The other night my wife and I walked through our neighborhood. This is not an exceptional activity. It's not even an exceptional neighborhood, at least if you haven't walked through it countless times before. But we have walked through our neighborhood for twenty years, which is how a neighborhood becomes yours, with homes and lives you come to know, and memories that make you smile, and some that make you sad.
Time's passing is what we mark at this time of year. We do it with dropping balls, and champagne and sentimental songs and embarrassing behavior, all fine ways to note the passing of another year. Neighborhoods measure passing time, too; better, I would argue, than calendars, whose pages tend to rifle past like shuffled cards so that one moment you are walking small boys to their first day of school and the next they are leaving home. If you yourself are young, you will think this is ridiculous and impossible, but if you have passed beyond youth you know this is true.
Neighborhoods mark time's passage in slower fashion, time passing in a manner that can be grasped and managed. The other night, as my wife and I walked through our neighborhood hand in hand -- partly because there was an unseasonable chill in the air, but mostly because we like to hold hands -- memories drifted from many of the homes. Most of them were happy, though not all, for neighborhoods are also microcosms of life. Here a couple divorced. Here a husband who walked away from his family and his life, boarding an airport bus at the nearby mall before dawn one morning (in a strange twist of happenstance I boarded that bus, too, the two of us exchanging sleepy greeting, although in retrospect I doubt he was sleepy at all). Here a mentally disturbed son whose final wire snapped, resulting in a shooting that left lives in ruins. Neighborhoods are filled with terrible mystery, too.
In our neighborhood, lives have passed. Bill, who lived right next door to us, and you, too, may know just how close neighbors can be when I tell you my most vivid memory of our seventy-something neighbor was glancing out our kitchen window and catching Bill, bedroom curtains wide, in naught but his slippers. Bill's wife Dolores, who used the proximity of our homes to stare unabashedly back at us, leaving me to wonder what compromising moments she might have witnessed. Fred, who sat on a stool in his garage with the garage door up so that we spoke with him every morning as I walked our boys around the corner to their elementary school, Fred's Louisiana drawl already raspy from the throat cancer that would kill him. Pony-tailed David, a college counselor whose house was always filled with comings and goings and smoke that wasn't wood smoke, but David had a young son, and a tree house unmatched, perched in a pine nearly 200 feet off the ground: from this boughy enclave you could see across a sprawl of neighborhoods and farm fields all the way to the sea. It was a different kind of high. If I close my eyes I can still smell pine and feel the warm squeeze my sons' small hands, for 200 feet is Jack and the Beanstalk stuff for a five- and seven-year-old, not to mention a father with a healthy fear of heights.
David is gone. The tree house is gone, though thankfully the tree is still there. A For Sale sign is staked in the front yard.
Many of our neighbors remain, and as we walk through the clear silvery night their houses smile out at us. Energetic Armeda, who once cared for her son, and now cares for his sons. The Andersons, whose daughter Kacy pranced to the first day of kindergarten beside our oldest son, and who is now -- yes, suddenly -- studying abroad in Italy. Jock, a retired elementary teacher and friend, who knew something of time's passing long before we did. One afternoon after school Jock said to me, "Today a father told me he was tired of going to so many of his son's soccer games. I said to him, 'You know what? I'd give anything to sit at one of my son's volleyball games again'." Even then I understood Jock's sad and wistful smile.
Was a time I walked through our neighborhood several times a day. As a writer I have my own schedule. When our boys were young I walked them to their elementary school each morning, and each afternoon I walked them home. Late in the afternoon I would walk them back to the school, which was also home to the playground where we pretty much established residency. All the neighborhood kids played there. I'm not sure what they made of me, the lone (ostensibly) adult male among a scattering of at home moms who played soccer, and capture the flag, and tag, and, when forced to jump from the playground's highest swinging bridges, sometimes took a long time getting up. When you are seven, your knees are spongy springs; when you are forty-four, the sponges are gone and the springs are rusted.
Many of those playground kids are gone now -- off to college, or military service, or different homes in different states -- although now and again I see them, walking hand in hand with a girlfriend or working as a waitress in a local restaurant, and they often have a smile and a kind word for me, the man who could never quite seem to catch them on that playground now filled with a new generation of shouting kids. Once, a great hulking form with facial hair came to our door, standing patiently on our door stoop until I recognized him.
Our neighborhood walks are infrequent these days. Our boys drive. But sometimes when they drive off to see their friends and the night is particularly beautiful, I turn to my bride and I ask her to walk, and we walk beneath winking stars through a neighborhood unchanged and vastly different. Time is like that.
As the world marks another year's passing, I wish you happiness and perhaps a moonlit night, for life, the onrushing gift, unwraps at a speed best grasped by a quiet neighborhood walk.
Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
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