We rounded the corner, and I felt victorious. I held a garishly orange spoon in my right hand and a waxy cup heaped with a creamy frozen delight in my left. The shop on our block was giving away free frozen yogurt. One of my favorite words—free. I would have walked down for nearly any free treat. But frozen yogurt? What a steal.
We walked along the wide walkway. It was once a narrow lane, but they’d closed it off for pedestrians years ago. Now it was covered with carefully laid brick. We passed the gift shop with its nautical eccentricities and a clothing store with price tags I could hardly afford to look at. We passed the candy shop, which I somehow managed rarely to enter. We came to the stairwell that led up to our apartment. Our neighbors stood at the bottom: a thin woman with platinum hair and her sometimes live-in boyfriend. They were out for an evening smoke.
I pointed excitedly at my bowl of frozen yogurt. “The shop around the corner is giving away frozen yogurt,” I said, eager to share our exciting discovery. “They’re open until eight.”
They looked at me. They looked perplexed. Cautious. Concerned over my excitement perhaps. Or that I was speaking to them in complete sentences.
“Huh,” our neighbor said. It was a glorified grunt.
“Well, have a good night,” I said, as Scott and I started up the stairs. I wasn’t sure how to respond.
We laugh about this now. (I mean, really, who grunts dismissively when told about free frozen yogurt within walking distance?) At the time, it only added to our feeling of isolation. We were newly married, in a new town, with neighbors who barely made eye contact. We were realizing how much we craved a place to belong, how much we missed our roots.
In my childhood, our neighbor across the street raised sheep. In the spring, I would walk across the slow road to see the lambs. Their new wool stood out white against the grass’ spring growth. The older sheep were hardly so delicate or so white. Their coats were yellowed from dirt and age, and they would push against the decrepit rails of the fence until they collapsed. My dad would find them grazing along the road—the grass had been greener, or taller at least. He would help our neighbor, who was too frail to do all of the pushing, to get the stubborn sheep back into the pen. By then his wife had died, his daughter lived in the city, and his son was often away. He lived in a few rooms in the old brick farmhouse.
Across the street was another elderly neighbor. In the summer, I jumped on the trampoline with her granddaughter, who was one of my only occasional playmates in the area. In the winters, my dad and I would trek over after each snowstorm to shovel her out. We’d scrape the snow from her car and clear a path to her door. Her front porch often got a layer as well, and I’d carefully clear the green-coated concrete. She would always appear a few days later with a plastic bag from the local market. It would be ice cream or a pie—some little treat to say thank you.
Our driveway was cleared on those snowy days by the man who shared the border with our backyard. Our dogs would play together when I was small. He and his wife had two chocolate labs: Fred and Barney. I don’t remember what happened to them. He called me “Termite.” He still occasionally calls me Termite, in those few times Scott and I make a trip home in the summer. In the years when we still had a gravel driveway, he would come to plow us out when those snowstorms hit. He sat high on his John Deere as he pushed the snow into heaps in the turnaround. He would never take money. So we continued the train of culinary thanks and made him chocolate chip cookies. The smell of them baking under my mother’s watchful eye is so linked with a snowstorm that even today I instinctively have an urge to bake when the snow starts falling.
We all took care of each other. It was a place I belonged. It made me from a place.
About a year after the grunting incident, we moved to a New Hampshire town. Within a few days of moving in, our next door neighbors walked over while I was unloading the car. They introduced themselves. They shook my hand. We chatted about the neighborhood and about where we’d come from. In the years that have followed, we’ve watched out for each other. We’ve commiserated over the weather. I’ve walked over some of my snowstorm-cookies. She’s come over to make use of our printer. And we’ve kept talking.
Some, I suppose, would find this intrusive. The chattiness might make them squirm. But me...it makes me feel at home.