Won’t You Be MAR Neighbor?
Some of my fondest memories as a child were watching the old morning show for kids hosted by Mr. Rogers. His trademark lyric in his opening song was “Won’t you be my neighbor?” To my young ears, it was more than just a song, it was a literal invitation. One I wanted to be worthy of later in life.
As I grew, this seemed to play out in my own family’s life: it seems I was in and out of all the houses in my parent’s neighbors’ homes as much as my own and raked as many of their leaves as the ones in my own yard. And oh, how I wish more people were as inspired by that song! When I started to live on my own, I realized that this was not the usual experience. “Why not?” I wondered. It certainly hadn’t seemed difficult in my old neighborhood.
For years I made do with what I thought was the acceptable norm. If you are a regular visitor, you know how I struck neighbor-gold with Barbara. Now, 11 years later, I am lucky to have some new neighbors, Kate and Dave (and Lola and Boss-two pugs who, like it or not, have a new uncle!) who have reminded me of what a relief it is to meet charming people. But they’ve also shown how easy it is to be a welcome addition to any neighborhood. It got me thinking about what all these great people have had in common. I’ve boiled it down to what I call my Fast-Friends Trio because it plays out on three fronts:
When You Have New Neighbors
Okay, so you might not have authored a book you can leave on the front porch on move-in day, which I was able to do, but it’s really about the gesture. I think leaving something for the new neighbors is a wonderful idea. It gives people a sense of what they’ve gotten themselves in for. Home baking is traditional, but if you’re not a great chef don’t panic! A bottle of wine, a picture book of the town, or even the names of the best dry cleaners and babysitters tells people that they are welcome. It says a lot about the neighborhood or building, but even more about you.
When you are invited into their home for the first time, it’s possible it’s not your first time in the place-perhaps you were friendly with the previous owners or tenants. You may not love their taste in furnishings, or d̩cor, but guess what? You haven’t been invited over to judge that-you’re there to give them a chance to show you they want to be good neighbors. So regaling them with stories about how the previous tenants arranged their furniture will make them wonder if you think they should have done the same, and gossiping about the old tenant will make them worry you’ll do the same about them the minute you leave. My advice: stick to how much you love the neighborhood, and how clever it was of them to choose it, too.
Return the favor: invite the new people into your home. It can be short and sweet, which is more comfortable for everyone. But another option is to help the new folks discover a good local eatery; when Dave and Kate arrived, I hosted them for drinks at my place first, then went to a restaurant that is one of my favorites. Thanks to their bright wit and great conversation, there wasn’t a moment of awkward conversation and the evening flew by; but if that hadn’t been the case we all would have had the great food to discuss while we got to know each other.
When You Are the New Neighbors
Be respectful moving it. What does this mean, truly? Don’t leave your boxes in the yard for days on end. When you see one of your new neighbors, introduce yourself. Ask for advice! People love to feel useful, and usually respond well when you need information on the basics: the best grocery store, the most reliable service station, the tastiest take-out.
Find out what you are part of. Depending on where you’ve moved, this could take on different meanings. Is there a neighborhood association? A condo committee? Garbage regulations? Parking rights and privileges?
Remember: Your job is not to be “best buddies” with everyone right away. Your job is to get you and your family settled and unpacked. However, you should still be receptive to overtures from your new neighbors. It’s so easy to be distracted by the headaches of moving that we forget to take the time for a proper hello and these first impressions can be hard to shake.
Lastly, value for those who tote your valuables! If you’ve ever been asked to help a friend or relative move you know what a thankless job it can be. Even if you’ve hired people for the job, recognize there is a physical toll it can take that isn’t part of the pay pack. Offer bottles of water, pick up sandwiches, and tip according to lack of breakage (do this for family, too!) Regardless of the rate you’re paying, or how gruff the movers may seem to be, it’s not a cushy job so consider your thoughtfulness as a payment in the karma bank!
What to do With the Spaces in Between
You know that old expression: “Good fences make good neighbors?” Good heavens, it’s well-known for a reason! Sometimes separation by a fence, a street, or a hallway, makes for an easier go of it for everyone. After all, you’ve chosen to live in the same neighborhood, not the same house! As my grandmother would say, “Who wants to live in each other’s pockets?! People need space!” But I have been really blessed twice in a row with neighbors who I can share yard space with-and-without an actual fence. It’s important to set boundaries for you, for pets, for children. In that old saying, “fences” actually means the set of rules we agree to live by. And if you have new neighbors that mean you need to discuss all those rules they should be a partnership of what you both want and need. My advice: if they seem one-sided, go ahead and invest in the fence!
My preference: gardens make good neighbors! As I wrote in my book, a shared garden allowed my relationship with Barbara to bloom along with what we planted together. In fact, a shared garden space may end up being the only thing you have in common with someone; but what a glorious and worthwhile thing to create: something alive and more beautiful than any fence could ever be. (In fact, even now that Kate and Dave are here, I still work on that shared garden!)
I can hear some of you wondering: “So why does Mar have new neighbors?” and “What happened to Barbara?” No need for alarm: she’s as gorgeous and glamorous as ever! After 14 years in this Westport neighborhood, Barbara decided to make a change by moving to New York City, where she has also worked all this time. Of course, her transition had to have a Mar twist-although we didn’t know it at the time! While looking together at places in the City we had been unimpressed by what we’d seen. Over the course of a few days, we had used my NY apartment as a base of operation. Every time we’d leave Sutton Place to go look at a new listing, Corky would dash out of the apartment and down the hall, sniffing at the next apartment door. Day after day we would shoo her back into my place, and go on our way to find yet another dismal, drab dungeon for rent. Can you guess where this is leading? Yup, Corky’s favorite apartment also turned out to be available (but hadn’t been listed)! So now Barbara is still my neighbor in New York! As for the “super-agent” Corky? Her finder’s fee: an extra piece of her favorite chicken. (Whew, we got off lightly!)
I think that any good relationship has to be a two-way street and with neighbors sometimes it’s a literal street as well. It’s about being respectful of the neighborhood that you’ve joined as well as those people in it, then it’s a win-win. Everyone can relate to the concept of having relationships that have worked and those that haven’t. It really doesn’t matter who takes the first step; what’s important is that someone makes the first move. Since they’ve just “moved”, I say that if you have new neighbors then since they’re the newcomers it’s solely up to you. Not just give a warm welcome, but to set the example, too.
The home where Barbara lived, and now Kate and Dave have taken up residence, is officially called the Dollhouse. The Dollhouse was originally built on farm property in 1959 as a children’s playhouse for neighborhood kids. Over time it was converted and expanded to a year-round private home. Today, we may be adults and not kids, we may meet there for cocktails instead of lemonade, and it’s dogs underfoot instead of children, but it’s still a great part of the neighborhood. And it’s taught me all about the Fast-Friends Trio. I think that Mr. Rogers would be proud.
And there you have it.