When my wife and I bought a foreclosed home in 2010, we were welcomed to the neighborhood as saviors. Sort of. But our little ranch house had gone unmaintained — lost in a weed-riddled lot that bordered a luscious green and impeccably trimmed lawn. So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
We got to know most of our neighbors. Then we met the owner of that precisely manicured lawn — our immediate, next-door neighbor, whom I’ll call "Gloria."
Gloria, it turns out, is the neighborhood historian. I would guess her age to be about 70. In her raspy voice, raked over by Virginia Slims, Gloria is fond of starting conversations with an accusatory tone. With her lauded Pekingese, she is easy to spot. Her turbulent sashaying is a sight to behold. (We worry for her hips.) Her wild hair flames up like a peacock when she is ruffled — which is often.
Maybe it’s the Southerner in me, but at some point I made it my mission to get on her good side. Almost five years in, however, Gloria has proved to be a formidable challenge.
She watches me like a hawk, as if I’m prone to stealing her house flag and mounting it on my porch. In the unlikely event of a compliment, I get one served with a dash of spite.
Still, I labor through it, determined to smother her with kindness — even as my North Country wife would rather smother her with a nest of bees.
Gloria once said she doesn’t care for gossip. Then she took a generous puff on a cigarette and whispered that the old owners of our house were on drugs. In time, we learned from her that most of the neighbors are on drugs. Gloria does not tolerate drugs.
She fancies herself a Southern spinster and is the only person I’ve ever heard use the phrase "I do declare" when not onstage. She speaks to me one day, scowls and mutters in disgust the next.
I nod and smile and grit my teeth.
Not long after we moved in, I got my first full dose of her ire when I pulled into the driveway and found her glaring. Fearing that we’d finally hit her loathsome "drug list," I proceeded with caution, asking whether something was wrong.
Her eyes flashed as she aimed a curled finger at me, raising her voice to match the trill of a chain saw: I was nothing more than a lazy sack, good for nothing — and, oh, by the way, I had stepped on her property. That was the first time she mentioned her shotgun.
I needed months to recover, to get back in her good graces. But I managed. Over time, I have learned not to take her slights personally. The neighbors across the street received the freeze for a full year because Gloria thought they’d copied the color of her shingles. She called the police because someone had allegedly dug up the tulips in her backyard. The list goes on.
I trudge ahead with my quest.
Throughout the winter, I shoveled her driveway — only to be told to stay off her yard because of insurance reasons. I thanked her for her concern. Summer came, and I mowed her side of the yard. She pointed out that I’d missed a spot. My wife could only shake her head.
Most recently, she called animal-control officers on our dogs — the same dogs she’d fed Milk-Bones and sweet-talked the previous evening.
And so it goes.
Like it or not, our lives are connected.
Sometimes, the kindness is slow-going. I’m not Gandhi. Lately, I’ve taken to humming Sympathy for the Devil when I wave to her. Some days, she waves back; other days, she laments my existence.
But the house is coming along.