One Hundred Steps
Guest post by Leslie McLeod
The slim, white-haired Asian man walked with an air of dignity at odds with the goofy-looking mutt at the end of his leash.
I’d begun crossing their path during evening walks with my own goofy-looking mutts, creating an instant, unspoken bond between us. When I attempted to engage him in conversation, though, he just smiled and shook his head with a small, self-effacing wave of his hand.
Last week, I saw the man and dog resting on the steps of a nearby home, all six legs stretched out comfortably. As I paused, a middle-aged woman emerged from the house.
“Does he live here?” I nodded towards the man. “I’ve been seeing him around the neighborhood.”
“Yes, that’s my dad. He just moved in with us and doesn’t speak English. The walks are good for him.”
“He seems to enjoy them,” I agreed. “Have you lived here long?”
She looked at me strangely. “About eleven years.”
Their house is literally four doors up from my own. One hundred steps away.
When I first moved here with my young family nearly 30 years ago, I dove in headfirst, eager to embrace our new community, organizing block parties and memorizing everyone’s names. Since then, I’ve seen many moving vans come and go. Without realizing it, I became desensitized. I guess it’s been a while since I delivered a welcoming plate of cookies.
A retired postman named Joe and his reclusive wife, whose name I never knew, were among our original neighbors. Joe would make the rounds with his straw hat and series of German Shepherds, who would eventually succumb to hip dysplasia before being replaced by a younger model.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Joe and his dog lately. Then one day, I ran across his wife telling another neighbor that her husband had died a year ago and she was moving to Idaho to live with her niece.
A year ago?
“I’ve seen many moving vans come and go. Without realizing it, I became desensitized. I guess it’s been a while since I delivered a welcoming plate of cookies.”
Last week, I walked past the driveway of my nearby neighbor, Linda. I was shocked to see her son, Paul, helping his mother out of the car and into a wheelchair. She wore a brightly colored, fitted cap that telegraphed chemo: Linda had been battling cancer for the last six months.
How is it possible to dwell so close geographically but remain so far removed from all the life swirling around us?
In our Southern California suburb, getting to know neighbors doesn’t happen organically. Despite the tidy proximity of homes, it’s very easy simply to come and go with little more than the occasional polite nod in passing. Stopping to engage even a next-door neighbor is unusual and to be honest, feels a little risky. Long gone are the days of borrowing a cup of sugar or chatting over a backyard fence. The price we pay is a growing sense of isolation, loneliness, and division in today’s polarized, screen-obsessed society.
Alex and Joanne have been quietly bucking the trend. They raised their kids in their home across the street before my little family arrived. On summer nights with windows open, my husband and I smile as we inadvertently eavesdrop on her sweet, Southern voice gently bossing Alex around. With my husband often on the road, Alex long ago began a gentlemanly habit of pulling our empty trash bins up from the curb to my house on collection days. Now in his 80s, Alex continues to hobble across the street every week on bowed legs, though I feel like I should be returning the favor now.
Early one morning, my husband saw Joanne rushing to her car and asked her if something was wrong. “Alex woke up this morning with chest pains. He’s in the emergency room and asked me to pick up some things for him. I’m so worried!”
After my husband filled me in, I threw on some clothes and darted across the street to see if Joanne could use a hand or some company. She gratefully accepted and I stayed with her in the waiting room until her daughter arrived. (Thankfully, Alex was okay.)
Short conversations and simple favors cost nothing but can yield priceless dividends of connection and community.
This morning a yard sale sign compelled me to take a detour from my usual walk. I’ve found that every sale is both the same and a gold mine of the unique and quirky. The items often suggest intriguing, untold stories of their previous owner: the man who collected antique hand tools, the woman who loved all things Minnie Mouse. Who were they? What were they like? In silent testimony to the circle of life, baby paraphernalia often shares real estate with walkers, wheelchairs, and portable commodes—discarded bookends to a life begun and another one ended.
“I’m gathering books for the little free library down the street,” I told the women laying out knick-knacks and novelties in their driveway.
“Here, we have a bunch of them,” the older woman gestured to a dusty box filled with an assortment of children’s books, Danielle Steele novels, and histories of South New Jersey. “You can have any that you want.” She added sadly, “My daughter and I are trying to get rid of my mom’s stuff. After two years, my brother was finally ready to let go.”
A filament of understanding thrummed between us. “I get it,” was all I said.
So today, let’s go outside and look around. Whether your neighbor lives ten, 100, or 1000 steps away, who knows what unknown gifts might wait to be given and received?
Tell me about the people in your neighborhood. How have you connected?
My dear friend Leslie McLeod is more than an exceptional writer (you’ll see) and talented artist – she’s also a godly woman and a good neighbor. For encouragement for women in their second act and families caring for their aging parents, follow Leslie at www.lamcleod.com and on Instagram and Facebook.