39: Good Neighbours

39: Good Neighbours

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls

Good Neighbours

Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us every day.

~Sally Koch

I agree with the proverb that says “it takes a village to raise a child.” The trick is finding that village when you live in the metropolis of Toronto in 2013. Sure, there are communities within the city, but not the type of small, cohesive group that is required for this purpose. Several years into the mayhem of motherhood, I concluded that you really must create your own village, wherever you are, in order to do this job properly.

I have managed to do this by forming some special relationships with neighbours on my street. Paula is one of these neighbours, and I have been grateful for her presence since my children were small. In the summer, Paula was always the first to admire the chalk artwork on my driveway. When the kids drew roads, she walked on them. When they drew stores, she pretended to buy things, and when they wrote cryptic messages in pre-school handwriting, she tried valiantly to read them. She always made time to talk to the kids, and seemed to know just what to ask to prompt an animated conversation — she had a knack. She gave all of them their first jobs too — walking her dog, Max, giving them clear instructions, a true sense of responsibility, the requisite plastic bag, and probably too much money.

As they grew, my children appreciated Paula’s surrogate grandmotherly attitude towards them, and were always happy to lend a hand if she needed help with something.

One snowy winter evening, as we were finishing dinner, Paula phoned. She was feeling under the weather and wondered if our son Jason would mind coming over to shovel her back deck — just a little — so Max could go outside to do his business.

Jason had recently moved past the point of thinking shovelling was fun, but had adopted a stoic, typically Canadian attitude towards the task. Knowing that Max is a diminutive white dog, easily lost in a snow bank (and admittedly, a bit of a princess), Jason knew Max would be reluctant to obey Paula and go out if there was more than a centimetre of snow on the deck.

Jason said he’d be right over. Heading out the door, shovel in hand, he called, “I’ll be back in a few!”

About a half an hour later, a figure closely resembling the yeti arrived on our doorstep. Apparently, the snow was still falling thickly; Jason was covered with it.

“How was it out there?” I asked, taking his jacket and wet mitts as he stepped carefully onto the mat in the hall.

“Icy — not too cold,” he replied. “I wiped out and fell down Paula’s back stairs when I was shovelling. I guess she heard the thump — she poked her head out the door, looking all concerned.”

I looked him up and down. “You all right? Any major damage?”

“Just a little cut on my hand from the edge of the shovel.” He held up his hand to show me. “Paula felt really bad so she ran in for a Band-Aid. It was kind of embarrassing; she insisted on putting this on for me.”

I smiled. “Once a mom, always a mom. Looks like you’ll survive. Had you finished the job by that point or should I pop over?”

“No, it was pretty clear — Max can get out, no problem,” he responded. After I thanked him for helping out, he headed upstairs to change.

In the past, Paula had hired one or both of my boys to do the full driveway-clearing job. I was happy that she felt comfortable enough to call for a little casual help every now and then. Give the kids a chance to do something nice for someone they know and trust — a chance to learn how to be good neighbours.

A few minutes later Jason arrived in the laundry room and tossed an armful of wet clothing onto the floor.

“Paula tried to pay me, you know,” he said. “It wasn’t a big deal or anything — the job, I mean — but I think she felt bad that I fell down the stairs. I just slipped; it was my own fault, and I’m totally fine.”

“How’d you handle it?” I asked him, stuffing his things into the dryer.

“I told her it was okay, she didn’t need to pay me, and it was just a quick job. I was happy to do it for free. She sort of insisted, though. It was one of those awkward times, you know, where you say, ‘No, it’s okay, thanks’ and the other guy says, ‘No, really, I insist.’ And you go around in circles for a while… I finally caved.”

“What, she wore you down?”

“Yeah, but I got her,” Jason replied, with a twinkle in his eye.

“What do you mean?” I asked, tiny parental alarm bells starting to jingle in the distance. “How exactly did you ‘get her’?”

“She finally just asked me to name a fair price for the job. I told her my fee was one Band-Aid.”

He held up his injured hand, wiggled his fingers, and with a self-satisfied grin, loped up the stairs. I stood in the foyer, rather at a loss for words. When had my self-absorbed little kid turned into a thoughtful, helpful, and maybe just a little devious adolescent?

Paula enjoyed being outmaneuvered by Jason that evening. She said as much, when she came by the next day to drop off some warm homemade cookies for him. I thanked her for the baking, and then I thanked her for helping us show the kids how it’s done — how to be a good neighbour. We may not have a whole village, exactly, but I think a few wonderful friends may just do the trick.

~Julie Winn

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