Neighbors, the other N word (A colorful saying my late father used to say)

They say you can’t choose your family, but even truer is you can’t choose your neighbors. I have seen my share of neighbor squabbles from the very early days of my life. I recall our good Catholic neighbors telling my parents,with whom they were friendly, that living next door to us “was just like living next door to niggers”. Yep, that was the word. They said it was because my father did not keep our lawn mowed to their desires, and because we never really saw the merit of raking leaves, I remember feeling shock, and anger, and shame when I heard him that. I was probably 6 years old.

As an adult, I now know it was just another shot at our family because my parents were atheists and critical of the narrow-minded teachings at the local Catholic church. My parents were intellectuals and bohemians in a world that did not accept such things. And, as my husband points out, my parents were both civil servants, my father a full-time fireman and my mother an elementary school librarian. She began as a volunteer and was eventually (years later) given a part time job. I don’t remember the neighbors doing much of anything like that.

I have an early memory of kids with long hair (it was the 1970s) on bikes stopped on our lawn. We had a beautiful tall maple tree in front of our house and they wanted to take advantage of the shade and rest a bit. My mother went outside and asked if everything was okay. They said they were on a long bicycle trip and needed a break, and when they saw the beautiful tree they wanted to sit under it. My mother asked if they needed any water, and while she chatted with them, the next door neighbor came out to rouse them. He wanted them to keep moving, he said hippies weren’t welcome. This surprised me as I’d seen pictures of the Jesus that the neighbors so loved, and these kids looked just like him, so why would they be angry? My mother turned to the neighbor and politely told him, it was not his worry, they were in our yard. There was an awkward silence, and the neighbor walked back to his house. Ten minutes later a police car rolled up on the group, who were probably very nice college students enjoying some summer freedom.

I think it was shortly after that the same neighbors told my older sister she could no longer play with their daughters, these were our next door neighbors, girls she’d played with for years, but the parents said since we “went to public school and were going to hell”, she was no longer welcome in their yard and vice versa. My sister was crushed. These were her childhood friends, she was 12 years old. She began to change after that.

Over the years, there have been other neighbor issues. I recall living in the Bridgeport neighborhood, and an elderly couple who lived down the street came to the door, they wanted to plant a garden in our yard which they said had once been the most beautiful yard in the neighborhood. I agreed but demanded to help and learn, and they gladly taught me to garden. I am thankful every day for that lesson.

As time went by my love for gardening grew and I planted more and more flowers and even vegetables and herbs. I found a rose growing in a pile of broken concrete and dug it up and replanted it in a place of honor in our yard. I was so proud when those first roses bloomed! The garden was my refuge and my release from stressful days of working hard as creative entrepreneurs with my husband Shane, publishing a monthly paper and putting on events in order to survive.

I remember waking up one morning to let my dog out and all of my beautiful sunflowers were chopped down and strewn all across our fenced in yard. Our next door neighbor told me a few days later, he “had to cut down the sunflowers” because they were attracting too many bees. I asked, “But don’t you need bees for your tomatoes and cucumbers?”. He smugly smiled, and added, “I just don’t like walking past them”.

I learned lightning can strike twice a few years later, when we bought a house in Hammond Indiana, I came outside one morning and again, all of my sunflowers were chopped down and were wilting where they laid. A few days later, I saw our new neighbor next door and asked her if she knew anything about it. She said she cut them down because “she thought the house was abandoned.” A few days after that our brand new grill disappeared too.

Today, I am pretty lucky as far as most of my neighbors go, we live in a small town, people are friendly for the most part, the neighbor issues still occur. Our next door neighbor seemed friendly enough. I understood from the bumper sticker on her car that we probably didn’t have that much in common, but I enjoyed chatting about gardening or the weather with her. When she went on a long trip we kept and eye on things for her, when she needed help judging some scholarship applications, as she is a teacher at the local high school, I gladly helped, and when she had knee surgery we sent a get well card and baked her some treats.

Unknown to us, she decided the wildflowers on a steep hill at the edge of our yard were weeds and sent her lawn guy over to whack them away. When I tried to discuss it with her via email, and understand the apparent misunderstanding, she told me to never say hello to her again. The childishness of that statement blew my mind. I followed her wishes for a while, but then I decided she could do whatever she wanted, but I am an adult, and I say hello to my neighbors!  I began saying hello again, which made her completely confused, and the first few times she yelped and ran into her house. Who knew “hello” could cause so much trouble? (I realize typing this that ‘Hell-O’ was Gwar’s first album, and that makes me smile. I wonder the impetus of that!)

As I read back this entry, I have to laugh at myself, as I began to write this in an effort to tell a very different story, one about my neighbor up front, and how even though he and his ex-wife don’t make very much money, their daughter is loved and encouraged and participates in numerous art, acting, and dance programs in our community. I caught just a moment out the window this morning, as the girl’s mother came to pick her up to race her off to some class or event, and how the parents so love her and are kind to each other, and I always think how well adjusted and beautiful she is inside and out, and how parenting is so difficult and all the sacrifices good parents are willing to make to put strong and smart children out into the world.

Instead, as I think about it, every instance of neighbors I have told here were people who couldn’t keep there eyes in their own space, they had to force their will onto their neighbor. I know for a fact the good catholic neighbors of my childhood didn’t turn out the best results with their kids, a drunk, a divorcee, and a cult member came from their lot, and years later just before they moved away in white flight, the father complained that his catholic church was paying the rent for the crack dealers who’d moved in across the street. I can’t say for the others, but I’d imagine similar results for anyone who is that concerned about the flowers and lawns of their neighbors. I wonder, what are they avoiding thinking about by focusing on the yard across the way?

I think we all have plenty enough in our own “yards” to be concerned about.