Know thy neighbor

by Michelle Gagnon

I returned from vacation to sad news. My next door neighbor, Jane, had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and the day before we left the doctors told her it was untreatable. Two days later, Jane passed away.

From what I knew of her, Jane was a wonderful person- sweet, smart, funny. But truth be told, since we moved in a year ago, I’ve probably only had a dozen conversations with her. Most revolved around keeping an eye on each other’s houses when we were out of town, or the obligatory exchange of cookies at Christmas. She and her husband have lived on this block for more than a half century. She was always so sweet and welcoming, always willing to talk. And I was always in too much of a hurry. I’d wave as I passed by on my way to the store, the gym, or wherever I happened to be going.

At her memorial I had the chance to speak at length with her sister, and learned more about Jane and her life in that half hour than I had in the past year. And as I sat there listening to how Jane and her husband had met, what their house had been like when they first moved in, it struck me that in the past year I’ve been running around like a crazy person. Part of that is the combination of having a small child paired with seemingly nonstop deadlines–I had to squeeze work in whenever possible, and every other spare moment was consumed by parenting and keeping our household running.

And what got lost in all that rushing around was getting to know someone like Jane, a lovely woman who taught high school English for decades, loved reading, and lived right next door.

Coming off a weekend where I had also been completely shut off from the internet and telephone, and yet (miraculously!) survived, it was eye opening. I realized that I’ve been spending so much time working on my books and maintaining virtual relationships on social networking sites, I’ve been terribly negligent at building them with the people all around me.

Part of this might be due to living most of my adult life in cities–in most of the apartments I rented in New York, neighbors were only dealt with when they were doing something unpleasant and/or inappropriate, like playing their bongos at 3AM or letting their snakes roam the halls at night (both of which happened in one building on the Upper West Side).
Yet in the suburbs where I grew up, I have distinct memories of neighbors stopping by to introduce themselves when we moved in- and of my mother baking up a storm whenever a moving truck showed up at the house down the block. But that’s never happened to me in San Francisco or New York. And that’s a shame.

While we were gone, there was also a terrible gas main explosion in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco. Numerous homes were destroyed, four people so far are confirmed dead. And some of the most amazing stories to emerge from the incident involved neighbors rushing to each others’ aid, shuttling people to hospitals, getting them out of burning buildings. Many of those people were apparently just meeting for the first time.

So I’m going to make an effort to get the know the people around me better. I’ll be spending less time on listservs and SN sites. And the next time a moving truck shows up on our block, I’ll bake cookies and bring them over.

7 thoughts on “Know thy neighbor

  1. Great post, Michelle. This goes hand-in-hand with my recent post about making a connection in order to care about our characters. I’m guilty of the same thing: waving to the neighbor but never getting to know them. Just like the characters in our books, once you know them, you care about them.

  2. This struck a chord with me because we had a neighbor die too. He and his wife had just moved in and with our lives being in a rush all the time–and me writing–we never got to know them well. And his widow never told the neighbors what had happened either. It only after the funeral when she got quite a few visitors at her house that we found out what had happened. A sad commentary on our lives.

    I recently moved to TX and the day the movers were here, our new neighbors brought over BBQ for the whole crew. I’ve since taken the time to get to know all the neighbors around me and exchanged contact information & jars of a great family recipe for salsa. And I had dinner at one house and hope to host more get togethers.

    It’s easy to get entrenched in our dramas and not slow down enough to see what’s right in front of us. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, M.

  3. Great post. It’s so easy to get caught up in everything (especially the Internet) that we forget to really get to know the people around us.

  4. That’s great, Jordan. Ironically, losing Jane has brought the neighborhood together. A lot of people on the block did know her well, and there’s been a lot of impromptu memorializing about her on the sidewalk this week.
    You’re right, Joe- it’s easy to forget about making those connections sometimes. I’m currently working on a standalone, and it’s amazing how much more challenging it is to start a book where I don’t know any of the characters well. It’s taking some time to nail them down.

    I agree, Jenna. It’s far too easy for the virtual world to overtake the real one these days.

  5. You hit it right on the nose Michelle. This information age has shut a lot of us down when it comes to physical interraction. I have lived in a suburban Anchorage neighborhood for the past 5 years. The only adults I know to any serious degree are one next door neighbor who is very talkative, and one neighbor whose children play with mine. Everyone else? Well, while selling cub-scout popcorn last week I met people 100 yards from my house who asked if I was new to the neighborhood.

    That is in stark contrast to the life we had in rural Interior Alaska for the same number of years (5 years in the 90’s). There I knew most of the families in our town of 800 residents. We lived next to the highway, near the town’s general store. At night most of the year, I lit a fire in the firepit in front of my house and sat out on the log benches I had made just to relax and stare into the flame and think. Inevitably, most nights at least, someone would see the fire burning and come by for a chat or just to join me in staring into the crackling light. Even in the middle of winter neighbors, some one whom lived several miles away, would pop in.

    The urban information age, while it may be great for getting your story across to a wide swath of civilisation quickly, is gradually ruining us I fear.

  6. I hear you, Basil. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve the big block parties that our neighborhood threw a couple of times a year. Hot dogs and hamburgers on the BBQs, booze for the grownups (and a few sneaky teens), races and games for the kids. Good times.

    On a side note- we tried to use our firepit in our backyard, and our neighbor across the fence chastised us. Apparently you aren’t allowed to burn wood in San Francisco anymore without a chimney, although we used it all the time at our old place. So no cookies for them ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Up until this year, the street we live on had twice-a-year block parties. In the winter it was “down the hill,” and in the summer it was “up the hill.” The same guy always set up the margarita stand, the same house always hosted a huge pot luck with every type of dish imaginable. Then, in recent years, some of the older residents died or moved on, and it became harder and harder to figure out how to pull it together. New, young families moved in, and some of them seemed disconnected or intimidated by the parties. This year, for the first time, the little flyer-invitations didn’t come, which makes me very sad. I wasn’t the one organizing thing, I was just a vagabond enjoyer of the events. Your post has made me resolve to call up a neighbor and figure out how to get them going again.

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