I have always been conscious of the passage of time and my place in its flow. As a small boy traveling by bus and subway from my suburban New Jersey home to visit my cousins in Brooklyn for the weekend, I couldn’t help but notice the train returning on the opposite track and thinking that I would be riding it all too soon.
Beginnings carry within them the seed of their endings. If you happen to notice this simple fact, you will either find it hard to enjoy the moment or immerse yourself so thoroughly in it, that you’ll have trouble letting go.
The older I get, the more metaphors I find for the process of growth, change and the losses that accumulate in their wake. One of my favorites comes from the neighborhood that we moved into almost 40 years ago.
In our early 30s, we were the new kids on a block presided over by, let’s call them the Grouses, a 60-something couple who had bought the first house on the street. Empty nesters who lived next door, they mostly stayed to themselves but always had time for a quick hello and an unsolicited opinion.
I remember the day I painted our front door, not because the paint was wearing, but simply to hide the bright yellow that spilled out of the interior that the former owners had covered in a rainbow of luminous hues.
We chose white probably just to start with a clean pallet and because it wasn’t yellow. As I went about my work, I sensed Mrs. Grouse standing behind me and then I heard her say, “In a world full of color, why would anyone choose to paint a door white?” I am not sure if I responded or simply treated this as a rhetorical question, one of those deep musings about the unfathomable workings of the human mind that are best ignored.
Our neighbors on the other side were younger than the Grouses, an engineer and his wife with their teenage kids, whom I’ll call the Widgets. The adults were reserved but unfailingly helpful as when Mr. Widget showed me how to fix the brakes on my daughter’s bike.
Their children were polite and respectful and I’ll never forget how their older boy told us he was throwing a party with his high school friends and that we should be sure to let him know if the noise level got too high. Though we did not socialize with the Widgets, we chatted occasionally when we met doing yard work and it was through these encounters that I learned the broad outlines of their family’s life passages.
The kids went to college, got jobs, and moved away from home. At one point, I noticed that Mr. Widget was home during the day and deduced that he retired. Sometimes, I would see him jogging down the street as I pulled out of the driveway on my way to work. At other times I would see both husband and wife walking together.
They had a house in a warmer climate and would spend increasingly longer periods of time away from the neighborhood every winter. One year, they didn’t come back and I learned from their son that they had sold the house to him and settled in the Deep South. The son rented the house to a succession of mostly young couples who stayed for a year or two and then moved on. It was too short a time to get to know any of them well until the landlord sold the place to his most recent tenants, the Newcomes, a 30-something couple, the new kids on the block as we once were so long ago.
Flanked in our early days by the Grouses and the Widgets, we faced a house across the street occupied by a family who became close friends though we’ve fallen out of touch since they moved away.
Harry Matisse, the artist, and his wife Renee, were older than we were but younger than the Widgets. Their son John Paul must have been in middle school when we moved into the neighborhood and is now a prominent wildlife photographer.
The Matisses’ next door neighbors on one side were the married accountants, the Tallies, a couple about our age with one child and, on the other side, the older attorney, Phineas Whig, his wife and their two children.
People have come and gone in our neighborhood over the years but those who have stayed the longest form a progression in age from the long departed Grouses through the Whigs, Widgets, Matisses, Tallies, Bodnars, and the younger Newcomes at the tail end of the line. Whenever the senior residents of the street leave for any reason, I like to think we all move up a notch.
When the Grouses died, the Whigs became the Grouses, the Widgets the Whigs, the Matisses the Widgets and so on. In this way, we have moved to the head of the line but one. Phineas Whig, the new Mr. Grouse, has become the elder statesman of the neighborhood and we, the once fresh young faces on the street, have become the Whigs.
Time passes. People come and go in our neighborhoods and in our lives. We change and we remain the same. Except in the superficial sense of our order in time, I will never be Phineas Whig though I have learned something from being his neighbor. It is enough for any of us simply to be ourselves, ringed round by circles of growth containing traces of those who have been our neighbors, on our street, in our families, schools, workplaces, and wherever else people come together to make a life.
Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.