Neighbours. You can’t really choose them, but you can choose your neighbourhood. You can try to surround yourself with like-minded people, with those who share your same values or mowing habits, but in the end it’s still a bit of a lottery.
Where we live can affect so many things besides which corner store we frequent, or where our kids go to school. It can determine our level of community interaction, who our children play with and how many lemons we don’t need to buy. It can even shape our notions of hospitality and how we welcome others into our world.
The house our family lived in for 7 years was down the end of a road, in a part of town where none of our friends lived, and hardly anyone dropped by unannounced. The only surprise visitors we had were our parents.
If people were coming over, I had invited them.
I rarely worried about keeping the bathroom clean or having an emergency supply of biscuits in case someone wanted a cup of tea. Our neighbours were nice, but they had their lives and we had ours.
When we moved away from our hometown, we found a new rental property and, ipso facto, new neighbours. To the west lived a 90-something year old lady who still climbed the ladder to pick fruit from her giant mango tree. To the south was a retired couple with flourishing veggie gardens, a bromeliad greenhouse, and a woodworking shed the envy of any industrial arts school.
To the east lived a 70-something year old over-sharer who would stand in her driveway and yell out, I mean, YELL OUT, my husband’s name at the top of her lungs when she came home with a car boot full of groceries and needed assistance carrying them up the stairs to her kitchen. Try putting a toddler down for their daytime nap when they have struggled against you for ¾ of an hour and you’ve already sung Baa Baa Black Sheep 20 times, only to have Old Yell-Face suddenly start screaming through the bedroom window. She did have a swimming pool, though.
Ours was the only rental house among these long-term residents, and they welcomed our family as if we’d been there forever.
Fruit was exchanged, dogs were fed, hedge trimmers were borrowed, groceries were carried. Still, these were mostly over-the-fence relationships.
Soon we moved to a decidedly different neighbourhood. We lived on a corner block in between two cul-de-sacs, with a bus stop out the front. A never-ending parade of mothers and fathers pushing babies in prams and toddlers on bikes streamed past our front lawn. Neighbourhood dogs came visiting through the always-open farm gate.
In a matter of weeks we made friends with a family who lived across the road, the four of them not too dissimilar in age to us. It wasn’t long before we began to exchange baked treats, child-minding and play dates.
At first I was pretty uptight about the timing of our get-togethers. A lot of them happened spontaneously, and they’d catch me off guard.
My son would pester, ‘Can I go over to their house?’ day in, day out, and unless I had mentally scheduled it in, I would find an excuse to say ‘No’.
As a mother to a newborn and a toddler, I had things to do. Swanning over to the neighbour’s house to chat while our kids played for two hours wasn’t usually on my radar for the day. Who would hang out the washing or cook the dinner?
Luckily, my neighbour seemed to have a completely different sense of time and purpose to me. No time was the wrong time for chatting or playing, and if it were, then we could always come back tomorrow. Naturally, this meant that they might pop over to our house at any time, no warning, no invitation necessary.
I admit, at first I was slightly put out by the thought of this. With two small kids and a sleep debt as big as a budget deficit, I didn’t always manage to change out of my pyjamas or have a shower before midday, and I certainly didn’t expect to have company.
Gradually, I became accustomed to the idea that someone might come to visit whenever they liked. I decided I needed to face it like a girl scout, and be prepared. I made sure I was dressed early in the day, and that our schedule could accommodate an impromptu hour or two being spent in idle conversation, cups of tea or just being outside watching boys drive trucks in gravel. I became fond of hanging around the front gate saying hello to neighbours as they drove slowly around our corner or stopped to collect their kids from the bus.
As renters, though, we eventually got moved on in favour of kitchen renovations and new carpet. Our new house, though bigger and newer, is on a busy street on the side of a hill. We hardly see our neighbours over the tall wooden fences, and I couldn’t tell you the name of the man across the street, nor recognise him in a crowd.
No one stops in unannounced anymore, and I don’t go visiting other people on impulse. Our old neighbours moved to a different town and we are yet to form those bonds with anyone new.
At least I have kept my appreciation for spontaneous socialising, and I try to have room in my day for unplanned events. And I always get changed out of my pyjamas.