I grew up in the best neighborhood a kid could ever hope for… it was kid haven. It was a quaint little suburban neighborhood full of young couples raising their families. Everybody knew everybody else. It was made up of neighbors who carpooled kids to school in the mornings, and neighbors who took meals to other neighbors who were sick and who contributed money to buy flowers for a hospitalized neighbor. The kids in the neighborhood are now mostly in their 50s but we still remain friends to this day.
When I was growing up in this neighborhood in the 60s and 70s, the kids all played outside. Our parents had to call us in at night. We had fun and were creative in finding things to do. We did the typical “kid” things like riding bikes, playing Hide-N-Seek, ball tag, kickball, softball, etc. Many summer nights were spent playing tether ball, flashlight tag and ball tag. In the summer, we explored the woods in the neighborhood, had clubs, went swimming, caught lightning bugs, climbed trees, walked to the local five and dime, and had neighborhood camp-outs and sleepovers. We had bake sales and lemonade and Kool-Aid stands. Most of the neighborhood was made up of girls, and we spent many a day playing with dolls or trolls and playing pioneers (something we sort of made up as we went along). I remember making pretend pies with mud and poke berries or wild strawberries. We had a sweet little old man who we called Charlie “The Popsicle Man” who drove a little tractor which had been converted into an ice cream truck and who came most days in the summer. Charlie knew all the kids in the neighborhood and he knew what houses to stop at to ring his bells, because he knew sooner or later we would be running out the door to meet him with money in hand. If it was your birthday, Charlie was known to give you a free popsicle. And sometimes if a certain child happened to not have money that day, Charlie would give them a popsicle anyway. Charlie loved the kids in the neighborhood and the feeling was mutual. He looked out for us.
Like I said, we used our imaginations back then and could get quite creative. I was telling my kids once how we used to make grass houses in the neighborhood. We would go to a house who had a freshly cut yard and rake up the grass clippings into piles. Then we would use this grass to make the outline (a sort of floor plan if you will) of a house. We made doors and windows and rooms, and when we were done we played in these houses for hours and invited “friends” over to our houses. Some days we jumped rope for hours. We knew all the old jump rope games and rhymes and we would chant them in unison. I also remember when I was in 6th grade, asking for a turtle for my birthday. These were back in the days when they sold baby Red-Eared Slider turtles in Woolworth’s. I begged and begged for a turtle. My parents weren’t real gung-ho about it, but when I woke up on my birthday that year, there on the table beside my bed was a plastic oval bowl with a palm tree and not one but TWO Red-Eared Slider turtles. I was ecstatic. Soon everyone in the neighborhood had turtles and so we decided to form a neighborhood turtle club. I can recall having maybe 14 or 15 turtles in this club. We would have turtle parties where all the turtles were put into a plastic kiddie pool to swim together and have a feast of apples, carrots, greens, etc. A few of us would run around with fly swatters and kill flies and dump them in the pool and watch the turtles go after them. And we all knew each turtle by name and somehow everyone could identify their own individual turtles. We had weekly turtle club meetings where minutes were read and we had turtle officers. We even had a turtle wedding once, complete with bridal veil, wedding music and ushers.
Yes, we had a lot of great times in this neighborhood where we all played so well together. On the 4th of July, we would pool our fireworks together and meet at a designated neighbor’s patio to watch the fireworks show. We would go to the state fair together (back in those days we got out of school for a “fair day”) and would plan what rides we were going to ride weeks before the fair. On Halloween we would go trick-or-treating together. We planned back in the summer what our Halloween costumes were going to be. On Christmas Eve, all the kids in our neighborhood would go Christmas caroling and then to a local church for hot chocolate. One year, we took it upon ourselves to learn The First Noel in Spanish for a hispanic family who had moved in the neighborhood. We sang that at their door on Christmas Eve. On New Years Eve, we would meet at my parent’s house and we would bang pots and pans to celebrate the New Year. My mother would give each kid a spoon and a pot (or lid) and we would stand on the front porch banging those pans and making the loudest racket imaginable. Sometimes we even marched up and down the street banging away. I was in college before I realized that not everyone did this on New Year’s Eve. In the winter, we would go sled riding together and build snowmen and snow forts together. You just couldn’t keep us in the house back in those days.
We often had camp-outs in our neighborhood. We either slept on lounge chairs and sleeping bags on someone’s patio or in one of our backyards, or we made a tent out of blankets thrown over a tree. These were memorable fun times for me. No, I wouldn’t trade the neighborhood I grew up in for all the money in the world.
My mother passed away back in December of 2006. In July of the following year, we sold my family’s house. It was the only house I had known. My parents bought it in 1960 and we moved in when I was just 11 months old. Forty-seven years we had that house. I can’t begin to tell you about all the wonderful memories that were made there. Saying goodbye to that house almost literally broke my heart. While part of me was happy that we had sold the house to a young couple with small children, another part of me couldn’t stand the thought of another family living in “our” house. How could they ever know of the memories WE made in this house? How could they know about all the birthdays and holidays that were celebrated in this house? They would never know about the fun times our neighborhood kids had in the yard of that house. They would never know about the turtle parties and turtle races we had in the yard of that house. They would never know I learned to ride a bike without training wheels on the driveway of that house and how my father stood at the end of the driveway cheering me on, telling me I could do it. They would never know that my very first kiss was under an old Chinese Elm tree in the front yard. They wouldn’t know about the rusty old bobby pin that was wedged outside in my sister’s bedroom window and how the neighborhood kids would come and “flick”the bobby pin making a loud pinging noise to let her know they were out there. They would never know I was with my father in that house when he took his last breath.
My sisters and I still remain close with our childhood friends and so we decided the week before we were to close on the house, that we would have one last sleepover, for old times sake. We invited our friends and we had pizza and coke and my husband made homemade ice cream. Everyone brought sleeping bags and old photo albums and some brought scrapbooks. We sat out on the back porch for hours eating pizza and reminiscing about old times. We laughed so hard that night. Some stories that were told I had forgotten and some it seemed had happened only yesterday. The electricity went out that night while we were on the patio and we were left in the dark, but that didn’t keep us from reminiscing. Fortunately, some very kind neighbors, who knew we were having a “reunion neighborhood sleepover” were nice enough to bring over candles to put on the patio. We shared some of our stories with them, telling them what the neighborhood had been like when we had grown up in it. We had such a great time that night. I loved these people…. these lifelong friends. That night we sat on the floor in my parents dining room and we looked at old photo albums and old scrapbooks. And we laughed some more. We relived memory after memory and we laughed until we cried. That night we all piled our sleeping bags into the living room, just like old times. Except this time, we had air mattresses for our 40 something year old bones and we talked about who takes what medicines, who is on blood pressure medicines, cholesterol medicines, sleep aid medicines, and anti-anxiety medicines. Yes, the conversation had changed over the years but our love for each other had not. We laughed when one of us got up to go to the bathroom, tripped over an air mattress, and fell on someone else. Then we laughed again when that same scenario was repeated within the hour. This night was important for me… in a way, it brought some kind of closure to my aching heart.
The next day after everyone had left, I stayed so I could walk through the house one last time. I walked through each room trying to call up every single memory of what had happened in a particular room. I never wanted to forget. Some of the memories were good memories (most in fact), but a few memories were memories I wish I could erase. I cried harder than I think I have ever cried in my life, and asked myself how I could EVER say goodbye to this house that was so full of memories for me. A house that held memories of my now deceased parents, a house that held the memory and love of long gone pets. I visualized those memories as I went room to room. I visualized all the family Thanksgiving dinners around our dining room table, all the Christmases celebrated in the living room around the family Christmas tree. I ran my hand over my mother’s old avocado green stove and remembered her standing and cooking over that stove. I went in the little bathroom off my parent’s bedroom and remembered how I would stand there as a child and watch my father shave and how he would pretend to shave my face with his electric razor. And I remembered the time my sisters and I decided it would be fun to play with matches in that little bathroom. Yes, we caught the commode seat on fire… one of those memories you sorta want to forget. I walked around the yard, remembering all the neighborhood games played there. I remembered where our old swing set was and remembered my father teaching me how to swing by myself and how to “pump my legs.” I walked to the part of the yard where all my beloved little pets were buried-my two turtles, my family of gerbils, hamsters, goldfish, and guppies. How could I leave them?And I walked to the front yard where the old Chinese Elm once stood, where underneath it, I had shared my first real kiss. I couldn’t get enough, couldn’t stop the memories from coming and I didn’t want to. I looked up and down the street imagining all the kids on bicycles gathering at the stop sign. I left before I wanted to leave and I left feeling a sadness so deep that it physically hurt. I left feeling like I was leaving a part of myself at that house…a piece of my childhood. I wondered if it was possible to physically have a broken heart because it felt like mine was splitting in two. But I also left knowing how blessed I was. Blessed to have grown up in a neighborhood so full of kids and love, and blessed to still have those friends after all these years. Blessed to have lived in a house with a family that I loved. A family that wasn’t perfect by any means, but a family that I loved no less with all my heart. Yes, without a doubt, I was blessed.