“I guess you had a hard time sleeping last night!” our 80-year-old next-door-neighbor shouted out to Alan, as we emerged from the house one morning to take a walk. Our neighbor waved to us from his kitchen porch, a location from which he had an excellent view of our house, driveway, and yard. “I saw you watching TV last night – it must have been 3 in the morning!”
There is enough distance between our two houses that in order to observe Alan watching TV at 3 in the morning our neighbor must have employed some pretty strategic neck craning.
I lived in New York City for nearly 18 years; I’m sure I was as invisible to the neighbors in my apartment building as they were to me. Here in Summit, we live on a dirt road in what seems like “splendid isolation”. Nonetheless, all of us neighbors mostly know each other by name, recognize whose dog belongs to whom, and are opinionated when noticing someone on our road getting involved in an interesting home repair or improvement.
Our next-door neighbors took a particular interest in our activities. Perhaps because they were old-school Scandinavian, their frequent observations often had a sharp edge, or were delivered like a premonition of doom. Once, when I was returning from a 10-day trip to visit my mother in Florida, our neighbor’s wife stepped out onto their kitchen porch at the very moment I was getting out of my car, almost as if she had been waiting for my return. She called out hello . “I’m glad to see you’re back!” she shouted across the neighborhood. “We thought you might have left Alan!”
The kitchen porch was their favorite lookout spot. From here, they admonished us when we decided to put up birdhouses, saying that our efforts were futile as the government would surely be quick to take the birdhouses down. Later, when we decided to put up a small carport our neighbor watched us in silence for several days. Eventually he announced, as the carport was nearing completion, that it was sure to collapse under the first snow.
In fact, we were on excellent terms with these particular neighbors. They often invited us over for tea and a chat about neighborhood goings on, and we had them over for dinner several times too. Their stiff, ancient Labrador would hobble over to our part of the hillside in the morning to sniff and do his business – and our dog would trot over to their yard to do the same.
We liked to discuss them and to analyze their comments and behavior – as they surely must have speculated about us. Sometimes we felt quite put out, indignant that we were being “spied on.” Other times their comments made us laugh.
And then one day our elderly neighbor was taken to the hospital. He died not long after. Two or three months later, his widow sold their house and moved away. They had built this house together 50 years ago, and raised their children in it. For all that time they had been fixtures in the neighborhood. Suddenly Alan and I realized how much personality had emanated from that little house next door, and how empty its kitchen porch looked now. We missed our neighbors, we missed feeling that all of our mundane day-to-day activities were of such interest to someone else. And it seemed awfully quiet in the neighborhood.
The house was put on the market and we watched with interest as prospective buyers went in and out. Despite being an old house, it sold quickly. When the new owners arrived, we were eager to get to know them. And we were brimming with advice about the positives and the negatives of the property: Had they checked out the septic system? Did they know that the well was rumored to be small? And the foundation, well, it was built 50 years ago! Was it stable? We felt quite certain that the new owners would welcome our advice, warnings, and long list of recommendations.
From our kitchen window we watched as builders and repair people came and went. Most of the activity was taking place inside the house, and we wondered, what were they doing in there? Sometimes family members would appear and disappear before we had had a chance to wander over for a social chat and see what they were up to. For sure they would be pleased with our friendly overtures.
Overcome with curiosity one afternoon, I walked over to the house and tapped on the door. Hellooooo? I called out, opening the front door and peeking inside. My intention was to invite our new neighbors over for dinner – but of course I also hoped that I’d be invited inside to see what was going on.
On another occasion, Alan watched from the kitchen window as our new neighbor appeared in his backyard with chain saw. “He’s taking down trees!” Was he cutting down dead trees – or healthy ones? Were the trees on our property – or his? “I don’t think he meant for that tree to fall in that direction,” Alan announced, as the first lodge pole came crashing down. Perhaps our neighbor needed help. Alan decided to go outside and find out.
Just this past week, in the middle of the night I woke up and noticed that the lights were on over at our neighbor’s house. “Wake up Alan!” I whispered, “I didn’t think the neighbors were going to be up at the house this weekend, did you?” Alan put on his glasses, and we both got up and peered out across the dark expanse of the field separating our houses. Lights were on in our neighbor’s house, upstairs and down.
We watched in silence. And then Alan said, “That’s odd. Doesn’t it look like someone is up watching TV?”
Published in the Summit Daily News, November 7, 2016. This piece won an award at the 2017 Colorado Associated Press Awards.