by MARY ARCHITZEL WESTBROOK
illustration by WES WATSON
One Monday morning this spring, I came home from dropping off my son Luke at preschool to find a police cruiser at my house. My front door was open. A neighbor across the street, worried about a break-in, had called the dispatcher.
I’d been in a rush that morning to get Luke to school and Paul, my 6-month-old, ready for the babysitter. Because of that chaos, and because I have an unfortunate history of leaving things open – car doors, condiment jar caps, cabinet doors – I was immediately certain my own carelessness was to blame.
The officers insisted we wait for a K-9 unit, to make sure the house was free of intruders. I took Paul out of his car seat and heaved a reluctant sigh, imagining precious workday minutes ticking away and feeling embarrassed, mostly because I was wasting the officers’ time but also because strangers would soon walk through the wreckage of our morning (which included an eight-person tent in the middle of our kitchen).
Neighbors soon noticed the squad car. A couple pushing an infant in a stroller crossed the street to check in. A neighbor to whom I’d rarely said more than “good morning” shuffled out in pajamas. He was home with the flu and hated seeing Paul and me standing alone. A college student next door invited us to wait in her house.
Their attention surprised me. Good neighbors check in. They offer help. In recent months, though, I hadn’t been much of a neighbor.
I’d introduced myself once to the elderly woman who called the dispatcher, but I couldn’t remember her name. The couple with the infant had walked past my house every morning for weeks, but I’d never said hello. The neighbor with the flu seemed to work long hours; we barely crossed paths. And I’d been freezing out the college student and her roommates ever since they moved in. Their cars clogged our street and their slammed doors and shouts of laughter always seemed to coincide with our kids’ bedtime.
It hadn’t always been this way. When we moved into our house in July 2011, we quickly became friends with our next-door neighbors Liz and Andrew Waring.
Liz and I strolled our neighborhood, pointing out birds and flowers to our boys, naming the world for them. We talked about books while the kids learned to crawl and then walk together. With other friends, I had to coordinate calendars; with Liz, I could practically raise my mini-blinds to signal that naptime was over.
Then the Warings moved out, the college students moved in. I’d pull up to my house, expecting to see Liz quietly reading next door. Instead, a group of 21-year-olds would be on the porch – Liz’s porch – drinking from red plastic cups or lounging in a makeshift hammock, legs intertwined. I didn’t want these neighbors.
That’s the thing about neighbors: We don’t get to choose them. In that way, they’re closer to family than friends. Sometimes, we live alongside people whose lives perfectly complement our own; being a good neighbor is easy then. Other times – when we disagree or have different habits or find ourselves at different points in life – good neighboring is hard. Neighbors know intimate details of our lives – what time we eat and go to bed, how we look at 6 a.m. We’re privy to each other’s daily drama: bickering on back decks, a shouted insult, a tearful phone call. That can be uncomfortable.
After the Warings moved, I found reasons not to reach out: This person was too young, that one too old, that one – too different. Without realizing it, I fenced in my family. As I waited on the sidewalk that Monday morning, however, I was reminded that there is more than one kind of good neighbor. I may not have chosen my neighbors, but on that day, I needed them.
Once the K-9 cleared our house – no intruder, just the tent, dishes and toys – I walked across the street with Paul and knocked on my neighbor’s door. I introduced myself again. I said her name, Dorothy, aloud. I thanked her for looking out for us.