Photo by: Sarah McKenzie, artiste
“We’re going swimming next door!” my daughter Lindsay announced yesterday afternoon.
“Really,” I said. I caught hint of dubiousness in my voice too late, slapped myself inwardly for not sounding more enthusiastic. Lindsay didn`t seem to notice.
“I was too shy,” she said, her voice light as a feather, “but Nick went right up to the door and asked. Said he used to live there and wondered if we could go for as swim.” She beamed. Her boyfriend, a hero. I could imagine this actually, Nick knocking on the door and politely asking if it would be okay for them to swim. Nick is a good-natured soul, always smiling. The kind of kid who knows enough to say thank you.
“Well, good for you,” I said. “It’s a good day for it.” Thirty-five degrees outside. You bet it was a good day for it.
Years ago, we`d spent many hot summer days in that pool, back when Nick`s family lived next door. We`d been neighbours for eight years, during which time our kids were inseparable, forever building forts in the basement, putting on plays, eating dinner together at our kitchen table, and playing in their backyard pool. The kids would whoosh down the curved slide into the cool water. Sopping wet Nerf balls would be flying this way and that. “Marco!” “Polo!” echoed long into the night. We kicked in some money to contribute to heating and upkeep. They gave us a key to the gate. Then they moved away to a house on the lake and new neighbours, retired folks, moved in. They are nice enough, but hardly the type we`d ask if we could use their pool. Heck, they don`t even use their pool.
So, when Lindsay announced they were off to swim next door, it caught me off-guard.
The kids marched through the house gathering towels and sunscreen. Nick invited our younger daughter to go along and she happily joined them. Then off they went. To the neighbour’s pool. After all of these years.
Within minutes, my younger daughter came back in the house. She returned to the kitchen with a glum look on her face.
“You’re back,” I said. “That was quick.”
“She made us feel very unwelcome, Sarah answered. “She said ‘You interrupted my dinner and caused a furor in my house.’”
“Oh.” I paused. “Well, shoot.” I scrabbled around for an explanation, something to soothe the obviously hurt feelings. A furor? Perhaps Ruth’s husband objected to her allowing them in? What the heck? Didn’t she say it was okay for them to swim? I could feel my own hackles beginning to rise, but I tamped them down fast.
“Maybe Trevor’s back is bothering him and he was just in a bad mood.” I offered. Lame, but it was all I could think of.
Sarah mumbled something indecipherable and went off to have a shower.
Lindsay and Nick appeared not long afterward, reporting the same scenario and how uncomfortable they felt, echoing Sarah’s words verbatim.
“When we first asked she was all nice, but when we went back, she was all mad and crabby. Then she came out on the back porch and just glared down at us, and said ‘This isn’t going to be a habit.`”
Good heavens, no. Imagine someone actually swimming in the pool, I thought.
I caught myself. Don’t be so judgmental! It is not your business who swims in their pool and it is certainly not for you to decide who how they should use their property. And furthermore, you have no idea about what might be going on in their lives that might cause them stress, so just mind your own business, why don`t you? Be gracious. Extend compassion, for Pete’s sakes. Move on.
The stifling of the voice in my head lasted about five minutes. Then, my thoughts came clamouring back: The only time their pool gets used is when their grandkids come up to visit from the city. And we all know they`re here because there is always someone yelling at the kids.
Not nice. Knock it off. Where is your kindness? I sigh. It shouldn’t be so challenging for me to keep an open mind. This is a minor incident. But, I am a mother tiger who will defend her young against all manner of insult. Oh for the love of Pete, will you just stop?
So, I sit down at my office desk to write, figuring that I can work my way through this on paper. But, it doesn’t help. I am squirming. Something is just not right here. Our neighbours, though they may be quiet and private, have always been kind, open and friendly on any occasion when we’ve spent time together. Maybe something is actually wrong. And there is just no sense guessing, is there?
I put down my pen, pull on my shoes, walk next door and ring the doorbell.
Ruth greets me warmly at the door. “Where have you been?” she asks. “We hardly see you anymore.”
“I am sorry if the kids imposed,” I begin. “I don’t think they meant any –“
“Oh, it was just bad timing,” she says. “You know, Trev can hardly get around what with his bum leg, and I tore a ligament in my hand, and we had just sat down to dinner…” She sighs. “And let’s face it. We’re just old farts.”
We both laugh. Yes, these are the neighbours I remember.
She turns around to call down the stairs, “Hey Trev, we have company!”
She turns back to me. “Come on in where it is cool.”
And so I do. They invite me to stay, pour me a drink and we pass a pleasant hour around a table in their rec room, catching up on what is new. They bring me up-to-date on their recent medical challenges and Trev‘s long, slow recovery from a nasty, leg and foot injury, the result of a bad fall. Two years, and he is only lately recovering a reasonable measure of mobility. We talk about their children, grown up now, and my husband`s tentative steps into retired life. I tell them about my training for the Warrior Dash, the high-stepping through old tires in the back yard, the crab-walking over the kids’ backyard playground.
“I figured you must think I’m bonkers running around the yard like that,” I say laughing.
“You know,” Trev says, “since the cedar hedge has gotten so high this last year or so, we can’t even see into your yard anymore.” Later, when they take me on a tour of their new back deck, I see that this is true.
“Huh, and to think I can remember planting those trees!” We all shake our heads and wonder aloud at how quickly things grow and change, at the passage of time.
It occurs to me, as we drink and share and laugh, that young and fit person that I am, I could check in on my neighbours more often than I do, extend help. Drop over and see how things are and if they need a hand with anything around the house. Be, you know, neighbourly.
We don’t really talk about the kids’ short visit to the pool. They sort-of explain, but not really. “We`re in our seventies,” Trev says, “We like our privacy.” Well, yeah, I can relate to that, and as I see them here, now, I realize that they were probably as caught off-guard as I was, meant well, but weren’t really prepared.
Later, I tell my children about our visit and try to explain on my neighbour’s behalf, but it is tough, taken out of context.
“They’re just nice retired folks doing the best they can,” I say, finally. “You know, like my parents. Like me, on a bad day. Once in a while, I just get it wrong.”
Sarah smiles. She gets it. Probably remembering the time I threw a pizza clear across the kitchen. An aberration, one of many.
“Yeah,” she says, giving me a hug. “I can see that. It’s okay.”
And in that moment, I see that it is. This is all I can do, to teach my kids, by my imperfect example, that it is worth extending people the benefit of the doubt, worth at least stopping and asking hey, what was that all about? what else is going on here? Worth questioning our judgments before writing people off in a moment. I can see that. It’s okay. I’ll take that as a step in the right direction, if not a swim in the pool.