In my over three decades since those grilled cheese college days, I have moved nearly a dozen times. With each new address, I rarely even met my neighbors, let alone made an effort to know them. That never bothered me: I was raised in a family of complicated drama and tormenting dysfunction. Communing with the “folks to either side” always meant relinquishing privacy and risking the reveal of damning family secrets. Neighbors seemed created simply to water plants and feed pets while on vacation or fill in gaps at holiday festivities. Of course, there is an exception.
In 1993, I returned to Greensboro, where I had spent my formative years … at least since age ten. I had been long gone since my young adulthood, and was at my once home. I was emotionally ravaged, nearly broke once again, and at yet another crossroads. However, I am (if nothing else) both scrappy and a survivor … in practical and creative measure. By that Christmas, I was general manager of an extremely popular and eclectic eatery, involved in a meaningful and rewarding relationship, and relearning how to receive the joys of the Universe. It was that very night, the grandest of holiday eves, that Michael asked me to move in with him. I did. And that’s where this neighborly tale begins, my friends.
Our neighborhood was a relatively Bohemian, diverse, and well-maintained enclave of primarily “twenties” homes. The street itself was sloped, lined with magnificent but overly-needy Pin Oaks, with a graduating view of the downtown skyline. The panorama at the street’s bottom was a lush and willow-dotted park, best suited for frolicking pups, children’s ball games, and the occasional festival. Our house was on a corner, leaving us really only one other family of any consequential proximity: Richard, Libby, and their daughter Bailey.
Michael was already friendly with the Smiths, but I was obviously new to the dynamic. Perhaps, because we were always having cocktails, entertaining, or reading mail on our porch (while they were engaged similarly on theirs), it was a natural and quick transition for me. By spring, we often shared pertinent details and intimacies of our lives as well as our latest gardening efforts. It seemed as though most everyone in Westerwood took spring plantings extremely seriously. Richard and I were no exception. Libby and Michael certainly appreciated our efforts, frequently assisting, but clearly had to acquiesce to our compulsive, creative, and sometimes convoluted craft.
Although Richard and I probably spent more time “communing” in our yards, it was probably Libby whom I really got to know. It was easy. While Richard seemed always pensive, reserved, and methodical, his wife was what I call a “gentle Type A”! Our outward sensibilities, love of witty naughty banter, and appreciation of pop and social cultures were beyond aligned. Further, truth be told, we were both more likely the household “diva” type to our jokingly “long-suffering” and patient husbands. I jokingly called her “Libbatory”, in that Southern manner that Michael savored and she despised. At his most casual, Richard was always “Dr. Smith”!
It wasn’t long before the Smiths became more than neighbors as we surreptitiously peeled any remaining layers of formality. They survived our various stays in the hospital, family dramas (usually in-law-inspired), and overall eccentricities, as we survived theirs. Of course, they managed to stay healthy, trading hospital stories for those of dealing with a pubescent, increasingly hormonal daughter … a situation that easily trumps most.
Our house occasionally became a haven, a safe house for teenage rebellion or similar squabbles … as I came to Libby rather often to report the latest misbehavior of Michael’s judgmental and often ill-intended family. Before long any family get together seemed hollow without the Smiths. Our lives had become gently intertwined. The phenomenon didn’t even dissipate when Michael and I had a picket fence built enclosing the front yard. We could rest our coffee cups on a picket while we chatted or, more often: Libby could balance her red wine glass upon that whitewashed apex, as I did my customary evening highball.
Life had definitely started to approach perfection. By the winter of 2000, Michael and I had renovated parts of the house with our slightly odd “stamp”; I was in my fifth year as the manager of a successful design and retail firm; and we had phenomenal next-door neighbors … the latter I had always viewed as some television-era quasi-suburban myth. Needless to say, change again loomed. The almighty forces of the Universe sat upon their billowy thrones, wreaking rhetorical havoc with our lives. Michael became extremely ill.
Shortly after the Bushes held their White House-warming fete, his doctor phoned me with the prognosis. I had to tell Michael, because his doctor was located three counties away and time was now a crucial factor. His brain was rapidly succumbing to tumors which would ultimately rob him of everything, every iota of cognition, and eventually life itself.
Over the next six months, the Smiths were there as Michael lost his ability to speak, remember, drive, dress, bathe, or do most anything that required cognition on any level. Naturally, Michael and I became increasingly isolated as he deteriorated, but I always knew that Libby and Richard were but a few feet away. I felt safer and less alone. Then Michael died.
Life was far from idyllic. I lost my job, my employer folded and moved to Charlotte, and I lost the house. Michael had refinanced our home when he was first sick and the mortgage was three times what I could afford. He didn’t have health insurance and the house no longer had equity. And I didn’t have Michael.
That next summer, many of my neighbors chipped in and helped me sort, pack, and load nine rooms and two lives of furniture, collections, and artwork into a large moving van. I was on the cusp of a spontaneous move to Raleigh.
As I drove up my street that balmy night, I sobbed and gasped like a young child being sent away. I knew what a blessing the Smiths had been to me. In retrospect, I figure the Fates knew that I was going to need such people in my life.
Today, order has once again been restored to my life and I rarely see them. But each day as I recount that last summer in Greensboro, I naturally think of them. I now view them as the only neighbors I have ever really had. The others, both before and since, were just “folks next door”!
If Dr. Smith should perchance read this humble recollection, I trust he’ll forgive my syntax and narrative digression. I fear he is aware of neither my disdain for proofreading, nor my alternate moniker … “Prometheus Unposted”!
(Image: “Tea Shop” by Patrick Hughes, 2012.)