Ten Lessons Sans Carols: #4 The Bright Thing to Do

In the post “Gift #9” I talked about my neighborhood and the curmudgeons who circle around the cul-de-sac. In the interest of fairness, I have to say not everyone here in Pine Bluff Trace is mean. There’s also my neighbor who leaves post-it notes on my windshield early in the morning saying, “I’ve gone out of town for two days. Can you take care of my dog?” There’s also the neighbor who hosts popular hot tub parties well attended only by attractive young men at least twenty years younger than said neighbor, but that’s none of my business.

There’s the wonderful family next door who brought over a heaping plate of chicken mole one day because they knew I recently had surgery and thought I could use some home cooking. They really are good people and I was humbled. It looked and smelled so heavenly I almost dug in but then my neighbor told me his wife’s secret ingredient in her mole sauce is chocolate cookie crumbs. Drat. I called note neighbor, who ran right over to take the plate of food off my hands and scarf it for her dinner; she just had lost her job so she was glad for the comfort food. She said it was the best chicken mole she’d ever had. Win win!

Then there’s my favorite neighbor, my real friend, the one who got me to say yes to serving on the board this last go-round. She’s a well-intentioned, big-hearted, smart woman who bought into Pine Bluff Trace while it was under construction. This place matters to her in a way it doesn’t matter to anyone else: she was here first, helped build the place, and she’s seen it all.

She remembers the board president who used to sashay up and down the street in his not-closed bathrobe and house slippers, glass of scotch on the rocks in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He felt it his duty as association president to let himself into people’s backyard during the night and check out their gardens…for violations, of course. Never mind the covenants were mum on backyards, except to describe the appropriate fencing styles and materials. What went into the backyard was the owner’s prerogative and who went into your backyard seemingly was the president’s. If your patio furniture looked askew in the morning, it probably was because Mr. President really enjoyed your little oasis.

She also remembers the husband who flew into a rage and killed his wife by shoving her head into the glass coffee table. Even though he went to jail for a very long time, it took more than a year to sell the house. It didn’t help that they didn’t replace the carpet so the house showed with a giant blood stain in the middle of the living room.

Then there was the spate of baffling break-ins: every other day for a week the perpetrators bypassed expensive electronics to snatch booze plus whatever jewelry—costume as well as fine—they could stash in their pockets. They also sensibly passed over beer in favor of wine or hard liquor: it takes a lot more beer than spirits to get and stay drunk.

These days we have regular police presence and everyone has monitored alarms. And good locks on their back gates.

The greenspace matters to my neighbor friend even more than the people. She helped choose every river birch and every holly bush now flourishing in the open spaces. She’s overseen the Landscape Committee since the advent of said committee and she takes it personally if someone complains about the quality of the shrub pruning or lawn mowing. She has the largest piece of property in the community: her contiguous front and side yards stretch invitingly like our own Central Park. It’s actually called Sophie’s Garden, in honor of my Maine Coon, who treats the liriope-ringed center island where three crepe myrtle shrubs flower in a cushy bed of pine straw as her personal playground.

On many a spring and summer night we sat in this gorgeous garden on reclaimed patio chairs and sipped cool beverages while chatting: sparkling water for me and white wine for my friend. A few other neighbors would amble over and join us, sometimes bringing a bottle of wine or cooler of spirits they might or might not share. We often talked about decorating the garden with twinkling lights for Christmas.

Our landscaping is what it is because of my friend and I, for one, am deeply grateful. So deeply grateful I couldn’t say no when she begged me to join the board with her for the rest of 2014. The insanity before and during the neighborhood association annual meeting just shredded her.

The day after that disastrous meeting, feeling emotionally hungover, I needed to do something. I grabbed the string of 200 tiny solar-powered lights my neighbor had bought for the garden and given to me for safekeeping from her dogs. I twined them along the branches of the leafless crape myrtles. I worked by faith, without a view of how well or badly I was spacing the lights because they weren’t lit. I’d have to wait a few hours to see the fruits of my labor, that is, if the battery had enough hours of sunlight to charge.

When the sun sank, I looked out the window and smiled. The dozen solar landscape lights we had inserted among the liriope back in March made good footlights for the crape myrtles, now blue-hued aglow center stage.

“Do you like your lights?” I texted my neighbor.

A minute later she was banging on my front door. “Oh, I love them! I love them!” she gushed when I opened the door. “No one’s ever done something so nice for me! It’s beautiful!”

We stood outside, jackets wrapped around us, basking in the glow.

“Kinda makes up for last night,” she said.

“We always shine our light against the darkness,” I agreed.

She laughed. “I bought another set of 200 lights. It should arrive tomorrow or Friday.”

“I look forward to putting them up.” I meant it.

“Where should we put them?”

“On the nearest fir tree. We need a proper Christmas tree for this scene.”

“Deal,” she said and then we hugged and went into our homes for the night.

The lights arrived on Saturday. On Sunday, after the Sprouts trip and while my neighbor was out running errands, we bundled against the cold drizzle and draped the delicate fir tree with the new string of lights.

When night fell again, the fir tree twinkled harmoniously behind the twinkling crape myrtles. The basket the stone St. Francis of Assisi statue carried now brimmed with colorful, plastic Christmas greenery and red flowers. Our holiday gift to the neighborhood was complete.

As we stood in the street admiring our work, I said, “No matter how badly people behave, we keep Christmas in our hearts and let it busy our hands.”

“It’s the bright thing to do,” my neighbor agreed.

“Amen to that, my friend. Merry Christmas.”