A respectful few days after we unloaded the last boxes from our move, our next-door neighbors came knocking to introduce themselves.
Harriet and Alfred, we learned right off the bat, had met at Duke in the 1940s and reconnected in the 1970s after their first marriages had ended, hers through death, his through divorce. In 1983 they bought a newly-built house on the lot that had once been part of our property.
Beyond the polite introduction, they had a specific purpose for coming to see us that day: It was their firm instruction that our children must play in their front yard. We did not ever need to ask permission.
The children who had run circles in the yard in the 1980s and 1990s, Harriet explained, were now grown. Ours would have to take their places because, she said, nothing was more enjoyable for old people than watching young ones frolic. We could set up sprinklers or t-ball stands or whatever we wanted, just make sure we used their yard frequently.
Their house sat back from the street and was one of only a few on the block with a flat patch of grass as a front yard. Our house had no such yard, no place for a baseball-loving young boy to play.
We wandered over tentatively at first, but we quickly realized they meant what they said. To prove it they routinely rewarded the children’s arrival with sleeves of Thin Mints, pitchers of lemonade and loads of ice cream sandwiches.
Directly across the street lived a family with a son who was our son’s same age. A few doors east lived a family with a daughter our daughter’s same age. All four children attended the same day care and became friends, so naturally all four children became frequent playmates in Harriet and Alfred’s yard.
We had landed on the block in February, when the peppermint camellias were just beginning to bloom. Harriet taught us how to care for those camellias and later, in the early summer, she did the same for our oversized gardenia. Her only request was that she might take a cutting here and there, as camellias and gardenias were her very favorite flowers.
Alfred became our son’s first employer, not knowing the child was only three at the time and perhaps too young even for the task of daily newspaper retrieval. Every Sunday afternoon Alfred lumbered through the yard to deliver the child’s weekly pay, complete with a handwritten note of encouragement on the envelope.
They took great interest in the children’s schooling, asking about their studies and sending special congratulations for good report cards. They brought us See’s candies for Christmas, and we cooked them brisket for Rosh Hashanah. Their social and travel schedules made us dizzy, and their fond affection for one another made us smile.
We wore their yard out, which thrilled them to no end.
More families with children our children’s ages moved in, and Harriet and Alfred’s yard was the middle-of-the block congregating place. The children played in the sprinkler when it was hot and slid down the hill when, on rare occasions, it snowed.
Our children played, and we, by and large, ignored our house. We didn’t paint, or garden, or do one blessed thing in the rooms that were still unfinished when we moved in.
One Halloween morning Harriet awoke to discover that Alfred had taken his final rest. Though her children worried about her living alone, Harriet stayed put.
A few months later, Harriet announced with great flourish that she was promoting our son to CEO and appointing our daughter CFO, responsible for coming next door every Wednesday to collect. Their new positions came with increased wages. When the children told her they would gladly bring her paper to the door each day without being paid, she became indignant. She looked me squarely in the eye and said I should never forget that a job well done must always command a fair salary. “Your mother has some things to learn, but she’ll get there,” she told the children with a wink.
By summer Harriet was traveling again. One evening she came over unexpectedly to tell me she was going on a cruise, leaving in less than a week. She hadn’t told anyone any sooner because she was afraid someone would talk her out of it or make her afraid or somehow spoil the fun. She was nervous and excited, and her excitement was so contagious that I forgot I’d left a skillet full of butter on the stove and almost burned the house down. “Oh, my dear, I’m rubbing off on you!” she exclaimed, and I thought what a wonderful thing that would be if it were true.
Harriet returned from her long trip in time to wish my son good luck at the start of his fourth grade year. She had been a fourth grade teacher and said emphatically that fourth grade was the best year of all.
Within a month he was furious that she had lied to him, furious that fourth grade was, in fact, the very worst of all possible years. She laughed and promised by the end of the year he would see she’d been right. And then she took to checking on me, not him, every few weeks. By the end of the year he would be a different child, an older and more mature child, she assured me.
He was. They all were, my son, my daughter, and their contemporaries on our block. They’d graduated from sprinkler chasing to street tennis, bike riding, school sports and the much-dreaded video games. They were little people who went to sleep-away camps and summer programs and on out-of-town trips with friends.
A year later, eight years after we first met, Harriet moved to California to be with her daughter and granddaughter, who was expecting a child of her own. Harriet wanted to join them while she still felt energetic. In a matter of weeks the house was swept, prepped and sold. An era of our family life came to a close.
My son and I visited Harriet in her new home, a retirement community in Walnut Creek. She took us to lunch, gave us a grand tour, told stories about her new great-granddaughter.
She died in 2015, of complications from Lewy Body dementia. Only in the years after her death did I realize something remarkable: Harriet never asked about the progress of our renovation or the state of our house. She never offered unsolicited advice, never made us feel inadequate or deficient, with our often-overgrown yard and never-tidy front porch.
A house, after all, is just a place.
This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”