Living with the dull roar from next door

Neighbors are accidental, and in some cases, eternal

I figure from our neighbors’ perspective, the circus moved in 12 years ago. They were living quiet, peaceful, normal lives. Then we arrived. With a noisy toddler, a newborn, two cats and then pretty soon, a retriever puppy, and then another baby and more home improvement projects.

We were their Dull Roar From Next Door. Because in our early years, it seemed as if one child was always screaming about injustice; I was always vacuuming Cheerios; my husband was always fixing something. With three active boys, our house was the scene of staged World Cups, Super Bowls, World Series, wrestling matches, inter-planetary wars, sword fights, duels and more. Plus science experiments involving vinegar, baking soda, assorted projectiles, not to mention the afternoon I found my 4-year-old peeing out his second-floor bedroom window in an apparent attempt to understand the effect of gravity on fluids.

The contrast with our immediate neighbors couldn’t have been more stark. To the north, we had a family of quiet stoics — John and Sue with their three beautiful daughters who were either in college or high school or peacefully sitting in their living room doing small-motor activities like sewing. To the south — barely out of range of the 4-year-old’s bedroom window — we had a handsome bunch of strong, silent types: Ed and Mary Beth, with their two older sons who were quiet and neat.

But whenever I apologized for our chaos and din, Ed and Mary Beth always waved me off. Your boys are such fun, they said; never dull. "We actually like the noise," John and Sue would say. "Our girls are almost gone, so we miss the sounds of babies and kids. Just wait. Someday you’ll know."

I figured they were pulling a classic case of Minnesota Nice, combining public displays of composure with private gnashing of teeth. Even so, I was grateful. Because neighbors like this are like winning the lottery.

Of all our modern relationships, neighbors are among the least analyzed and the most accidental. There are countless books and seminars analyzing how we deal with parents, spouses, children, siblings, bosses, employees, co-workers and more. But there is hardly a word about the people with whom we share adjacent property lines, sidewalks, driveways, house keys, vacation pet-care and the occasional eggs, if you’re in the middle of a recipe that calls for three and you only have one.

The way I see it, good neighbors are neither soul-mates nor strangers. Soul-mates seem too close for comfort. Strangers seem like such a lost opportunity (though they’re still an improvement over the just plain strange — or even worse, the scary).

And unfortunately, you can’t pick and choose. Neighbors are the luck of the draw. They’re just sort of assigned to you — like freshman college roommates. Except neighbors usually last longer than a semester or two.

Or in our present case, generations. The houses on both sides of us have stayed in the same family since they were built in the early 1900s. My neighbor across the street moved in during the 1930s, when she acquired the house from her grandmother. In Betty’s kitchen, she has a photo of her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother, all standing in this very same kitchen that, except for the refrigerator and updated stove, looks pretty much the same.

The rest of the street doesn’t move much either. Newcomers could be shunned. But that’s not what happened to us 12 years ago. A year after we moved in, we threw a big party/potluck. We were still pretty new. Most people didn’t know us — and 105 neighbors showed up.

But that was 11 years ago; things have changed. Last year, John and Sue retired, bought a place up north, and their daughter — the fourth generation in this house — moved in with her husband and toddler. In June, they had baby. So all summer long, I’ve heard the active sound of a 2-year-old boy and his strong-lunged little sister.

It makes me smile. My oldest kid just started high school. I listen to John and Sue’s latest grandchild cry and I realize that they were not pulling a Minnesota Nice all those years ago; they were simply telling the truth.

I’ve missed those sounds.

Lynnell Mickelsen is a Linden Hills writer. She can be reached at [email protected] or c/o The Southwest Journal.