My six-year-old son Luke is engrossed in play with his best friend, Josh, as a crew of neighborhood men help Josh's family move. The new house is only a few miles away, but to my son, it might as well be on another continent. He senses the end of life as he knows it with his best friend living at the bottom of the backyard hill. He feels the ache of separation as he realizes that the days of slipping, sledding, and racing down that hill to Josh's house are coming to a close.
"So where will Josh sleep tonight?" Luke wants to know later, when my husband and the rest of the neighborhood guys return home from the work of moving.
"At his new house," I say.
"Oh, that's bad. That's really bad," declares Luke, as if examining a raw wound for the first time.
I remind Luke of how close Josh will still be, and we talk about the adventures the two boys will have in the woods behind Josh's new house. I promise Luke we'll invite Josh over for a sleep-over soon. We chat about Luke's remaining friends in the neighborhood, and, as I tuck my little boy into bed, I speak bravely about embracing change.
Yet, change comes like weeds, it's everywhere: Edina Realty, Remax, and yellow-and-black "For Sale by Owner" signs infest our neighborhood. We've lost ten families in the eight years we've lived here. As each of them packs up and moves on, the gulf of abandonment widens around those of us left behind.
This isn't how it was supposed to be. My husband and I built this house for the long term. Twenty years in this house, we reasoned, would provide our children with the stability and roots we had both grown up with. This neighborhood was to offer our kids the security and support of a tightly knit community, the comfort of familiarity, and lifelong friends. And for years it did most of that.
In the beginning, we neighbors picnicked and partied together. We shared home-decorating ideas and favorite family recipes. In communion, we celebrated births, helped raise each other's children, and collectively worried through our kids' illnesses. Our children romped and battled together across backyards that stretched on seamlessly.
So when did our cohesive bond begin to loosen? Why this wretched mass exodus? Was our vision of community that unrealistic? Would a new house in a new development hold greater promise of blissful connectedness?
A new house. That would mean leaving this one--the only house our kids have known. It would mean saying good-bye to the River Birch my husband planted in our front yard when our development was just evolving as a neighborhood. Through the years the birch's towering limbs welcomed plastic Easter eggs and colorful Christmas bulbs. Its branches have shaded our wading pool and the impromptu gatherings of wet, squealing neighborhood kids and yakking moms. We have taken each of our children's first-day-of-school pictures beside this favorite family tree.
Our lilac bushes, planted when they--like our budget--were small, are finally flower-bearing. While we could always plant new lilacs at a new location, never again would our baby, now a sophisticated seven-year-old, dub them our "Goldilock bushes."
Surely our children are too old now to justify the swing set my husband built for them the first year we moved here. Yet, if we left, I would have difficulty parting with the set's fort and sand box that was home to our children's imaginations for endless hours. It would also pain me to part with the structure that incited our baby's first steps and the swings on which even I soared.
Within our home, too, dwell memories of children once small enough to claim two shelves of our linen closet as their two-story fort. In our master bathroom, our children once enjoyed the novelty of bubble baths in the "big" tub. There, they would drink root beer floats and listen to country music. Those baths, among our children's fondest rituals, began when they were toddlers and lasted until those parts of Daddy that hid under the bubbles became more fascinating than the bubbles themselves. Other linen closets, bathtubs, and other hide-and-seek places within a new house would surely lack the history that have made this house our home.
At the heart of this house is not just any kitchen, but our kitchen. These four walls have witnessed our progression of booster chairs replacing high chairs as our babies have grown into children, and we two young lovers have been shaped into parents. Within these walls, birthday candles have been blown out, laughter and meals have been shared, discipline's been meted out, relatives have gathered, and family traditions have endured.
Perhaps this needs to be enough. I am beginning to accept that "For Sale" signs will continue to threaten our idealistic plans for this neighborhood. Increasingly, I let go of my expectations as I realize that what we had searched for outside of our home has been building within our home all along. Inside these walls, our children have indeed been blessed with the security and support of a tightly knit community, the comfort of familiarity, and the love of lifelong friends. And none of this can be taken away with a lousy "For Sale" sign.
From my kitchen window, I look down toward Josh's empty house at the bottom of the hill. The sandbox toys have been packed away. The sleds are nowhere in sight. I see only stillness and darkness where I've grown used to seeing life and light. As I stand alone in the empty silence, I realize that Josh's mom has become as dear to me as Josh to Luke. She is sadly absent from the nighttime ritual I sometimes witnessed from my kitchen window as I conclude my own bedtime ritual with Luke. It is as if the night has swallowed all of the evidence of the family who once neighbored us. I pause to process our loss as Luke's astuteness echoes in my head: "Oh, that's bad. That's really bad."
Corey Gideon Gunderson is a Lakeville, Minnesota writer and mom. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent.
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