When I was growing up, in the fabled ‘50s, our neighborhood was full of big families—five or more children—including ours. There must have been at least 50 children in a one-block area, so anytime I stepped outside, I was sure to see kids on the streets riding bikes or in the fields behind our houses playing catch or hide-and-seek. Not only did all the children play with each other, the parents partied together on Saturday nights in basement bars.
Although that world is long gone, I still find myself surprised at the fast pace of change. Or maybe it’s that I choose to remain oblivious until something smacks me in the head, like overhearing a comment from the realtor showing the house next door—a comment that reveals I’m older than I want to think.
When a friend and I moved into our subdivision, some 25 years ago, we were among the younger people. On either side of us were older couples, maybe in their 60s, while we were in our late 40s. Gradually younger families started moving in, but there was still a balance between the older residents—who raised their children here and formed a community—and the new ones with young children.
From my first neighbors, Violet and Ted, I learned how the subdivision was constructed (in five different stages) and about past battles with the county over roads and taxes. Enthusiastic and tireless gardeners, they also shared their love of gardening with me. On this arid hill, over a more than 40-year time period, they had created a lush, terraced garden, with a huge assortment of trees, bushes and flowers that they tended to almost daily in the growing season. From conversations over the back fence, I learned what grew well here, when to plant fall bulbs, how to prevent crabapple blight and when to safely plant in the spring.
But then Ted died, and Violet, as she grew older, was less able to manage the whole yard herself. Weeds started poking up among the bushes and flower beds. I wasn’t surprised when she finally decided she couldn’t handle such a big house and yard by herself and moved in with her daughter. But I still miss our backyard conversations, especially since the new and younger residents weren’t much interested in neighbor-to-neighbor chats and less interested in the state of gardening.
Before they moved in, they modernized the house—replacing Violet and Ted’s colonial style furniture and dark wood paneling with minimalist furniture, white walls and bigger windows to let in more light. In contrast, our house is crammed with books, records, art objects and other things—the accumulations of more than 50 years of living. When I saw the interior of their house, I started feeling the weight of my years and envied them their lightness, unburdened by their possessions.
Just last week, Violet and Ted’s house went up for sale again, and a steady stream of young couples have come by to check it out. Several days ago, sitting on my back porch, I overheard a realtor standing in the back yard next door telling her clients that the bad thing about not having an HOA in the neighborhood was that people could do whatever they wanted with their property. Facing our backyard, she said didn’t know if the “neighbor,” presumably us, either liked their privacy or maybe they were elderly and had stopped taking care of their property.
I was a bit stunned—first, at someone’s judgment of our yard as messy and out of control. While the central parts of the yard conform to the rest of the neighborhood’s Kentucky bluegrass format, I’ve deliberately left the outer edges of the yard unmanaged to create a small wildlife sanctuary, so insects and other small creatures, like birds and squirrels, can thrive among the tall grasses and bushes.
But what hurt was the blanket assertion about the elderly, as if I were becoming too feeble, like Violet, to keep up the yard—and the house. Neither my house nor my yard is minimalist; they are both full of life—nature thriving outside and a rich interior life inside. Neither inside or outside would pass muster with younger people or those who think life should be clean and orderly.
Hopefully, that doesn’t mean I’m becoming the old person who isn’t keeping up with the rest of the neighborhood. It’s hard to know, because I’ve been living here all these years, while the world has changed around me. And there doesn’t seem to be any way to prevent that.
I try to be hopeful. Maybe the new people who buy the house will want to know the type of tree that forms a border between our property or what kind of bushes will attract butterflies. But I’m not holding my breath.