Howdy Neighbor

Karen - Napa, California
Entered on November 6, 2010

A not-so-wise man once said, “A good neighbor is a fellow who smiles at you over the back fence, but doesn’t climb over it.” Maybe that’s the definition of a “good” neighbor, but if you want a “great” neighbor, you have to climb over the fence and into their welcoming arms. I believe getting to know your neighbors can deeply enrich your life.

My very first lesson in neighborliness came as a very young white child living in an entirely Mexican neighborhood. My parents had purchased their first home in a new sub-division of East Los Angeles and we were the only non-Hispanic family on the block. Mom and Dad kept to themselves—leaving for work early and coming home late—which left my brother and I free to roam the neighborhood and fend for ourselves. No problem. We were immediately barefoot and running free with a dozen new playmates who seem to not notice our difference, even when we had the misfortune of turning beet red in the mid-day sun while they remained a beautiful golden brown.

Lunchtime came and went with my brother and I jealously watching all the kids run inside for some mysterious meal we instinctively knew was delicious. In the late afternoon, when I thought I might die from hunger, we heard the voice–an enchanting songstress who called out like a siren beckoning all children to come. We followed and arrived at her back door. Lola, two black braids down her back, arms long (and strong) enough to embrace us all—brown, white, whatever. There she was playing patty cake with a homemade flour tortilla, flipping them hot off the griddle, slathering them with butter, folding them in four and placing them piping hot in each of our grubby little hands. Lola, wise and loving Lola, would become my second mother; wiping my face with her spit when I arrived dirty at her door, offering to help my mom with the housework when it was clear she was overwhelmed, teaching me to love tamales, frijoles, fiestas and pretty much all things Mexican. But most importantly, she was the first to teach me to climb over the fence.

Later in life, my teenage years, now living in the shade of the Hollywood sign surrounded by Palm trees and celebrity sightings, I met my first Bohemian. She was living right next door, and now I knew to knock and explore within. Her name was Juanita. A hundred bangles on her arms, hair swooped up in a French Chignon, multi-colored muumuu swaying as she walked. No job to speak of, living off the good-graces (if you can call it that) of a married man. Inside her incense-filled living room, I learned to love Rachmaninoff and Browning, learned how to analyze and memorize, learned that, while my mother was unable to live up to her role, there would always be someone right next door waiting to fill her shoes.

I must admit there were the years where I took that not-so-wise man’s advice. Poor and living penniless in low-income housing, I could hear the heartbreak of poverty bleeding through the walls. I laid low and refused to knock on the doors surrounding, afraid of what I might find within. Now looking back, I wish perhaps I had been brave enough to be the one who offered the helping hand.

Then there was the gaggle-of-girls-in-recovery I met living apartment life with babies in tow and not a clue how to parent, as all of us had been parented poorly. These five women would become my friends for life as we reached across the fence and into each other’s hearts, sharing the pain of being raised by alcoholic parents and determining to raise our children right. We shared our traumatic pasts and our extra diapers, and eventually healed our big-collective heart, remaining forever neighbors while we now live miles apart.

Dirt under her nails, sweat streaming down her face, a bountiful basket of homegrown tomatoes being offered to me over the fence. Now I live in a neighborhood where the rule of thumb is, “Climb over and come on in.” My neighbor Marie made me realize that tomatoes don’t taste like Christmas ornaments, that, if you’re careful, a stick of butter can be tossed over a fence, that neighbors are the best choice for watching your cats while you’re away, and that dinner should always include a little extra taste for a hungry, and perhaps sometimes lonely, neighbor.

In the twilight of my life, with all too many of my relatives—my blood relations—gone, I find family wherever I can. Tonight I will walk with neighbors to a nearby restaurant to eat and chat about nothing and everything. Tomorrow a group of us will pile in cars and head out to see another neighbor’s artwork on display. We celebrate one another, we meddle in our lives, we consider cutting a hole in the fence to save the dozen steps it takes to walk around it. Climb over, walk through, do whatever it takes to embrace the riches living right next door.