We lived, in the mid-1970s, in a suburban development where the moms did not work and they hosted Tupperware parties and sleepovers instead. The houses, a repeating pattern of five different Colonial styles coated in aluminum siding and fake brick panels, were each allocated a fraction of an acre. Tiny lots and tiny yards, each family’s grassy lawn right up against the next. But I could walk a few houses down the street to visit my friends; we could ride our bikes over the uneven panels of the sidewalk; our neighbors knew us and we knew them. I remember our neighbors on one side well: an older couple whose kids were in college or about to be. They had a grandparental air; perhaps they found my grade-school girl antics a relief in their mostly empty nest. I remember marching up to their front door, alone, visiting whenever I felt the need. I was fed cookies and milk. The couple’s son sometimes walked me home from the bus stop, though it was only about a block from my house — there was an old-fashioned neighborliness about the place we lived. Our house had dark blue aluminum siding, wall-to-wall shag carpet and a brick fireplace. The kitchen was olive green and coated in linoleum. It was strangely comforting to know my way around friends’ homes, even if I hadn’t visited before, because they were in layout and décor very similar to mine.
In between my fourth and fifth grade school years, we moved. My parents had built a house with some inheritance they’d received, a modest Cape Cod on about two acres, some 20 minutes south of our previous home. It was a greater distance that it seemed. That short drive took us from suburban to rural, to “peace and quiet,” to open space. There were no sidewalks. Our new house was in a development with only two intersecting streets and few homes. Empty lots bordered ours on all sides. The land had once been a farm, probably tobacco, and had been carved into lots for people like my parents to invest in and build upon. There were few trees, and fewer children. I rode my bike up and down the middle of our street, back and forth, back and forth, and some days I didn’t see another soul. We grew berries and corn and peas on our new land, and I learned to dig potatoes and coax squash from Maryland clay. The fledgling community was surrounded by hilly pastures and fields of corn, soybeans, and tobacco, and occasionally a stray dog would appear. In the country, people dropped off what they no longer wanted. I came home from school one day and found an old racehorse grazing in our yard. I watched a bull trot down the street one morning while I ate breakfast. We were all displaced. Birds flew into our chimney, snakes slithered in the front door. My cat caught field mice and crickets in our basement. Our dog had a run-in with a skunk. We could hear gunfire in the spring and fall, and got to know when goose hunting season began. The Canada geese flew overhead year-round, and I found their constant barking companionable and soothing in the country silence. Rabbits nibbled on our lawn nightly.
We live on a 17 percent grade in San Francisco at the place where the fog turns to sun. The houses have been built at odd angles to accommodate the slope, and we are crammed onto this hill: wall meets wall, roof meets roof. I have met a few of our neighbors, but our relationships are guarded and suspicious. One blond woman three houses down looks me in the eye every time I say hello, but keeps her lips pursed. An older woman who lives two houses up the hill waves when she sees us and gave us a pot full of prickly succulents when our son was born, but she is not interested in conversation. The middle-aged couple who rent an apartment next door smoke so much pot we can sit on our front steps and get high on their second-hand smoke. Another neighbor meditates every morning while sitting on the wall between our houses, and I have to explain to my son why she won’t say hi. Here the land is too steep for a yard. We have a deck, and I grow flowers in pots and built-in beds. I find myself looking for my former neighbors, sometimes brought low with nostalgia for them. I watch city birds from our bay window, ravens and sparrows mostly, and wait for my once-a-year sighting of the fat raccoon who roves the neighborhood. When I notice mice darting into the bushes near the street, I stop to watch. I take the time to point out to my son the spiders in our flower beds, the hummingbirds whizzing by, a ladybug. We visit friends on weekends, city-dwelling friends who moved to the suburbs and now have grassy yards and pools, and deer that eat their landscaping; friends who know the neighbors from whom their kids beg for candy at Halloween. Our visits feel like vacation.
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