Our neighborhood has always been fairly close knit. It’s one of the many reasons we’ve stayed here since we moved in thirty years ago. It was a brand new development back then during that first year after we were married. After moving into our new and basic little home, we spent the first couple of years curiously watching other new homes go up around us and wondering who would soon move in. On many evenings when the weather was agreeable, we’d put the kids in a stroller or wagon and stroll the streets to gauge the progress of new construction. Would we like our soon-to-be neighbors? Would they like us? Would they have kids the same ages as ours? As the years went on, we made new friends and our kids made new friends. I eventually recognized the unique bond that forms among those who live in close proximity to one another. Community.
By now, some of the original residents have since moved away, and a fresh crop of young families have arrived to take their places. But like us, some are here for the long haul. Over the years, as we’ve matured and our financial situation has improved and stabilized, we’ve remodeled and improved that basic little house into something closer to the home we’d always envisioned for ourselves. We’re well on our way to becoming the old-timers of the neighborhood!
Our home sits on the outside edge of this four-block square development. Our yard is on the western end of our block, sandwiched between two other houses. As the back yard is against a busy thoroughfare, it was probably one of the less-desirable properties when this place was just an old farm field with a plan mapping out a number of lots. We were young, newly married, and it was what we could afford at the time. Early on we erected a privacy fence along the back to make it a bit quieter and we’ve done a lot of other work to make the yard cozy and uniquely ours. A swing set and play fort has come and gone. It now resides in one of the yards next to us where it continues to be frequently used. A chain link fence on either side of the backyard kept our kids safe when they were young and it continues to keep Lucy contained, but allows an open view and access to the neighbors on either side. Many days over the years have found us leaning against that fence as we chatted with those on the other side.
The front of our house looks into the rest of the neighborhood. Our east-west street eases into a north-south avenue, not a true intersection but merely a curving of one road into another. And it’s this specific location where a little community within a community has evolved. We’ve developed a tighter bond with the neighbors directly to our west, the two just across the street, and one right around the curve. We’re an eclectic bunch of personalities who likely would not have become friends were it not for the fact that our homes sit so near each other. But that’s the true beauty of friendship, I think; how we can appreciate others for our differences, how we can learn from one another and grow as a result.
During the summer months on an almost daily basis, as I’m pulling into the garage after work I can already see in one of the driveways a gathering of lawn chairs occupied by the residents of our corner of the neighborhood. One of the families is younger than most, and their seven year-old son might be tossing a football with friends in the front yard, or circling on their bikes out in the street. The adults sit and discuss what’s going on in life, neighborhood happenings, sports, and sometimes politics. There might be some gossip, and there is often a lot of joking (both of the appropriate type and the not-so-much.) There is always much laughter, and there has been the occasional spat between certain members, but everyone always comes together again eventually.
Known simply as “happy hour,” this little party is almost always in progress before I get home and for some time afterwards. It’s a true happy hour in the sense that some members always have an adult beverage in hand. But others may not. It’s definitely not a requirement. Among the participants, one works part-time, two are done working by mid-afternoon, one works retail with days off during the week, two are out of work, and one is retired. I’m the only one who doesn’t get home until later in the afternoon … after 5:30. I stop by the gathering once in a while, but usually just wave and head straight into the house to make dinner.
On one particular occasion, happy hour was happening in our driveway and so of course, I was in attendance. As it often occurs, someone asked, “Tee, why don’t you come to happy hour more often?”
I gave my usual explanation about wanting to make and eat dinner at a reasonable time. Since Jack is a regular attendee, and if I were to join him, it would be seven o’clock or later before we ever eat dinner. And that just doesn’t fit my life and other responsibilities very well.
It was at that moment I had an idea. I had been reading a book at the time called The Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest People. The book described what makes the Danish some of the happiest people in the world, and one of the reasons is their habit of creating a strong sense of community, not just at work, church, or school, but in a much larger sense. In some Danish neighborhoods residents not only share a cup of sugar or the occasional power tool with one another, but they go far beyond. They offer regular help to each others’ children with homework, provide childcare so young parents can have a night out, and most surprisingly, eat dinner together on a regular basis. The cooking and cleanup duties are scheduled so that once every so many weeks each resident takes a turn as part of a crew that does all of the meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and clean-up. Everyone else gets to sit back, relax, and enjoy a meal among friends. As I sat at happy hour that evening, I proposed my idea.
I said that I didn’t see myself ever becoming a daily attendee at happy hour, but would continue to show up as often as time allowed. However, I reminded the others how summer has a habit of fading away and everyone inevitably retreats into their own homes for the winter. I suggested that it would be nice if we continued to connect all year long, and that we consider incorporating a once-monthly neighborhood dinner. (I admit, this was a bit selfish on my part. Since dinner is important to me, I wanted to incorporate the neighborhood gathering into my own schedule.) I briefly described what I’d been reading in the book, and the others were quickly enthusiastic about what I’d proposed. There was much discussion about whether each dinner should have a theme. Should it be pot-luck? What night of the month should it be held? Should we dress up? Come as you are? Paper plates or real dinnerware?
We ultimately decided that there didn’t have to be a definition to these dinners. We would simply take turns hosting. The host family gets to decide what and how it will be served. If they want to invite others to contribute, that’s fine. The most important thing is to make time for each other on a regular basis.
As I had proposed this idea, Jack and I were nominated to host the first neighborhood dinner. Scheduling the exact date proved challenging as we tried to work around work schedules, other social commitments, kids’ sports schedules and what-not. September was supposed to have the first gathering, but it got away from us. Still, we finally found a night that works for everyone and this Tuesday evening I’ll be welcoming the neighbors into our house for a lasagna dinner. I’m trying not to worry about the fact that our most recent home projects aren’t quite finished and the house isn’t perfect. But will it ever be? Probably not. Besides, I still have so much vacation time in my account at work that I decided to take some time off to prepare for our guests. The house will be clean and I’ll have plenty of time to cook. No sense stressing out any more than I have to over this thing, right? So what the heck. I made it a four-day weekend. Besides, when my life comes to a close am I going to wish that I’d spent more time working on the house than spending quality time with others? I certainly hope not.