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Outwardly Mobile

Subdivision Painting: Jo Powers

We know them by the dogs they walk, the flowers they fancy, the schedules they keep, the newspapers they read and the color combinations they prefer on siding and trim.

On trash days, we witness their household castoffs and glimpse evidence of new purchases in the form of emptied appliance boxes. Our proximity makes us weirdly familiar with their disposable-diaper brand and wine preferences revealed by packaging at the curb.

They’re our neighbors or, in many cases, the strangers who live nearby.

Some, we know by first name, a few by the last prefaced with a respectful Mrs., others by their athletic running gear and familiar gait.

On shared streets, we smile as children mature from strollers to trikes. While walking, we see their living rooms aglow and on display, like domestic stage sets. And outward clues — from gaily scrawled yard signs and helium balloons to prolonged absences — give us a passing knowledge of birthdays, graduations, weddings, deaths.

They’re characters in a years’ long parade that streams past our windows and lawns on a continual loop. Those we don’t know get private nicknames that serve as shorthand for the convenience of household small talk:

“I saw the Strutter today.”

“Somebody bought the killer’s house.”

“The Libertarian has been gone for months. I wonder if Pinky knows what’s up.”

Lately, the characters in the procession have been changing.

“Who are these people?” my husband asks.

Thank goodness Mrs. Holmes still ambles by, a familiar figure with her paper-bag supply of Milk-Bones for friendly and not-so-friendly dogs. The neighborhood grand dame, she has lived at the same Tudor-style address for most of her 90-some years and still walks three miles a day along sidewalks nearly as old as she.

Always neatly pressed with a pastel cardigan over her tucked-in blouse with creased slacks, she’s a rare, non-migrating bird among homeowners 40 years her junior who all seem to be moving on.

One summer evening after dinner, we see the doctor and his wife standing beside a California-bound moving truck. “Too many Republicans here now,” he says, as they vow to stay in touch.

On another hot day, as we set out to check the progress on the under-construction house we call the “hotel” that’s being built where two humble cottages once stood, we stop our bikes to chat with a woman whose admirable biceps are chiseled by yoga. I find myself thinking her general lack of softness seems the result of divorce rather than exercise.

“I’m quietly letting people know I’m selling,” she says, which may explain the zealous shearing of tall evergreens that once shaded their hippie-style refuge.

A few days later, a tall Hyannis Port-style blonde out walking her golden retriever pauses to say they’re moving to Florida. “We have kids on each coast, so we compromised by moving to our place in Florida,” she says. Left behind will be a rambling house with multiple additions that seemed to burst from the walls as a joyful expression of the once-expanding life inside.

Some stay, of course, but their homes often grow quieter with the years. A vibrant wife and mother of two with a traditional home and garden is now assisted by home-health aides, and we wonder why.

On another corner, caretakers have come and gone in shifts for years, arriving on schedule at the French provincial style house to tend to a person we’ve never seen, an occupant whose bedroom window glows at night. By day, I imagine, the dweller feels the westerly breeze and hears children’s voices floating on air currents from the park across the street.

Below that window, an increasingly frail man putters about, repairing a path that never feels the feet of the patient upstairs.

On our block, the couple who bought a picket-fenced landmark are busily transforming the home of a man who died prematurely on his prized lawn. Now remade to suit another family’s vision, it’s twice as big and stripped of its 1930’s eccentricities.

Kitty corner, the passive man whose gabby wife fled east, has become a sports car-driving triathlete who strides and rides past our door in all weather.

The streets are in constant motion, ant-colony like, except on summer holiday weekends when the hum migrates to lakeside cottages. On those hot days, we listen to our ‘home’ team on the radio, pretending the players are truly local boys instead of migrant hitters for hire. The neighborhood is like a pro-sports roster, with residents wearing an address like a uniform that matches the surroundings until a better offer — or retirement — comes along.

They say 25 percent of Americans don’t know their neighbors’ names. That could change as this very mobile country slowly continues to become less so.

Where is home? Where you live now? Where you were a child? Where you raised your own children? Where you set handprints in concrete?

Every May, they sing “My Old Kentucky Home” at the Derby and I yearn for what’s mostly a myth of the venerable family home — a fantasy except for the centennial farms that dot the American scene.

We’re all a bit like farmers, staking our claim on a landscape. But yards that initially feel like our own proud piece of earth reveal themselves to be serially loyal to a rotating crop of generations. Newcomers so filled with the purpose of rearing children and renovating rooms find themselves floundering after the harvest.

Homesteaders “in doubt, move on,” as the song lyrics say. Spring arrives, and the neighborhood parade continues with only a lingering peony or heirloom rose hinting at the hopefuls who once came to lay down roots.


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