Maybe Ten Steps AWay

July 1, 2014

This is the weekend our next door neighbors finally packed up their things and moved. Well, that’s not true. They’ve been packing their things for three months now. I’ve been mourning their departure for about six months, when Thao first told me they had rented a home in Atlanta. So we’ve been saying good bye for a long, long time.

Saturday night, I took my daughter and the two girls that lived next door for so long up to Canobie Lake Park. I wanted to give them one last adventure together,and get them away from the boxes and the trash bags and all of the detritus that clutters a house that is being left. I let the older daughter bring a friend, as a bribe to get her to come too. It’s lonely at Canobie, with four pre-teen and teenage girls, all of whom would rather do anything than go on the chicken ride with me. But I brought a book. I had decided it was not my night to be a martyr, but to be a good mom and a great friend.

Thao, the mom, thinks she doesn’t speak very good English but I always understood what she was saying. We worried about our children together, while I stood in her beautiful kitchen with the shiniest floors in the world. She loves bananas and etsy and beautiful clothes. She has a smile so big I would laugh whenever she smiled at me.

Tue is the youngest. She grew up with Katy. They made videos of themselves dancing along to pop songs, and I’d watch them tonight, but then I will not only miss the Vo’s but the two little girls that aren’t so little any more. Tue is crazy smart. She told me yesterday that she is concerned today’s youth are becoming too disconnected from the world. I’m glad she’s one of today’s youth, she gives me hope.

Thanh is older, she’s in my son Colin’s grade. She is level headed, and kind, and hates fruit with an intensity most people save for brussels sprouts or really bad winters. She used to be shy and nervous. I remember once taking her with my family to Scream Fest, and spending the evening walking around looking for something that didn’t look very scary. I think I ate a lot o junk food that night. Now she is self possessed and graceful. If she is still nervous, I think it’s mostly about being made to eat fruit. And since it is unlikely she will ever find herself in a situation where that happens, I think she’ll be fine. Better than fine. Thanh is and will be amazing.

I never knew their Dad’s name until yesterday. It’s Hue, though I’m sure I spelled it wrong. He would show up at our door with huge bowls of noodle soup, or massive slivers of cake, or platters of shiny chicken wings. He is the only man I know that looks good in red pants. He loves his family.

And Coco. Coco was their little mini pinscher. Coco is a mean, nasty, yappy little dog and Coco probably loves me better than anyone. Ever. Than my mom even. Being loved like that feels really good, even when he’s trying to jam his sharp toothed little head into my mouth.

There is much more to say. But I’m going to let it be tonight. In life there is love and change and loss. And there is the blessing of truly getting to know another family, and the thousands of memories they have given us over the years.

Tonight, after we had said our goodbyes, my daughter grabbed me by the hand. She said- “Come on, Mom, we have to go stand by the drive way and wave good bye.

I had, like I mentioned, laundry to put away. So many phone calls to make. An online test I need to complete for my job. A library book that needed finding, and a dishwasher that needed loading.

But I followed her outside. We stood at the front of the house,by the porch that Katy and Tue played in all winter long. I’m really not sure what they did in there, just that it involved boxes and plastic dolls and a chalkboard. We waited in the twilight, on the stoop, next to an abandoned coffee cup. Ten minutes went by. I got impatient, all that damned stuff pressing down like a thousand heavy boxes on me. “We’re waiting, Mom.”

We got bit by mosquitos. We talked about books and camp and being nicer to her older brother. I think I saw a bat.

And when they pulled out, we waved goodbye and we smiled and we told them good luck.

And then we walked home in the dark. But it wasn’t far. Ten steps maybe. They were as close to us as neighbors can be. And really, really, really wonderful friends.

It’s the middle of December. This is the time of year, more than any other, when money weighs heavy on my family. We can’t afford to sign the kids up for ski lessons, we have eggs for dinner not because breakfast for dinner is a lovely novelty but because it’s a cheap meal. I throw out the mountains of flyers in the Sunday paper because looking at all the wonderful gifts we can’t afford is depressing. We aren’t poor, for God sakes my kids do not suffer because they can’t fly down a mountain on a few carefully crafted pieces of plexiglass. And we like eggs. But sometimes it feels that way. Our town is made up a lot of people who shop for sport and go to Aspen to snowboard.

The other morning, I woke up way too early. Too much on mind, not much I could do about it. The day was spent, and I’m kind so I’ll make this brief, struggling thru a yoga class before the sun was even up, driving twenty miles to a mall to try to replace a broken phone even though, and I heard this five times in the course of my time there, I wasn’t due for an upgrade. Next, I burned another twenty dollars of gas racing to work. I am employed at a local college where I also attend classes. A few emails, a brief review of what I needed to know for my finals next week, and then I raced back home to deal with dogs that needed walking, kids that needed feeding, and a mountain of half damp laundry in a dryer that hasn’t worked that well for years.

It was a long day. By the time the dishes had been cleared, and my notes reviewed, and the dogs sent to the back yard for too little exercise but a chance to shriek at anyone with the good fortune to pass by, I was weary.(Yoga at 5:45 is a lovely idea in theory, but I should really only indulge if I have time to nap in the afternoon.) Our tree was standing in the corner. It smelled good, but none of the lights worked, so the rest was going to have to wait for a trip to Ocean State Job Lot on the weekend.

I went next door to say hello to our neighbors. I walk their dog. They look after my daughter when I’m working late. In a month or two, or if we are lucky, three, they are moving across town. I’ve known this for weeks. I didn’t really know it until last night.

This is a family that is very different from our own. They are from another country. The mom is young and beautiful, I think she used to model. She sells fine jewelry on ebay. I am older and attractive if I work at it really hard and the lighting is good, but I never photograph well. I don’t wear earrings any more because I always loose one, and I’m not stylish enough to pull off asymmetrical jewelry.

Her daughters are a little bit older than my little girl. They have more than one pair of Uggs. They have impeccable manners and always call me Miss Julie. They take off their shoes when they come over and they like my popcorn. They laugh at my jokes but that might be because they are really polite. Watching them grow up has been one of my favorite things.

We are very, very different. Yet, in the course of being neighbors for ten years, I eat cereal out of a bowl that belongs to them. She sips coffee out of one of our mugs. She notices when I lose weight, I can tell when she hasn’t slept well. I went over to their house the other night at eleven pm to borrow a belt from her husband because my son needed to wear one to school in the morning. He got out of bed, found the belt, and told me to keep it.

I don’t know them that well, and I know them better than my friends. I know they like to sleep really late on the weekends, and that she loves her leopard slippers. Her daughters have danced around my living room and my son has cleaned their garage. I know them because they are in our lives and have been in our lives almost every day for a very long time. And even though I don’t always understand what my next door neighbor says, and I know she sometimes thinks I talk too fast, we have chosen each other as family.

At end of my long, long, day, I chose to visit the family next door. It’s the holiday season and I think they must miss their home, far, far away, and their family, on the other side of the world. After our brief visits, to talk about kids, to take their dog for a walk, to borrow a stick of butter, I always feel better just knowing they live right next door.

When I got home, I realized that all of the boxes in the kitchen weren’t parcels from online shopping. That in a month or two or three, they will be gone. They will live on the other side of town. We will see each other in the drug store, or at the school for a Christmas concert. But how much can we say when we aren’t standing in each others kitchen, at the end of the day, and really listening thru all of the barriers language leaves between people from different sides of the world?

All of the stuff that had weighed me down heavier than a thousand rocks fell away, and I started missing my family of friends while they got ready for bed next door. My son came down stairs and put my head on his shoulder, and promised me that we would always stay in touch with the Vo’s.

The tree is decorated now. And Katy is outside playing in the snow with her very best friend in the whole world. And I will ask her mom tonight, when I visit her kitchen, if her daughter can sleep over again.

This may be their last Christmas as neighbors, but it won’t be our last Christmas as friends. My son promised.