There was a time when my neighborhood – a cul de sac with about a dozen houses in suburban New Jersey– teemed with life. When we moved here a dozen years ago, we brought with us our three school-aged children and a newborn to add to the mix of kids already living here. As it turned out, there was someone for everyone.
Our house is on the perimeter of a circle that surrounds an island of three houses, and between us we must have had at least 20 kids under the age of 14 when we got here. The people in the house across the street and kind of diagonal from me had three high schoolers when we moved in and I remember thinking then how old those kids seemed. They were the ones you only saw leaving the house to get into a car. They weren’t part of the crew swarming the neighborhood on a warm summer night playing manhunt or riding scooters around the circle to pass the time on a crisp October afternoon.
My oldest son’s best friend lived a few houses away and he also had the three boys living in the cape next door to keep him company. That family also had a guinea pig, named Squeaky, that kept my younger daughter occupied snuggling on their couch for many afternoons.
My girls had a bunch of playmates in their age range as well, and there was one who sported pigtails and missing teeth and always wore some wacky Hanna Andersson-type outfit of mismatched dresses and leggings. She was a little sassy, too, so I started telling people I lived across the street from Punky Brewster. Her parents both worked out of the house and she and her little brother had a string of sitters and a Lithuanian au pair for a few years whose name I could never get a handle on so I simply began referring to her as “Sha-nay-nay. “
As my son got older, our neighborhood became the place for middle school boys to come and ride their skateboards. They’d set up plastic ramps and other pieces of junk in the street on which to grind their boards or catch some air, but mostly they stood around and popped their boards up into their waiting hands and posed in their skinny jeans and black t-shirts.
My daughters spent a lot of time devising different means of getting themselves around the circle and my older girl in particular came up with especially dangerous methods. She’d put on a pair of roller blades and direct her sister to get on a bike and drag her by a jump rope around the block. Once, and only once, she decided to tie the rope to our golden retriever who – thrilled at being released from the house and thrown into the mix of children – promptly charged down the street with her in tow. He quickly went off course, chasing a squirrel up a neighbor’s front lawn, and sent my daughter crashing into the curb and sprawled – scraped and weeping – on the road. A very kind neighbor found her splayed in front of his house and brought her home.
As the years went by, the tenor of the neighborhood changed. The teenagers across the street left for college and my older children became the high school kids on the block. The boys next door moved away but were replaced by a new set of three boys perfectly matched to my youngest son’s age. That crew took over the neighborhood and, depending on the season, could usually be found playing basketball in one of our driveways or soccer and lacrosse on a front lawn. They even assumed the skateboarding mantle and started dragging crap into the street to jump over for hours on end.
As a mother not remotely interested in importing or exporting children for play dates, it was the perfect set up. I’d look outside and see a gaggle of kids playing soccer on a neighboring yard and tell my kid to go outside and join them.
“Go see what the boys are doing,” I’d tell my little guy if I noticed him watching too many episodes of Sponge Bob, and he’d disappear for hours to play with the kids next door. In fact, he and his older sister spent so much time with other families in the neighborhood they started referring to themselves as members of those families.
“Oh, my other mom, you mean?” they’d say all sassy to me, referring to the neighbors’ moms.
At one point my little guy tacked the last names of the two families that lived next door and across the street from us onto his own last name and proclaimed himself “practically” a member of those families since he spent so much time with them.
And for a while that was really true. When I was going through my divorce and returning to work full time, those families became our safety net. They scooped my youngest children up and included them in their fun. They fed them. They drove them to lacrosse practice. They took them away to their ski houses and week-long trips to the beach. It gave me comfort knowing my kids were happy and cared for as I juggled work and wily teenagers and single momhood.
I made some great friends, too.
The first set of boys next door came with a mom who could make a gin martini – on the rocks in a lovely cut crystal glass – like no other. I’d look forward to getting the call on my house phone to come over for cocktail hour, and happily slip away from homework and Hamburger Helper to sit in her den and sip her icy concoction and kvetch for a spell. Her oldest was a few years older than mine and I liked getting her perspective on things. Her been-there-done-that attitude was a nice contrast to my still gooey-eyed approach to parenting. She kept it real.
The family that replaced them also came with a mommy who knew how to make a cocktail. This one’s specialty was tequila and she’d float jalapeno peppers or vanilla beans in mason jars in her freezer, which she then used to create delicious margaritas in glasses rimmed with a sweet and spicy rub. We became friendly after hours of sitting together on the beach and talking about kids and family and life while our boys bobbed in the ocean on boogie boards. Her oldest is the same age as my youngest, and I think her not-yet-jaded take on parenting helped remind this old mom how quickly it all goes by.
Punky’s mom across the street eventually decided the work/life balance was tipping heavily in the wrong direction and left her big job to stay home with her kids. I soon found a friend who also enjoyed reading the newspaper and talking about books and movies and struggled with the monotony of staying home to raise children. We’d have long conversations over many bottles of wine trying to make sense of the paths we’d chosen. Struggling with having given up the balance of power in our homes and freedom in exchange for being there every day for our children when they returned home from school. We’d wonder time and again whether it was all worth it.
In the meantime, we went to spin classes together and took our girls away for weekends of hayrides and pumpkin picking and organized camping trips with our troop as Girls Scout leaders.
But now the cycle is almost complete. The three big kids across the street have all graduated from college and long since moved away. I heard that one is even getting married this year. A few of the other families whose kids grew up with mine also left the neighborhood once their children graduated from high school and in time, we’ll move away too.
I’ve got one college grad who’s living back under my roof and this week both of my daughters leave for college. And the boys next door, who provide a near-constant source of entertainment for my youngest child, left on Saturday for their second of potentially three years living in Hong Kong. They were home for eight weeks this summer and it’s already weird not to see them jumping on the trampoline in my backyard or running across the grass in full lacrosse gear. All those boys bring so much life to our corner of the neighborhood it seems eerily quiet now that they’ve gone.
This morning my youngest daughter and I went across the street at the crack of dawn to say good-bye to Punky, who was on her way to her freshman year at a school about three hours away. The girls had spent a lot of time in the last few days reliving some of their favorite memories of all their years as best pals. They drove south to spend the day in Sea Isle City, NJ where they’d gone with Punky’s extended family every summer for years. They crammed in all of their favorite foods and activities including a trip to the arcade where one year Punky used the tickets she’d hoarded all summer to purchase a baseball hat that read ‘SUPREME’ across its brim.
Yesterday, my daughter disappeared across the street with a Monopoly box tucked under her arm to recreate one of the epic battles they’d wage a few days each summer on the floor of one of our houses.
The only tradition they did not revisit was their annual meeting in the middle of the street on Christmas morning to open each other’s presents, otherwise known as “Christmas in the Street.”
It’s a very intimate relationship that develops when you become close friends with your neighbors. The proximity kind of thrusts you into each other’s lives. You get to know their habits. You overhear arguments. They’re the first people you turn to when you need a box of spaghetti for dinner or a glass of wine to help get you through that spaghetti dinner. They become your emergency contact for school and if you live near each other long enough, emergencies do occur.
But there’s an easiness, a familiarity that exists when you spend all that time together.
So when we walked across the street at 6 a.m. in our pajamas to say good-bye to Punky, it wasn’t really that weird to walk in on the family in their last-minute efforts to get her and all her crap out the door and into the car already packed to the gills with college essentials. We helped carry the last of her stuff outside and stood in the driveway to say good-bye. She looked at me and – just to be a brat – declared she’d miss me most of all and I got teary-eyed thinking how much I’d miss her sassiness. How much I’d miss seeing the two girls siting on the couch watching “Parks and Recreation” after school and I swear, at the time, it made me want to punch them both in the face.
“It’s too early in the morning to cry,” she told us. “I’ll Snapchat myself crying later.”
She and my daughter hugged and whispered things that only they could hear and finally, they all got in their car and drove away and we went home to cry a little more.
In all likelihood, we won’t be living here this time next year. And while it’s hard to leave, I know that the friendships that have developed through proximity will continue no matter where we land. And hopefully we’ll leave in our place a young family to breathe some life back into the neighborhood. Who will join some of the other little kids who’ve settled here over the last couple of years.
I hope they play endless rounds of soccer on the front yard and sped hours lying side-by-side on the trampoline looking up at the clouds in the sky. I hope they wait for each other to walk to school together in the morning and meet up to go trick-or-treating together through the streets of town each year. I hope they get to do all of the things that my children and so many children who’ve lived here before them have gotten to do. And when they grow up and leave for college and jobs and to start families of their own, I hope other young families come here and take their place.
And start the cycle all over again.