Do you remember the children’s TV program from the ’60s and ’70s called Mister Roger’s Neighborhood? “Welcome to the neighborhood” he would say as the show began. I wonder if he ever had to sign a Neighborhood Association Contract. I bet if he did, he’d have been told to oil the wheels of that squeaky old wagon and never park it in his driveway!
Recently, several friends shared their frustrations regarding the agreements they had to enter into to live where they wanted. I am always curious to see what groups of people, who choose to live in close proximity, deem to be important in making sure that these living arrangements work. These agreements may spell out how you must keep your lawn, the colors you can paint your house, how to maintain your space and various other rules designed to ensure that property values are protected, and owners are not offended or their rights violated. I have never seen one that mentioned how we might care for one another.
In New Zealand, I lived for 15 years in a lovely little neighborhood, close to the University. Most of our neighbors were elderly, and had retired from one position or another from that same institution.
Shortly after moving in, as a young and very pregnant 24-year-old, an elderly gentleman showed up with a box full of seedlings from his own garden. Over many months, that stretched to many years, he kindly and patiently showed me how to dig the soil and nurture these little seedlings into a magnificent garden of my own.
Next door, the widow, Mrs. Smart, checked in on me often, just to make sure that this inexperienced mother and her growing brood were okay. As she got older, we always did the same for her, through flimsy excuses of sharing recipes, borrowing sugar or producing an offering of the abundant flowers that grew in my now, resplendent yard.
All up and down the street, neighbors would gather, celebrate, share and help. If my mailbox looked too full, someone would quietly move the mail to my back door. If one of my children slipped and fell, someone would rush to their aid. And if a resident didn’t appear on the street at some point during a 24- or 48-hour period, you can bet that another neighbor would be gently knocking at the door to make sure nothing was amiss.
Three years before I moved away, a lovely old gentleman, Jim, who always entertained us with his wild stories and raucous laugh, was rushing along the path that led across the river and up the hill to the University to attend an alumni function. No one will ever know exactly what happened that day, but Jim failed to look up and around before stepping into the road to enter the University’s gates. The moment he stepped out, he was hit by a bus and killed instantly. His wife Joy, became alarmed when he didn’t appear at home for their customary 5pm sherry. This had been a ritual every day of their 55-year marriage. It didn’t take long to find out the reason and our little neighborhood erupted with grief. We would never hear Jim’s unmistakable laugh and our street would be forever quieter.
However, in the wake of this terrible event, I saw and learned something that will never leave me. Not only did friends and family gather to help Joy through those ghastly first days and weeks, but every evening at 5pm–without fail, week after week, year after year–someone would walk up the garden path and join Joy for the evening sherry. You see, this is what a real neighborhood association is. It is not a legal piece of paper that tells us we can’t use red paint on our doors. It is an unspoken covenant that says: “we choose to create a neighborhood where people matter more than property.” Where we reach out to help a young mother who needs some relief from her kids. Where we pay attention to the needs of those around us and act with compassion, in a way that empowers and supports–contributing to the greater good for everyone. And yes, where we are there, at 5pm, without fail, to raise a toast to life…as precious as it is.
I may never live in such a neighborhood again, but I have learned the power of connection and caring and the impact it can have on the lives of so many. It compels me to ask, each day, what did I do to contribute, with compassion, to the greater good for those around me. And then, I pour a wee sherry and raise my glass…”To Joy…”