From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Good Neighbors

One reason our familymoved fromour apartment in the middle of Chicago to a house in the suburbs was that we hoped to find for our daughters a true “neighborhood.” To me, this meant a place where folks were more than mere acquaintances, where they shared laughs, exchanged recipes and baby-sitting, looked out for each other and were ready to share a cup of flour or a cup of tea.

So we moved in the summer of 1989, hoping we’d made the right decision.

To help allay the anxiety of somany changes for Anna, age ten, and Rachael, age seven, we’d promised them their very own dog. At the shelter, we found Lady, a full-grown mutt with the coloring of a German shepherd, one of the sweetest animals I’d ever met. It turned out that Lady not only charmed our girls, she was an instant attraction for most of the children in the neighborhood. As the girls and Lady and Iwalked around exploring, the local youngsterswere drawn like magnets to the new dog on the block—and, consequently, started friendships with Lady’s mistresses.

Things went well. There were many young families, and Anna and Rachael soon knew most of the many children. On warm summer evenings, they all gathered outside, riding bikes, roller-skating up and down the sidewalks, playing hopscotch or jumping rope. The grownups would visit, too, and my husband and I discovered many couples with whom we had much in common.

But there was one couple who lived in a house across the street who never came out to visit on those evenings. Indeed, their house had an odd look to it: The shades were always drawn and the lawn was seldom mowed. It wasn’t that the house was an eyesore, it just wasn’t as well cared for as the others. The neighborhood kids told my girls stories about the old couple who lived there.

“They’re creepy! They really are!” said the ten-year-old twin boys next door. “When we collected old clothes for the school rummage sale,we rang their bell. Theman answered, and we could see into the house. It was completely dark except for this one weird candle in the living room!”

“They dress funny, too,” added another girl who lived down the block. “Even when it’s really hot out, they always bundle up in long sleeves and high collars.”

“And they talk funny!” piped up another little one.

I didn’t take any of this talk seriously, and, like the other mothers in the neighborhood, I cautioned my girls about being unkind or rude. When I overheard one of the children jumping rope to a rhyme that made fun of the old woman—“Mrs. Feldman, teeth of yellow, went downtown to meet a fellow”—I put a stop to it. Having eccentrics even made the neighborhood kind of interesting. Not that they included themselves among the neighbors.

One evening toward the end of summer, when the days were beginning to shorten, the girls and I stepped outside after supper to visit with our new friends and breathe the last lingering smells of summer. We were so relaxed and happy that we were completely unprepared for what happened next.

As Rachael opened the gate to the backyard, Lady joined us, barking and circling joyfully in her newfound freedom. But for some reason, instead of basking in the attention of the gathering children, she made a beeline for the one house on the block that would not welcome her. Ignoring our commands, she charged across the street, up the front walk, and right to the front door of the strange old couple.

I dashed after Lady, but stopped suddenly when Mrs. Feldman appeared at the door, brandishing a broom at our dog, screaming something. For a moment, I stood rooted where I was, appalled and terrified. Lady backed away from the hysterical woman, came back to me and sat at my feet. I grabbed her collar.

What should I do? Take my dog straight home? Apologize to our new neighbor, who now stood at the top of her steps shaking all over, tears streaming down her face?

In another second, my husband and children were beside me and Mr. Feldman had appeared, putting an arm around his wife, and ushering her back into the house. The door closed with a thud.

“What was it she screamed?” asked my frightened Rachael. “Is she going to call the police? Are we going to lose Lady?”

I looked down at my daughter’s tear-stained face. For a moment, I couldn’t answer. Something was becoming clear, but it took a moment to understand what it was.

My parents had spoken Yiddish in my house when I was a little girl. The words Mrs. Feldman had yelled weren’t Yiddish, but they were close enough for me to understand. In clear German, she had screamed, “Never again, never again, not the dog!”

That night, I assured the girls we wouldn’t lose Lady for such a minor offense. The next day, there seemed a more pressing issue.

“Girls,” I said, “we’re going over to the Feldmans’ house to apologize.”

“What if they won’t listen?” asked Anna fearfully.

“At least they will hear,” I said.

Hand in hand, the three of us climbed the front steps to the Feldmans’ house. Rachael rang the bell. When Mr. Feldman opened the door, I immediately wished I had thought to bring something . . . a cake, perhaps. I was afraid he would close the door when he saw who it was.

He didn’t.

“We came to apologize to you and your wife for allowing our dog to frighten her so. She got out by accident. We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Behind the old man, the house was indeed dark, as the neighborhood children had said; the little candle they’d described was burning in the living room. But I also glimpsed something else. Above the candle, in a little silver picture frame, was an old photo of a little girl.

Mr. Feldman didn’t say anything as we finished speaking. From behind him, his wife emerged from the shadow. She looked down at my girls—and smiled.

As we walked home, I knew what I had to explain to my children. We sat down at the kitchen table and talked about the Holocaust. I told them I thought our neighbors were survivors of that terrible time. It explained their reticence, the clothes that they wore, probably covering numbers tattooed into them, their foreign accent. I told them that the candle that burned in the living room was a Jewish memorial candle; we talked about the photo of the little girl.

Something happened to the children after that—not just to my children, but to the whole neighborhood.Word got around. The twins next door began taking turns mowing the Feldmans’ lawn. Their newspapers and mail were never left by the street anymore, but placed carefully between their screen and front doors. A pot of geraniums was left on their front porch . . . and Mrs. Feldman began coming outside to water them. Children on bicycles riding past waved at her, and she waved back.

The weather turned cooler, and the leaves began to fall. The children started school. One evening, our family went out together to take Lady for a walk. We had just stepped onto our sidewalk when we saw that Mr. and Mrs. Feldman were leaving their house, too.

Lady barked at them, and just for a minute, I saw them freeze. But in another minute, our neighbors smiled, waved and walked on. For they truly were our neighbors now. Whether we all realized it or not, an exchange had taken place among us, one that was much more important than cakes or flour or even a wave and a smile. For the Feldmans had given our neighborhood a past—and we, in turn, had helped them find a future.

Marsha Arons

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