Thanksgiving With the Neighbors



Rock Island, IL

A little over eleven years ago my wife and I put our daughter, now almost twelve (and memorizing a poem a day), in her stroller and walked from our rented condo to take a look at the house we now live in but were then closing on. The neighbors to the north came out to greet us, and we had a very pleasant exchange with them. Then they told us they were about to go on vacation and that their destination coincided with a NASCAR event.

We aren’t NASCAR people, but that didn’t stop us from buying the house and moving in anyway. What a great move it has turned out to be.

At the time a thick hedge separated our front yard from theirs. We quickly discovered that if our daughter wandered on the other side of the hedge, we couldn’t see her. So I cut the thing down, hauled it away, and chopped out the stumps. “This damned hedge is unneighborly,” I told our neighbors, whom I had just deprived of at least one dangling place for their Christmas lights.

But the neighbors adjusted. They had raised three girls. They understood why we wanted to be able to see ours.

And now we have this long open continuous front yard. We can actually see each other and put down our rakes of a Saturday afternoon; we can walk toward each other to talk about the weekend’s projects and the football scores. From their front porch our neighbors can see my boys catching the football, and to these great feats of athleticism they can lend their cheers, and do.

And tomorrow we and our neighbors to the north will celebrate Thanksgiving together—again.

But here’s the thing: whereas I’m a “localist” who lives nowhere near any sibling, parent, or in-law, our NASCAR neighbors, who I doubt have ever used the word “localist,” live near all three of their daughters and all of their grandchildren, all of whom visit and dine with them every Sunday. And tomorrow all of us—the Peters Five and our neighbors and their daughters and their daughters’ husbands and all the grandchildren and a few friends to boot—will gather around their table, each of us having supplied something for the feast, and we will break bread and carve turkeys together.

They are all Chicago Bears fans by birth and Fighting Irish fans by religion, and we likewise are loyal to the teams of our inheriting: the up-and-coming Detroit Lions (two wins so far this year) and the middling Michigan State Spartans. But Thursday we Orthodox are going to dine with those apostate Catholics. We are going to break the Advent fast with a vengeance. We are going to cause a ruckus. I might even accept a Bud Light.

Our kids love our neighbors. They love our neighbors so much that when we can’t find our children we’re sure they’re next door with people who really love them—that is, people who provide television. We’re not so good at providing that, and we don’t much care for it, but we do care for our neighbors who love our kids and invite them into their house and who look after them when we need an extra set of eyes—because, as they say, that’s what neighbors do.

My wife’s a cardiac nurse and I (though I’m ashamed to admit it) am a college professor; our neighbors, on the other hand, are not college-educated. But they are great neighbors, and we love them. We would take them any day over just about any of our colleagues who might move in next door. Mr. Larry and Miss Laurie are heaven-sent. They are better people than almost all the nurses and physicians and professors and administrators we work with. Come to think of it, they are better people than either of us. Whenever we think about moving into a house in which my study won’t have to double as the kids’ playroom, or one that affords more space out back for our boys to wage B-B gun wars, we think of whom we’d be leaving. It wouldn’t be easy to leave our NASCAR neighbors. Because—let’s be plain—they know how to be neighbors, and most people with our credentials don’t have a clue. Our neighbors know where they are and so have some sense of who they are.

That’s called putting first things first. A good localist, if he can help it, won’t get things all bass ackwards.

The other day I related my Thanksgiving plans to a chatty woman who was fussing over my hair in her own independent little salon. (She’s got some competition from a high-overhead chain just up the street, but what little money I’ll part with for being shorn a few times a year goes to her. Plus her shop sits serendipitously next to a bar whence flows Guinness Stout.) Her response to this was, “Oh, that’s neat. I don’t really know my neighbors.”

Several things have conspired against us to make this not knowing our neighbors more common than it should be, not the least of which are living arrangements designed not for the foot but for the automobile and its obligatory remote garage-door opener. It’s pretty easy in a lot of places not to know your neighbors. Plus your neighbors are sometimes jack-asses, and sometimes you are.

Some of my neighbors are bigots. Some are drunks. Some are litigious and distrustful and mean and unfriendly and dull. Some have no clue that they actually live in our neighborhood. Some need to go to parenting school. But all of them, notwithstanding what they deserve, are people whom we try to treat with kindness and neighborliness. Even I, a crank who tinkers and putzes about on the weekends with beer and cigars and “The ’70s with Steve Goddard” playing on the garage radio, should be so treated. Use every man after his desert, says Hamlet, and who shall ’scape whipping?

I don’t have the precise living arrangements I would like to have. I would prefer more land and privacy and stillness. I’d like a small woods and a bank of snow chilling a case of IPA and a fire on the ground to stand by. But I’m where I am. The built space is human in scale. I can walk everywhere I need to be, and I do. To a considerable though not complete degree I can spend my money with my friends rather than with my enemies. And thanks to the example of some unlettered neighbors, with whom I’ll share a drink and a dead bird tomorrow, I can endeavor to be a good neighbor.

I’m like State Farm! I guess that makes me an anti-federalist agrarian.

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