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Friday, March 27, 2009

Rural Living: Neighbors

Spring is here and along with croci, tulips, and winter wheat, neighbors can be seen popping out for folks to see.

You begin to see neighbors about the same time as you begin to see robins. Of course, some people think that robins don't really leave for the winter. Same thing could be said for neighbors. You get a glimpse of them once in a while during the winter - scraping cars, hurrying into the house after work, passing each other when you pick up the mail at the post office - but like robins, you have to wonder where they really go.

I was out working in the lawn when I had my first real 'neighboring' of the season. Earlier this year I bought a machete - yes, a real machete - to cut down the dead remains of flowers and plants from last fall.

I thought it would be good exercise.

Anyhow, I was out hacking away at our monstrosity of a pampas grass growing in the front yard. As I was 'exercising' the neighbor across the street came over with his electric hedge trimmer in hand.

"This'll take care of that in a couple passes," he said confidently.

Our neighbor is not much older than me, but he always makes me feel like a nincompoop. But that's his game. He means well. He's gotten to know me in the 12 years we've lived here and he's seen me work with tools. I can just imagine the conversation he had with his wife as they looked out the window at me and my machete, probably distilled to one word: "Sheesh."

But he was neighborly enough.
He has a new job.
(He gets a new job every Spring.)
His wife has recovered from her surgeries.
(I pretended that I remembered what she had surgery on.)
His daughter-in-law was bringing over her vacuum cleaner for repairs.
(I've seen her in action: probably can't find the 'On' switch.)

And I think I was neighborly, too.
Karen's Mom isn't doing well so we've been gone a lot.
(He noticed we weren't home much.)
We're taking down the three pine trees that have died over the winter.
(He was interested in the wood.)
I just can't get used to this Daylight Saving Time.
(He doesn't know anyone who likes it - nor do I.)

Other neighbors have been out and about, too. Kids are running around everywhere. Bikes have popped out of nowhere and balls and bats and scooters and skates and all manner of outdoor toy have re-appeared.

Everyone's sprucing up around their houses. And as neighbor meets neighbor again, the chats begin and the lives rekindle that make our little town a community once more.

It is my observation that neighboring like this has become the province of rural towns. We have no neighborhood associations to make us nervous about the people who live next to us. Sure, we have a neighbor who works on his cars in his driveway, but hey, it's his house, and he and I talk about things neither one of us would discuss otherwise: I keep him up on religion, he keeps me up on the junk car business.

Bigger cities and towns have 'neighborhoods', but they seem to be contrived. Houses all made too look the same, trying to create the image of neighborlyness that really only exists in the small rural town. One man I know from suburban Milwaukee said about our small town: "This is the kind of place we try to get our suburb to look like."

Being neighbors isn't the same as being friends, at the same time we are friendly with one another. We don't share a common life, as friends do, yet we share a common community which draws our lives together in a unique bond.

I think this is seen most clearly in the volunteer fire department. Three of our close neighbors belong to the fire department. A few days ago, there was a significant fire at the anhydrous plant a few miles from town. In a flash these three were in their trucks, blue lights flashing, ready to take care of a problem they hadn't created, risking their lives for someone they likely didn't know.

It was comforting to know that these same three men, and many like them, would have been at our front door in an instant, were there a fire at our house.

It's what neighbors do.

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