On the heels of a spectacular neighborhood party on the block last night, I started to think about the qualities that make and have made for our good neighbors. Empathy, certainly, and a high degree of respect for community. Ready laughter is important, as is an appreciation of where we live. Or if not appreciation for where we live, some uniting sentiment is necessary. That quality, kindness, is key. I’ve had a plentitude of good neighbors over the years who have all been kind.
When I was a child, neighbors were grown-ups my parents depended on in a crunch to pick us up at school, help with chores that were too large to do alone, and from whom mom could borrow sugar and cubes of butter. Neighbors had kids and grandkids who were playmates. In Hopland, my parents’ neighbors were coworkers and friends. They were people like the Ashurst family with a daughter, Belinda, who had a spectacular play kitchen and was my first soulmate. They were ladies who celebrated with a childless mother, throwing a “Welcome, Baby Teri Party” when I was adopted. Kindness.
A little further north near Ukiah, the Longhurst kids lived on the other side of Highway 101. My father and theirs worked together at the Hopland Field Station, our mothers helped each other out, I rode to high school and home with one daughter, Maggie, and years later cleaned house for the other, Caroline. Our immediate neighbors, the Salgado’s, were good neighbors too. Their mother cooked quesadillas I still think about, and we roamed the surrounding creeks, rivers, and hillsides together. The Nolan’s let us swim in their swimming pool on the hill (every day, all summer long) and picked blackberries with us to be baked into pies and cobblers. Kindness.
When the Professor and I moved to Spokane, elderly neighbors on either side of our house brought gifts of hot baked bread and homemade jam. Nothing (and I mean nothing) ever happened that they didn’t know about except on the south side of their house (to the north of ours). Their bedroom shade was always closed. I suspect the husband saw a silhouette in our bathroom window that bothered the wife, but I’ll never know. That they said nothing was kindness.
In Prosser, a town with only 3,500 residents, we lived on a street with three – count ‘em – three pastors. It’s one thing to be pursued by one new-sheep-coveting shepherd and quite another to be pursued by three simultaneously. They were open, thoughtful people who didn’t seem to hold it against us when we resisted their advances. Another neighbor (from the church we eventually joined) took over a catering job I’d agreed to do when I couldn’t at the last minute. On Thanksgiving weekend. After we moved and our cat escaped out the U-Haul window, she also stalked and sent it to us. Kindness.
In Snelling on the trout farm, most neighbors lived further away (we were five miles down a canal bank behind a locked gate), but their generosity of spirit was no less. They worked with us on the farm and attended our birthday parties and barbecues. They sent cards and entire meals when I miscarried and later came to celebrate our daughter’s first birthday. They laughed at our jokes, picked up milk and eggs for us at the grocery store, and we rode horses along the Merced River together. One special Kelsey neighbor across the river encouraged me to take my first steps into the world of watershed stewardship, resource conservation districts, leadership, political campaigns before I dreamed of being a candidate, and eventually, a candidate. Seeing my potential and nudging me to accomplish it is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received from a neighbor. Kindness.
In Lake Don Pedro where we built our first home, we were befriended by the Flores family who lived in Hayward but kept a house in the country as is the custom in Puerto Rico where Ariel, the husband, was raised. We met when the Professor got stuck in the clay out back by the barn and Ariel (and his tractor) pulled them out. They came there at least once a month, bringing steaks to barbecue each visit. We never left their dinners without leftovers that lasted days, complete meals of steak, rice, fried plantains, the best coleslaw ever, and cake. When we traveled, we were expected to spend the night in Hayward so they could take us to the airport – San Francisco, Oakland, wherever. Several years ago, they visited us for the last time in Idaho. Ariel wasn’t talking about it, but he had cancer. They drove all the way from California for one last visit to say goodbye. And fix our bathroom door. Kindness.
In Tuolumne, our next-door neighbors were two exceptionally nice women, Bonita and Mary. They had our back. The Professor exchanged chores with them, and they brought us delectable treats. After I moved to Idaho, they kept an eye on him for the year that he tarried in California. They made us laugh, watched over our home when we went on vacation, and if we ever needed anything were right there. Kindness.
It’s been no different in Idaho. We moved to Eagle in 2011 and started fixing up a decrepit old farmhouse. Again, our neighbors weren’t so close, but they were kind too. Cheryl and I fought in the trenches to save Beacon Light Road from being turned into a 5-lane monstrosity and testified before the city council together. They opened their home for meals and parties. Another Cheryl across the canal fought alongside us and included the Professor and me every year in an annual Christmas Day brunch for neighbors with nowhere else to go. And when my horse bucked me off and broke my ribs, she mothered me while the Professor was out of town. She took me to the emergency room (staying late into the night), fed the horses, dogs, and me. Kindness.
And now we’re here on the outskirts of Boise. Once again we hit the neighbor lottery: we’ve got four exceptional neighbors on our side of the street and three across the street. Beyond our corner, there are many others sprinkled in amongst those we’ve still to meet. These newest neighbors are not in the least standoffish. They’re from Idaho and Georgia and Ohio and California. They’re all here because they want to be and there’s not one who doesn’t belong if they want to.
We gather for parties and meals. Debra buys yard tools and shares them, saying one of us can buy new ones when they break. Bernie arranges sprinkler blow outs for the whole street and Kathy promises to teach us to make a perfect pie crust. We’ve exchanged keys with Scott and Donna to let repairmen in when we’re away. Dimitri and Dasha throw a Halloween block party where we sit by the street watching trick or treaters around a fire with mugs of hot cider. Gary and Sue share a fence with us and like Ed and Tracey are quick with smiles and hospitality. They inspire us with their friendliness, their warmth. Natalie is like a Golden Retriever puppy who introduced herself as she was walking by one day. She’d printed out cards with contact info to hand out to new neighbors. That card led to coffee, winetasting, and beyond. Steve (who I invariably insult by calling him Scott) and Rhonda spontaneously invite us to join them for wine, cheese, and crackers and Rhonda and I have a monthly lunch and shopping trip. Kit is a gregarious planner of activities to get us all together. Kindness.
Kindness makes for good neighbors. We’ve been blessed with extraordinary ones over the years – many more than just those mentioned above. But there’s one other important quality that makes for good neighbors. Reciprocity. If you have good neighbors, I bet you’re a good neighbor. It’s contagious. If you don’t have them maybe it’s time to ask yourself why. Kindness.