Lane Change

Twenty-four years ago a slim, silver-haired woman taught me how to be a neighbor. The first rule: Welcome new folks with food.
I was kneeling in an overgrown garden in the backyard, searching for a spot to transplant a clump of daylilies from our former house. A rented truck sat in our driveway, filled with everything we owned. Her voice at my side startled me.

"The lady who lived here would be thrilled you're a gardener. This used to be her pride and joy."

She sat a large basket of homegrown green beans and tomatoes next to me and smiled. "I'm Anita. Welcome to the lane."

"The Lane" was an anomaly then. Our pastoral pocket of permanence is just off busy state Route 91 in Hudson, which was becoming known for its transient professional population as much as its charming historic core. There were seven homes on the lane: two stately colonials, one ranch and a handful of comfortable, postwar Cape Cods. Except for us, everyone had lived there for at least 20 years, some for 40 or more.

No one asked what we did for a living. But some neighbors, including Ray, asked, "You planting a garden this year?"

Ray told tales of our predecessor, aptly named Clay, who shot at groundhogs from his bathroom window and coaxed from the stubborn soil enough produce to sell to the local IGA. Our first weedy patch of scraggly tomatoes would've made Clay blanch.

The neighborhood's sounds were simple: Horseshoes clanging in a friendly rivalry between Don and Ray. The steady thump of the Harrison boy's basketball. The reassuring drone of rototillers announcing spring.

From the beginning, everyone on the lane grew things. The MacClarens bought the acreage that would become our neighborhood at a bank auction in the 1940s. Soon after, they planted rows of saplings that would grow into dense, piney woods.

Ben and Chrissie's vegetable patch occupied a footprint the size of their home. Ben had rigged a small shed for storing potatoes with climate control. The Harrisons raised miniature horses. One year, Anita spent a whole day teaching me how to can her famous tomato soup, then turned over the entire batch of gleaming jars to me, no arguments accepted.

Over time, the faces of the lane began to change. Ben and Chrissie retired to their cottage in Pennsylvania. The horses became too much when Jack's knees gave out. Fred, who lived on the corner and loved his linden tree, succumbed to cancer, recalling the linden's sweet fragrance with me just days before he died. (Second rule of good neighboring: Comfort the grieving with food. From Anita's kitchen came meatloaf, green beans and bacon, and Texas sheet cake.)

More funerals followed: my beloved Anita, her husband Don, then Jack and Ray. When Ray died, my husband plucked a wild daisy and tucked it behind his widow's mailbox flag.

"When he asked me all those years ago if I was planting a garden," he said to me, "I think what he really wanted to know was, •Are you staying?' "

Here's the thing about staying: You get to see how everybody's story turns out. The neighbor who knelt beside her 14-year-old daughter's hospital bed, praying for a miracle after a terrible car crash, now strolls the lane with that grown daughter's babies in tow. Fred's linden tree still blooms white bouquets each spring.

Four new grand houses stand where dense trees used to grow. While they are beautiful, their pristine landscapes seem Photoshopped among the older yards. Already one of the new homes has turned over. Recently I learned that the Harrisons' house, empty for months, is owned by someone in Naples, Fla.

Not so long ago, the little girl on the corner stood at the end of her driveway and flagged down every neighbor who drove by. "The baby's here! The baby's here!" she called out, announcing the birth of the child next door as if he was her brother. She and her family moved away after eight years, and I got to say goodbye merely by chance, when her mother walked the dogs before loading them in the car to leave.

I wonder if we are losing the thread of continuity. It's not chumminess I'm looking for, not the eavesdropping my parents complained of where I grew up. I just hope for a sense of community amid our busy lives. Is it something we can hold on to?

As the houses change owners, I carry the torch Anita lit for me. I show up at new neighbors' homes with baskets of homemade soup and bread, a jar of lemonade, flowers cut from my garden. "Welcome to the lane," I say, reveling in their surprise and delight, remembering my own as I accepted Anita's gifts.

The other day, I saw signs of life in the Harrisons' driveway, a few cars and trucks, new people coming and going. A pasta salad with marinated veggies and fresh basil, I'm thinking. Apple-chicken sausages. Sun-brewed iced tea. We may never learn how each other's stories turn out, but I want them to drive down the lane and know they are home.

I promise not to ask them if they'll stay.

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