Thursday, March 13, 2008

Being Neighborly is More Than A Wave

(From the March 13 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

The weather people tell us we set some records for snowfall in February. The snowfall and cold weather contributed to feelings of isolation and a temptation for us all to “cocoon” ourselves inside our homes while winter raged outside.

Winter in particular is a time of year when we don’t see or talk to our neighbors very much. Other than a brief wave while shoveling, running the snow blower or quickly retrieving the mail, the climate gives us little opportunity for casual outdoor conversation. According to some articles I’ve read, in our modern times neighbors talk less than they used to all year round. That may have something to do with construction of larger homes without front porches, in neighborhoods without sidewalks. Or it could be the hectic nature of everyone’s lives these days. I’m not sure.

But as it turns out, this winter is one during which I have thought a lot about neighbors. In past winters, when the snow was occasionally heavy, several of our neighbors have come to our rescue with snow blowers while we struggled stubbornly with shovels. Last year we finally conceded to buy a snow blower for ourselves. So, this year we’ve repaid the favor and helped out a neighbor who travels a lot. We cleared the snow so he could return to an open driveway.

Meanwhile, one of our other neighbors lost his job. Another neighbor has quietly, anonymously, generously, provided the first neighbor with gift cards to a local supermarket. Even though we are not personally affected in this case, this act of thoughtful compassion makes us glad to live in such a neighborhood.

Being “neighborly” took on a deeper meaning recently. An older gentleman who lives a few doors down has gradually weakened in a struggle with disease. He had lost his wife four years previously. His kids would stop by now and then to visit and help with a few things. A friend from the south moved in with him and provided companionship and comfort as his condition declined. They were planning to marry if he had not become sick. My wife, ever thoughtful, noticed this from a distance and took our snow blower to their house to clear snow on more than one occasion. She retrieved their mail for them. She talked with them to provide a small measure of emotional support.

Apparently, other neighbors had been doing similar deeds. When he passed away last weekend, we were alerted by a phone call from another neighbor. We in turn shared the news with others in the neighborhood. When my wife and I brought some food over and ended up talking for a long time with our neighbor’s surviving fiance, we noticed in the front hall was a dish to be returned to a neighbor who had provided a meal. We heard stories of other neighbors who had looked in on them. We also talked a lot about how odd it is that this was the first time we had really talked at greater length.

It is odd to attend receptions at funeral homes and memorial services. Why is it at these occasions that we often learn more about people than we ever knew when they were with us? We learn their histories, their family stories. More of their personality is revealed in retrospect. Is it not a shame that we learn most about some of our neighbors at their funerals than at their mailboxes, front doors, or kitchen tables?

Fortunately, that is not the case for all of our neighbors. We have gone kayaking, sailing, and boating with some of the neighbors who happen to live closest to us. We have chatted in the driveways. We’ve attended positive life events of neighbors too, such as graduation receptions and weddings. Having lost a lesser-known neighbor, I’m even more glad to have gotten to know these others.

A neighbor is someone with whom we are acquainted only because of location. The simple fact of living next to or near someone makes them a neighbor. There is no blood connection as with family. There is no bond or choice, as with friends. The only common connection is proximity. Yet we have so many incentives and benefits to getting to know our neighbors. We can have fun, or help each other out with simple household tasks. We may even be there for each other when death comes near.

We all speak of who we are “close” to. Often that means an emotional closeness. But sometimes being literally close to someone is important too. Neighbors can be more than a coincidence of a real estate decision. They can be close not only to our homes, but our hearts. They can be as close as friends and family, perhaps even closer. Indeed, such is the nature of a real neighborhood.