The Neighborhood 

It’s 5:30 Friday evening. I got home a little early, changed clothes, and poured myself a glass of wine. The temperature outside has been in the 60s the past couple of days, so I turned off the air-conditioner and opened some windows.

I live in the top two floors of a row of two-over-two townhomes. All the units have garages which back to central parking, around a treed, grassy island.

From my open dining room window, I hear little kids ramming around with what sound like plastic wheeled toys. (Parents, you know that sound!) I hear a mom. From this distance, she sounds like the muffled mumbles of any adult in the classic Charlie brown cartoons. The children are shrieking with glee, yelling rules at each other for whatever game they are making up in the moment. As all good suburban cul-de-sac kids do, they occasionally bellow the warning, CAAAAARRRRRR!

These sounds transport me back almost 20 years, when I had two small kids. When the boys were very little, we lived in a townhouse community, smaller, but not unlike the one I’m living in now. Instead of out back, the parking and island were in the center, viewable from the fronts of the houses. If enough adults stood guard, the kids could ride their large plastic wheeled vehicles around the island.

It was in this way that we met most of our neighbors in the community where we first lived, and again when we moved to a more expansive suburb. Now, some evenings when I drive my car into the parking area, I see orange cones set up, and those signs that say “children at play”, and adults standing around, sharing a beverage, while they keep one eye on the posse of children. I remember the drill: one parent would take a turn, giving the other one a spell, and promise to run the children, hard, until they were tired. This was in an effort to ensure an early (or at least timely), drama-free bedtime. Our measure of success was the low bar of “safe and happy” on those nights and anything beyond that, with regard to the kids, was gravy.

I mostly feel happy that the days of large plastic wheel toys and shrieking children are behind me, but I would be lying if I didn’t add that the sounds I’m hearing now make me the tiniest bit wistful. My little boys were just so cute. And fun! Exhausting too. But remarkable. They were (and are still) a source of pride and joy.

There is a sense of community that parents of similarly aged children develop. I don’t have that connection with any of my current neighbors. Now, I am (probably?) that scary old lady who smiles a little too broadly, and is a little too forthcoming with the unsolicited advice.

When we were in the thick of it, I could barely imagine a day when I wouldn’t find Hot Wheels cars and LEGO blocks and empty chip bags and Capri Sun pouches all over my house. But now here I am, with a 7th grader who needs no toys, rides a “big boy” bike to school, and even puts most of his trash into the garbage cans in the house. His older brothers spend more time now at their dad’s house than at mine, but I see them regularly, and we have completely adult conversations. And occasionally drink a beer together! (What?!)

I remember as my kids were growing up, thinking how each stage is the best, as you get to it. All the stages are special for unique reasons, but the one I was in at the moment always seemed the best to me. Little kids, like the ones I hear shrieking right now, can be exhausting, but their smiles and joy are completely genuine. My favorite age range is still from 7 to 11, but I’m still really enjoying Eli even as an adolescent in middle school. (But I will readily accept your prayers for us both.)

Yes, my life has changed significantly over the past two decades, and I’ve been through many stages. But in this moment, I can say with certainty, as I look ahead to all that awaits, that this is, without a doubt, the best stage yet.

The tug of history

This past Thursday, I drove 2 1/2 hours north into Central PA, to an old, small, red brick church in the country.  The occasion was the funeral service and burial of my Great Aunt May, and the venue was the church where I was raised, located within view of the farm where I grew up.

The minister was new to the church and didn’t know Aunt May well, but he said he learned much during his meeting with her five children. In particular, he said he found great comfort in knowing that May would take her eternal rest in a place where many generations before her also chose to be buried. It warmed his heart, he said, to think that she would be surrounded by her ancestors.

It’s true, she’s buried next to her first husband, my Uncle Gilbert, but technically, the little cemetery in the valley holds many generations of his family, not hers.  Nevertheless, she proudly took the Beaver name when she married.  She even researched and wrote a geneaology book, outlining the descendants of George Beaver of Pfoutz Valley, PA. It was this George who, in 1878, would be the first of many to be buried in that quiet plot of land that is surrounded yet today by fields of grain.

As I exited the highway and drove through Millerstown, turned right to go up the hill, past my high school, then out into the valley, I felt as if I was being transported back in time. (The Simple Minds song on the radio helped.) I used to drive from home to school a couple of times a day and joked then that I could probably drive it with my eyes closed.  I used to know who lived in every house along the five-mile route. Now, I know many have been sold to new occupants. Things are “turning over” in the valley.

The inside of Pfoutz Valley United Methodist Church hasn’t changed much since I left home for college in 1985. The same portrait of Jesus hangs on the wall over the same gold cross on the same altar furniture.  Ginny played hymns on the same organ I used to practice on during that one year I took lessons in high school.  Food for the post-funeral luncheon was arranged on the table in the kitchen where my Sunday School class met when I was a teen.  Several of the men and women who watched me grow up were there, attending to the food so that the mourners could eat and visit with each other.

I understand what the minister was trying to say, about finding comfort in being surrounded by so much history. He remarked that many people don’t have that. I moved to the DC area almost 20 years ago and figure we’ll stay here at least until the kids are grown, if not longer. But when I think about where I would want to be buried, my mind always wanders back to the little cemetery in the valley. My dad’s there, my grandma and grandpa are there, and all those generations of ancestors, a little piece from whom I carry within my own genes.  Also, I like how the cemetery is next to the church. Around here, there are huge “memorial parks” that have no church association. Our own church doesn’t have its own cemetery.   It just makes sense to me for one to be buried next to the place where one worshipped.

But would it make sense for my survivors to cart me the whole way up there?  Not really. It’s not practical. I mean, I spent only 16 years of my life there. But they were the formative years. The ones that really leave a big impression on my soul.  And even though I’ve been gone now for more years than I lived there, I still feel the tug of history, the pull of that connection to those who went before.

Day One

first days of school 2005-2009

They were so excited four years ago.

On Monday, they couldn’t be bothered to pose for a photo before they ran up the street to catch the bus. In fact, they made me promise I would NOT bother them next year with this ridiculous production, the photo-taking. As if it mattered.

Off they went, to catch the bus to middle school. Together. Full of the promise that the new school year holds. Brothers. (And – shhhh! – friends.)