This

Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Mar­garet Hoey

I AM star­ing at the clothes line. It is empty. No clean white bowls dresses on coat hang­ers swing­ing gen­tly in the sun­shine. No dated tea tow­els flap­ping in the breeze, neatly pegged at dawn. A breath catches in my throat as I am re­minded that she is gone. My won­der­ful neigh­bour of 24 years fi­nally al­lowed death its time. Her lit­tle white house stands wait­ing for her re­turn, the gar­den con­tin­ues to grow hope­ful that she will again tend the gar­den beds and near-per­fect grass. The old wooden pa­tio set stands like wooden sol­diers at at­ten­tion, an­tic­i­pat­ing the next Satur­day morn­ing fam­ily get-to­gether with am­ple tea, cof­fee and home­made scones and cake.

Our first meet­ing was a warm, friendly wel­come to the street with a clear out­line of her phi­los­o­phy on neigh­bourli­ness, which was very re­as­sur­ing. ‘‘We are there for each other, any time, but we don’t get in each other’s way.’’ This phi­los­o­phy was re­stated many times through the years. She said it as she de­liv­ered good­ies to re­ward us for work­ing so hard on our first home. Again, when she wel­comed our chil­dren into the world. She would re­mind us of it when she of­fered room in her wheelie bin if we were hav­ing a clean-out and when she took in our mail when we were go­ing on hol­i­day.

This phi­los­o­phy be­came the har­mony that ac­com­pa­nied mo­ments of joy and sad­ness. Re­joic­ing with each of my chil­dren at the first lost tooth and the first day of school. Car­ing for my chil­dren while I was whisked away in an am­bu­lance at dawn, and cut­ting fresh white lilies from her gar­den to con­sole my fam­ily’s sad­ness at the loss of our beloved dog, newly buried un­der the mango tree in the back yard.

But the times that hold in my mem­ory and catch my breath are at the clothes line. She would of­fer space on her line when she saw me strug­gling with loads of nap­pies and sheets. There were times when I tried to get my wash­ing out on my line be­fore her — just to see if I could. I sel­dom did. When I see that wash­ing line to­day I am trans­ported to a place where good neigh­bours are im­por­tant, they are wel­comed and cul­ti­vated. This place val­ues the cheery wave and the odd gift of ex­tra to­ma­toes off the vine. In this place the old rotary clothes line stands tes­ta­ment to the shar­ing and car­ing that holds a community to­gether.

My neigh­bour has been gone for some time now. I have be­come ac­cus­tomed to the ab­sence next door, the maid­en­hair fern and the lily still alert in their beds. A still­ness has set­tled over my neigh­bour’s house, an un­re­solved calm. Yet noth­ing re­mains the same for long. A new neigh­bour is emerg­ing from the prop­erty game, en­ter­ing the scene with great rev­er­ence and re­spect, some­how aware of the deep sig­nif­i­cance the pre­vi­ous in­hab­i­tant made to the lives of peo­ple in this street. He is qui­etly mak­ing his mark. He is slowly plan­ning to re­build from scratch. All trace of a life well lived will dis­ap­pear. How do we hon­our the hum­ble peo­ple who make the world a bet­ter place?

As I re­gain my breath I won­der what it will be like hav­ing new neigh­bours. I worry that I can never be as good a neigh­bour as she was. Can I ever be as giv­ing and gen­er­ous as she? Am I ready to be the one who car­ries this phi­los­o­phy for­ward? As I watch the sun fall across the empty clothes line, I know ex­actly what to say when new neigh­bours move in.

‘‘We are there for each other, any time, but we don’t get in each other’s way.’’

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