the pecans they had helped gather from our yard.
When my sons were young, I used to ask them to report on their day, and the response was either “S’okay” or “Sucked.” “No, no, tell it like a girl,” I’d beg. Now at last, we got the unedited girl versions daily. We learned who were the annoying boys who belched (or worse) in class, what was gross at lunch in the cafeteria, who could run fastest at field day, and what they were thinking they might be for Halloween. Ellen took up piano and played her recital pieces regularly on my piano. She was the warm-up act for a classical concert artist I imported for my husband’s birthday party. Alice, too young for lessons, improvised endless meandering sonatas that could not be interrupted. “No, I’m not through,” she’d say when we applauded at a pause. I collected easy duets in anticipation of the music we’d play someday. We marveled at the peaceful, imaginary worlds they created in our front yard or on our porch with little nests of stuffed animals on beach towels or under umbrellas for shelter. One afternoon Ellen said, “You know why we like to come over here so much?” “Maybe because John and I are more fun than tea with American Girl dolls?” I suggested. “No, because we can talk dirty and eat bad food,” she replied. Ouch! I acknowledged that we were eating a slightly dry blueberry muffin much too close to their dinnertime, but talking dirty?
“Well, at our house,” she said, “we are not allowed to say ‘hate’ or ‘stupid.’ ” Both words seemed fairly essential in our house, but not wanting to undermine their very positive parents, I said, “Okay, here are the new rules. You may not say that you hate your sister or any member of your family, but can’t we say that we hate Barbie dolls because they are so stupid?” We made no revisions to the bad food.
Our idyllic time with these next-door neighbors, like the houses with porch swings, didn’t last forever. Three years after they moved in, the expense and hassle of remodeling that they were about to undertake seemed foolish when a house all redone and perfectly suited to their family came on the market several blocks away. The girls’ real grandmother eased the pain of their move by giving me a treasured Impressionist-style painting in gratitude for the time I had spent on the piano bench with Alice and Ellen. The painting is of a young girl, possibly barefoot, seated at the piano with a dark-haired woman leaning slightly forward in the chair beside her. I had envisioned not only piano duets and Anne of Green Gables but also the chance to admire prom dresses and provide extra scrutiny when boys began to toss pebbles at their window where I once waved good-night.
The house next door, now totally remodeled by a speculative builder, is still for sale. I’m thinking of attaching a caveat to the realtor’s sign: “No pool. Quaint neighbors.”