As a little girl, I learned that “To love thy neighbor as thyself” was one of the greatest commandments of God; I memorized the ten commandments. I recited them perfectly, just as I did my lines in my plays. I got A’s in my religion class. But, in my heart, I would give myself an “F” for not heeding this advice from both the old and new testaments.
Why didn’t the nuns explain that loving our neighbor as ourselves would someday mean crossing through the woods, bringing a basket like little Red Riding hood to a new neighbor’s door, and even helping them move in? That it just didn’t mean “not throwing stones at them,” but occasionally throwing them a party? Why didn’t they tell us that to be a good neighbor, we had to put on the calendar: “Call neighbor to see how she is doing.” Maybe if we had “acted out” this commandment in theatrical splendor–complete with old lady costumes, baskets of pretend food, suitcases to carry in and out of the house, with the boys dressed in coats and ties, and the girls donning aprons, holding baby dolls in their arms (it was the fifties, remember)–maybe then I would have gotten it!
Knock, knock. Door opens.
N: Hi, I’m Nancy, and I would like to welcome you to the neighborhood. I’ve baked you and your family some chocolate chip cookies.
M: Why, thank you Nancy, would you like to come in for some coffee?
N: Of course, thank you. What a lovely home. And I see you have a swing set outside. Do you have children?
M: Yes, I have two. A boy, 6, and a girl, 4.
N: Really? I have two just about the same ages–we’ll have to get them together.
M: Yes, that’d be nice. Let’s schedule a play date.
And so our children had that play date and many more. Their friendships flourished, but ours waned. Why wasn’t it as simple for us to continue our connection? Why didn’t we follow through?
I am living with that regret now. I was that neighbor who called on the new neighbor. Our children became friends, literally crawling through the woods to see each other as children and then sneaking through the woods to each other’s teen parties, staying awake late into the night. We Mothers would commiserate by phone, hoping and praying that all would be safe, and making them spend the night if we smelled anything other than coca-cola on their breath.
And through those formative years, we talked over the fence and shared stories of their antics and sporting events and grades. We compared worries as we went from driving them to watching them drive us crazy. Occasionally, one of us invited the other in for a little wine & whine. This always ended up in laughter that eased our collective anxieties.
Our children grew and eventually we grew apart. We were both busy settling and visiting our children in different colleges all across the country. My neighbor and I would run into each other at the store, and exchange college stories while we filled our grocery carts.
“We must get together with our husbands,” I said.
“Let’s have dinner together soon.” We both promised to call each other and make a date of it.
Five more years passed by and we saw each other again at a neighborhood coffee shop.
M: What’s going on in your yard? I hear an awful lot of pounding.
N: Yes, our oldest is getting married, literally in our back yard. (I felt awkward that I did not invite them–but it had been years since the high school parties had ended, and our daughter had a whole new circle of friends from her university.)
M: Well, congratulations to the lucky man–We wish you all well.
N: (weakly, almost apologetically) Thank you. When all the pomp and circumstance is over, let’s get together. I’ll need a little R & R. And I want to hear about what Joey is doing in Australia.
M: Great, call me anytime.
N: Will do.
So… another five years flew by, and we ran into each other in the drugstore.
N: You don’t have grandchildren… already?
M: I do. Two! One and three, and how about you?
N: Our first is on the way. We are so excited.
M: Oh, being a grandparent is the greatest.
N: Well, we must have coffee someday so you can teach me . I never had grandparents, and sadly, neither did my children–so, this is all new to me.
M: Call me anytime, and I can lend you just about any baby paraphernalia you may need. We’re heading to Texas, but will be back in 2 weeks.
N: I certainly will–and I’ll take you up on a high chair, too.
I smiled and left, thinking about how generous and fun my neighbor has always been, and how I missed her sense of humor. I would most definitely call her in 2 weeks. But, I got busy traveling for the birth of my first grandchild–and then for her first birthday–and then suddenly we had another wedding to plan (this one out of town), and then a second grandchild, and more travel for his birth and to help out with my two-year-old granddaughter.
Another five years of weddings and more grandchildren and vacations, and somehow my neighbor and I still hadn’t reconnected. No coffee, no dinner. Only the occasional, but always friendly phone call that our pool was leaking into her yard–no worries, she just wanted us to know so our water bill wouldn’t be so high.
N: Oh my, so sorry–we owe you dinner for the inconvenience.
M: No problem.
N: No seriously, Ted is out of town now, but when he gets back, I’ll call and we can make a date.
M: Great, we’ll look forward to it.
Three more years have passed. Through my son, I hear some devastating news about our neighbor. She has a life-threatening illness. I must do something, I think, but what? I’m not close enough to her anymore to call her, not at a time like this. So, I write her a card, telling her I’m thinking of her and sending all good wishes for her health. “Please call if you need anything,” I add. But she doesn’t call.
Time goes by, and I hear she’s better. I am so relieved. Then she has a relapse, and I send flowers. I get no response–but I don’t expect to. I’m not in her inner circle of friends. Right now, she must want the comfort of people who know her intimately. Those with whom she shared her ups and downs, her vacations and children’s weddings. Those with whom she shared her heart.
I think occasionally of dropping by to see her–but then resist, thinking it presumptuous of me to invade her private space at this time.
Then, suddenly I hear the worst: she has died. This wonderful neighbor who I have neglected has gone on to her everlasting peace. And, gnawing at me, selfishly, is a restlessness I can’t describe.
I feel guilty that I mourn her. I regret that we weren’t closer these last 20 years. What happened to our initial friendship? Two of our children remained friends. Why did we drift apart? My husband tries to comfort me. I wonder if maybe she had been thinking of calling me too, all these years–and if only I had been the one…
I go to her funeral. The church is packed–she had no lack of friends. And I’m shocked to see the date of her birth on the memorial program. It is the EXACT DAY AND YEAR THAT I WAS BORN. How could this important coincidence have remained unknown when we lived so close to each other for over 30 years? I wonder what time she was born. We may have come into this world at the exact moment. No wonder I always felt drawn to her–we were birthday twins. The fact that I didn’t nurture what could have been a deep friendship is something I will always regret.
The value in our lives is in people, not in things. Therein lies our happiness.
I made a vow to be friendlier to my neighbors.
Yesterday, I started out on a long walk and saw our new neighbor throwing a ball in his yard with another young man. I waved hello, and he walked toward me.
“Hi, I’m Nancy, your neighbor. I’m so happy to meet you.”