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.’’