Donna Reed/Voices | Summertime in the neighborhood

Donna Reed/Voices | Summertime in the neighborhood


My brother recently called from Michigan sharing a somewhat harrowing experience. He was swimming in the lake behind his home when he had a severe leg cramp. He couldn't move. His wife was watching from the shore and called out to their neighbor next door. The neighbor jumped in his boat, rescued my brother and the story has a happy ending. Thank goodness for neighbors!

A friend here in town has shared stories from time to time about an older, rather prickly pear neighbor who has a long list of complaints. My friend took her neighbor some homemade zucchini bread and was invited in for a friendly visit. Now that's being neighborly.

I began reminiscing about my own childhood neighborhoods. When I was 6 or 7, I could step out my front door on a summer's day, skip off in either direction and encounter wonderful neighbors.

I unabashedly pulled rhubarb stalks from Mary Kay's garden. I quietly wandered into Mr. and Mrs. Little's backyard and found a lush green oasis where I would sit and imagine myself in a secret garden. Older twin boys lived on our block, and as a tag-along sister, I often stood on the periphery of important things going on there. My idolized teenage babysitter lived down the block, and my first boyfriend lived in the very last house.

My brother and I caught butterflies in the vacant lot next door until the Ingrams built their home there. When they moved in, I was sad to see my wildlife habitat disappear but soon recovered when Mrs. Ingram began the weekend ritual of inviting me to share butter pecan ice cream cones on her front steps.

Another family, the Stitchers, owned a black cocker spaniel named Cinders that would accompany me on daily outings long before there were any leash laws. Cinders and I would play in Grace Slochum's front yard, where I'd pretend to smoke cigars from her huge "cigar tree." Two of my best friends yet today lived in the corner house, and we spent our summers staging plays in their cool basement.

Mrs. Ayers, a petite, well-dressed older lady lived on the block and always smelled of lavender as she handed out cookies to the neighborhood youngsters. The Burlettes invited my brother and me over to watch the Saturday CBS morning circus show, "Sealtest's Big To adult, my familp" on their TV, a new invention that my family wouldn't own for a few more years. It was a pretty great neighborhood!

From second grade until I left home, as any lived in an equally special neighborhood where my mismatched, offbeat friends reminded me of Spanky and Our Gang. No matter that my neighborhood friends came in all shapes and sizes. We would capture fireflies together on hot summer nights, hold scavenger hunts that required ringing doorbells and requesting various items from neighbors, practice our hula hoops in the side yard and crowd onto my big front porch swing and plan our next adventure.

Now, many years later, summertime still finds me enjoying the outdoors right in my own front yard. I'm not climbing a neighbor's fence or playing hide and seek up and down the block as I did as a child, but my neighborhood today is still very much a part of me. Where we begin and end each day helps define who we are.

Every morning, I see people out walking, waving hello, stopping to see the new puppy on the block, watering flowers and simply reconnecting. A neighborhood is unique. The best of them are not limited by age, race, gender, politics, religion or background. A neighborhood is comprised of individuals who step outside and enjoy sharing the immediate world in front of them with people who live next door and down the block.

Of course there are some neighborhoods where people rarely see, rarely talk to and may not even know the names of their neighbors. I'm happy to say that's not true where I live. In this neighborhood, we lend ladders to one another, share cups of sugar (yes, this still happens), take morning walks together and gather for block parades and picnics.

If neighbors are out of town, we keep an eye on one another's property. We are connected in a way friends, family or work colleagues can't be. In this and other great neighborhoods, we find time to stop and get to know one another. And although I may no longer be pulling up rhubarb next door, I do find time to pull up a chair out front and have a chat with my neighbors.

Donna Reed is the author of "My Voice," essays on the warm and funny moments of life. She lives in Champaign.