Friday, May 27, 2011

Lessons from Neighbors

Thane's school is holding a read-a-thon fundraiser. New books for the library being the objective. So after dinner Thane and I hit the street to ring doorbells and dig up sponsors. We have no particular goal in mind. No set amount of cash we want to come home with. It is a lovely evening and secretly I just want to get out of the house. So envelope in hand, off we go. We live on a tree lined crescent. Very suburban. Lawnmowers drone. Cardinals fly around the trimmed hedges, tulips stand on guard. The first houses we hit are familiar. Where we go to borrow lawnmowers and eggs. We recognize faces. We don't know their last names and they don't know ours. But we all end up on the same street at the end of the day. And that makes us more than acquaintances, but less than friends. We meet over the fence, on the street, on the front lawn. Neighbors. Simple as that.

People are just arriving home from work. Pulling into their driveways, emptying trunks full of groceries. Walking up the street. Fresh off the bus. Laptop commuter bags slung haphazardly across their chest's. It's the first day we've seen sun in weeks. It feels like summer. The vibe on the street is light. And we know in half an hour all we're going to smell is BBQ. We're greeted with smiles, not to mention great donations. Thanks to Thane's paper route everyone knows him. Thanks to acting lessons he's self-confident and conversational. I'm taken aback by his maturity. He's having issues at school. One of which is a lack of interest in reading. And yet he promotes the read-a-thon with genuine enthusiasm.

We move down the street. Thane approaches a group of hip looking, twenty-something guys. New to the street. They are strumming guitars and chatting on the front step of a beautiful home. He tries to sell them on the idea of sponsoring him.  They reach in their pockets and, between the five of them, come up with five dollars and fifteen cents. Seriously. They explain to Thane they are a traveling road band. Short on gigs and short on cash. With big grins they advise him. "Read. Stay in school. Or you'll be broke and living with your mom, like us." Great advice, coming from a respected source, given Thane has taken guitar lessons for three years and is awe of anyone in a band.

Often we have the pleasure of sending our neighbor's off to work in the morning. The kids and I stand at the school bus stop and wave to folks as they start their morning commute. One neighbor, we have waved to many times, gave Thane a very generous donation. He explained to Thane that, as an author, he always encourages reading. An author on our street? Who knew? We asked him question after question. Finally he had to take his groceries in the house before his Popsicle's melted. What a great experience for Thane. As we go from house to house we learn all about our neighbor's favorite novels. We hear where they purchase books. Whether they frequent the neighborhood library. It seems everyone we meet is a 'reader'. Everyone encourages Thane to read. They tell him how many books they've read in the past week. They describe how rewarding it is to complete a series of novels.

Finally we head for home. The widowed woman across the street is just pulling in her driveway. Thane runs over, his envelope bulging with money. By the time I walk up Thane has already gone through his sales spiel. She is reaching for her purse. She's in her late fifties. I think she's an elementary school teacher. As she hands him the cash she asks him what he's planning on reading next. A Harry Potter novel, by J.K.Rowling. She's read the series. She becomes animated. She insists Thane has to read Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Her hands fly as she paints pictures with words. It occurs to me she used to be pretty. She takes Thane through the series. Classics. As soon as he's old enough. A favorite of her son's. All of a sudden she grows quiet. Her demeanor changes. She deflates. Looks older. Rubs her eyes, her cheeks. Her late son. He passed in 2002 at age twenty-eight. An undetected heart condition. A jog in the heat of a Montreal summer. A knock on the door at three in the morning and her life shattered. Now she reads his Lord of the Rings novels. Knowing her son read the same words, saw the same pictures in his mind. Her eyes, so full of life a moment before are dull and red. She looks at Thane with a mixture of yearning and tenderness. I can tell, in my mother's heart, that she longs to touch him. I think she may regret revealing so much of her personal story. I want to hug her but for some reason I'm scared of her reaction. Or maybe I'm scared of mine. I thank her for sharing with us. My tone tells her she gave us a gift.

We're done. Thane is quiet. Processing all the advice and information he's learned in one short hour. As we walk up the front steps to our door I remember we are moving. Soon these familiar houses will blur in my memory. And the faces of my neighbors will fade. That makes me sad. I feel the pain of regret. Not stabbing pain. I have too may other priorities for that. Maybe a twinge of conscience.  I could have gotten to know them better. As I slowly close the door I take a last look at our street before the light fades completely.  Wonder at the complexity of the lives behind the curtained windows. Thane learned several life lessons on our short walk. And so did I. Reading is so much more than a hobby. It's a passion. It's a common denominator. And it's a life preserver.  More than acquaintances, less than friends. Neighbors. Simple as that.


  1. You know, Vic, I don't really appreciate these tear jerkers when I am not prepared. Here I am thinking that Thane is headed into a career of entrapeneurism and I ended up with mascara running down my face. I adore this post.

  2. You are an amazing writer!! Profound! (Renena)