»  The Straggler, No. 23

August 23, 2004

  Sweet Sorrow


Here is an affecting little tableau, set in a quiet suburban street on a sunny Friday morning in July.

An automobile is parked in front of a house. The driver is a woman of about forty. There are four children in the car with her, her own children, three girls and a boy, their ages ranging from four to fourteen. The woman and the three girl children are all weeping. The boy, aged eleven, is playing the man very bravely, but with an obvious effort.

Standing on the front lawn of the house, next to the car and looking at it, talking in through the passenger-side window in fact, is a little group: four or five women, and about as many children. Most of them are weeping, too.

Fifteen yards away on the front lawn of the next-door house, which is mine, in the shade of the flowering cherry tree my wife planted when we moved here twelve years ago, stands my son. He is not weeping, seems in fact to be emotionally disengaged from the proceedings, watching in calm silence.

The occupants of the car were our next-door neighbors for eight years. The children grew up with our children, constantly in and out of each other's houses. They are a busy, lively family. The wife is a great organizer of community events. She it was who took us out carol singing every Christmas, up and down the street with "Frosty the Snowman,"  "Silent Night," and of course "The Dreidel Song." When we came back from carolling, hoarse and frostbitten, it was to their house we repaired for drinks and desserts, paper hats, and musical recitals by the youngsters. We have albums full of photographs taken over the years, their kids and our kids all mixed up indiscriminately. Their oldest daughter, three years our Nellie's senior, did as much to form Nellie's speech patterns, play habits, entertainment preferences, and interpersonal skills as we did — perhaps more, if Ms. Harris's book The Nurture Assumption can be believed. Our private family micro-dialect — catch-phrases, jokes, code words — is in part derived from theirs, and theirs, presumably, from ours.

Now the husband's firm has relocated to a Southern state, so the family is moving down there. This tearful street scene is our last goodbye to them. The house not having been sold in time, his firm bought it from them at a good price, and will effect the sale themselves. Now the house will stand empty and silent, the noise and busyness and laughter all gone elsewhere. We hope we were good neighbors to these people, as they certainly were to us. We await the sale of the house with apprehension. It's a big house, suitable for a couple with plenty of kids. On the other hand the yard is small, and big families generally want a good yard. Perhaps some entrepreneurial pest will buy it and let it out as multi-family, or rooms for young singles. That's against zoning rules, but our town is lethargic about enforcing these things and we could be in for years of bother. Heaven forbid.

Having bad neighbors is a major blight on the homeowner's life. I learned this from my own parents' experience. From my infancy until I left home we lived in a "council house," that is, a house owned by the English town in which we lived. My parents paid a weekly rent. It was a good house, though, and when, under the first Margaret Thatcher government, it became possible for council tenants to buy their houses at a deep discount, I bought it.

Unfortunately the house was semi-detached. The western half of the structure remained a council property. The decent working-class people who lived there through my childhood moved away, and my parents were subjected to a succession of the newer, welfare-state-raised variety of English public-housing tenant, for a full description of which, see the works of Theodore Dalrymple. It is now the case in England, for example, that any unmarried girl who produces a bastard thereby acquires the right to public housing. My parents were neighbors to a couple of these trollops (as my mother called them) — slack-eyed puddingy creatures whose physical charms, though obviously adequate to sustain the attentions of an underclass male for at least a few minutes, were utterly invisible to me. One was ejected, after a great deal of fuss, for plying a very ancient trade out of that pleasant house, a house built by earnest postwar socialists as a reward for the labors of the deserving poor.

I watch my son, standing there impassive under the flowering cherry as tearful goodbyes are exchanged. His coolness is odd. He has often told me that the boy in the car was his best friend. They have spent many hundreds of hours playing together — cycling in the street, comparing remote-control toy trucks, hunting through the Internet to find cheat codes for computer games. Does he grasp the reality of the event? Understand that he will quite probably never see his friend again? Can his nine-year-old mind not yet encompass this infinity of absence? Or is some defense mechanism in play? It is so hard to fathom the inner life of childhood — that alien landscape of fresh-minted joys and shames, tribal superstitions, and soul-shaking fears.

Surely this little scene — the quiet sun-stunned street, the weeping women, the trembling stoicism of his first playfellow — will impress itself deeply on my boy's mind. It may be that in adult life he will suddenly recall it when exploring the poetry of his mother's ancestors, so rich in the pain of parting from friends. Wang Wei, perhaps:

Spring grass will be green again next year;
But O noble friend, will you ever return?

For oneself, far enough along in life to have accumulated a score or more of emotional partings, the event sends one scanning back over them, over the whole melancholy inventory: in airport departure lounges, at farewell dinners, by hospital beds, on railroad station platforms, on doorsteps, at taxi stands or random street corners, once unforgettably by telephone. Every one an amputation, every one a heartbreak or a mourning, every one a premonition, a shadow thrown backwards through time by the one certain, final parting that is waiting for us all.