September 21, 2010

Making Amends

Yesterday the house three doors away from us burned to the ground while the owners attended church services. The four-alarm fire burned so hot that it did thousands of dollars worth of damage to the house on the other side, four down from us.

With no rain in nearly three months, the neighborhood was lucky because the dry, overgrown, unkempt woods behind this row of houses did not ignite.

When I drove home from work tonight, the female owner and her grown daughter sat at a picnic table with their backs to the street, looking at the charred remains of the house.

Seeing them just brought tears to my eyes for what they lost.

A neighbor called them at church and said, "Your house is on fire." Someone else had already called the fire department, but the house was completely up in flames and their two dogs were dead from smoke inhalation by the time they arrived home.

I walked down to talk to them tonight. I've always believed that saying something is better than saying nothing in times like this. But I am ashamed that they have lived here ten years and we don't know them, except for the cursory wave. We've lived here fourteen years.

They were upbeat about rebuilding on the same spot. They were morose about the loss of their dear pets, but seemed to be handling the loss of their still smoking, steaming house very well.

I'm telling this story because it points out something in my own life that I don't like very much. What's wrong with me when I don't know the people who live three houses down?

I know the good ole' days weren't usually good, but I grew up in a town similar to where I live now, and everybody knew everybody. It wasn't Amish Village USA, but people seemed to have more time for community activities, and "neighboring" as my Grandmother called it.

That wasn't always so good, sometimes you knew too much. Frankly, it is one reason why I left the town at twenty-two and never looked back.

But I think I've let the pendulum swings too far. We open our garage doors and drive into our privacy. There are no front porches in this suburbia, we all sit at our secluded, fenced-in decks in the back.

Our first house just two miles from this neighborhood was on a street with little houses, like those described in the Malveena Reynolds song, Little Houses made of ticky tacky." Most of them had two or three bedrooms, a one-car or no garage, built on a slab. But they had front porches and sidewalks.

On spring, summer, or fall evenings, children played in the street or in driveways. Jim on one side and Matt on the other side worked on each other's trucks. The elderly Indian couple two houses down made cookies for the kids, and we actually knew each other's first names. My child rode his little red tricycle.

Sometimes we drive over to the old neighborhood to the house where we brought our baby boy home, to see Jim and Matt. We're the only ones who have moved out. And we are probably the ones who lost something as well. I wish I had the good sense to bring that "neighboring" over here, and perhaps I could better help the couple who lost the house yesterday.