One constant in my life has been outstanding neighbors. I’ve had neighbors that have provided great conversations, companionship, good advice, childcare, animal care, emergency support, snow blowing, and shared resources.
Early in our marriage, we had a neighbor couple ask to borrow our car. We were just getting started in life, money was scarce, the economy in tough shape, and our car was in worse shape than the economy. The last thing I wanted to do was risk loaning out the car. However, they were such good neighbors, I let them take it. A few hours later they dropped off the keys, thanked us, and went back to their apartment. I went outside a bit later to find four new tires on our car. Generous, wonderful neighbors has been my lot in life.
I was eight when I was removed from my mom’s home (without explanation) and moved to the home of my dad and step-mother. While this was generally a better situation, it’s difficult to measure which is worse — the neglect or the emotional abuse (or the interplay of those two things as multiple family systems collide in a child’s life). Certainly, one result is deeply rooted shame and the chronic feeling that everything going wrong in any of these systems is your fault. This stays with a person until it is worked through and I had a lot to work through. (See additional note #1)
We moved to a new neighborhood. Both parents worked during the day so I was home alone a lot, especially in the summer. We had a next door neighbor by the name of Mrs. King. Some of the neighborhood kids told me not to go into her yard or she would “yell at you”. My life revolved around baseball and my “wiffle balls” regularly went over the fence and landed in her yard. With stealth, I went into her yard to retrieve the lost balls. Sometimes, I couldn’t find them, but they would mysteriously appear back in our yard later that day. I remember a conversation with her where I apologized for a ball that went into her yard and she said, “You can come in our yard anytime you want.” (see additional note #2)
During those few summers, Mrs. King talked to me. According to my recollection, these conversations were nearly every day for 30-60 minutes. We talked a lot about baseball. Mrs. King not only cared about an eleven year old boy, she cared about what this eleven year old boy cared about. She talked, but mostly listened. She respected me as if I were an adult. I once heard she was unhappy about my home situation, but she never treated me like a project – she treated me like a friend.
As I got older, I was home less and less and my conversations with Mrs. King diminished. As a young adult, I moved away to a new city, made significant changes in my life, and ultimately married. Guess who threw a bridal shower? Mrs. King and the neighbors.
I didn’t fully understand all that Mrs. King did for me as a child in time to properly thank her, so I’m making a feeble attempt to do that now. It’s only fitting that I put this in baseball terms since that was a strong bond between us. If I created a Hall of Fame for Neighbors, I’m fortunate enough to have many members as part of that group. But it would be Mrs. King who would be the first inductee! A woman who never advised or tried to fix me, but always accepted me. A woman who in one sense “did nothing”, but actually “did everything” by giving me a voice day after day after day. And it was in finding my voice that I began to rise above the shame that weighed me down.
Note 1: I have chosen not to blame others for a less than ideal childhood, while at the same time not denying or excusing the damaging behavior from some of the adults in my life. I even have some empathy for them since I know at least part of their stories and what they went through. Also, while there were significant weaknesses in my family system, there were also significant strengths. I still draw on the strengths and I try to turn the weaknesses of those systems into knowledge and progress.
Note 2: It’s interesting my first impression of Mrs. King was from the other kids – “she will yell at you” and how that changed after I actually talked with her. Everything else I know about Mrs. King to this day I learned through face-to-face conversations. What if we, more often, made up our own mind about people from direct interaction instead of basing our opinions and the relationship on gossip, reputation, and rumor?
So often, it’s the “little ones” who are the “greatest” in our lives! (So why do we live as though celebrities, politicians and big names make us who we are?)
Larry – Thanks so much for consistently reading and commenting. You always have great insights. I know you have a lot of great writing/information that you publish. Feel free to add a link (or links) here in the comments if you’d like.