We’ve been in our little West Preston street for fifteen years. All that time, our next door neighbours have been Wilma and Vern. Two doors up at number 12, are Renie and Stan. These are names that you won’t see on the coat peg labels in any child care centre. Wilma, Vern, Renie and Stan are from another era and having them as our neighbours has been lovely.
On the day we moved in, Vern presented us with a plant cutting from his beautiful garden. It was such a simple gesture… and also, so touching that I still can clearly see how carefully he placed that welcome gift into Lisa’s hands.
Over the years Wilma has always dropped a card in our post box at Christmas or for big milestones for the kids’ 18th and 21st birthdays. She would read the paper and see the day the VCE Year 12 exams started. The night before, both times, Amber and Jack got a ‘Good Luck’ card signed by Wilma and Vern.
We’ve always knocked on Renie’s door on the morning we make our annual summer pilgrimage down to Apollo Bay.
“Well that time has gone around quick, you’re heading off down the beach again and you want me to look after your post?” Renie would ask with a smile.
This year we finally discovered her weakness when we said is there anything she would like as a thank you. We would take her a big Toblerone or some grand block of chocolate each year. She would always say, “don’t be silly, you don’t have to get me anything. You’re our neighbour,” feigning a slap on the side of my arm.
On the day we took off this year I mentioned that “we’ll probably go to the Saturday morning farmers market there Renie – are you sure we couldn’t get you something?” I was imploring her to give me a clue. “Not even a jar of jam?”
A small smile curled from the corner of her mouth, “Oh well, I must say I am partial to a bit of home made jam on me toast!”
Eureka! We’ve only known her for 14 and ½ years at this stage and she finally let’s us know about something we could get her to say ‘thanks’. She was thrilled with the jam this year.
When they were younger our kids were so proud when Renie and Wilma joined them at their local primary school’s 75th anniversary. In fact Renie explained how she was one of the pioneer students when the school opened in 1928 and we learnt too how she (now in her mid-nineties) wheeled baby Wilma around in her pram after she was born. Number 10 and Number 12 are the only homes Wilma and Renie have ever lived in. We’ve heard stories of how behind their back fences, there were only paddocks to walk across to catch the tram. When Stan came home from the war, Renie described how he removed from his kit bag his navy issued starchy underpants and hung them on the barbed wire fence as a sign of celebration of his re-entry into civilian life.
One time when Lisa and Jack and me were out the front of our house. Renie wandered down and disclosed her early memories of us arriving in the street and how her attitude had changed on one important consideration – her taste in men had shifted a generation. In any other context, you would consider this story – in modern parlance, a bit of an over-share… but this is Renie and she is naturally funny and a bit naughty. Our young bloke Jack was standing listening when Renie said, “you know when you folk moved in, I said to one of our neighbours up the road… that fella with the young kids…” and she poked my chest playfully, “that’s you!” she said… “well you know I said if I was fifty years younger, I reckon I could have gone for him. But don’t get a big head about that because that’s all changed now” and she turned and looked at Jack, now a grown up young man of 19. With a glint in her eye, Renie cheekily looked back at me and said “you’re old hat now Bill, if I was seventy years younger, I’d wouldn’t be going for you anymore… I’d go for Jack in a heartbeat! He’s much better looking than you” Jack laughed and blushed all at the same time. Lisa was in uncontrollable fits of hysterics.
Our neighbours, at the stage of life they are in remind us, younger folk in the street, how it doesn’t cost you much to pass the time of day. Little acts of thoughtfulness have dotted the years we’ve shared and it has only made sense that we help where we can and when they ask. And as the years have passed, the need for a helping hand from us younger neighbours has increased. Maybe not so unusually these days, both Lisa and me work from home – but I travel a lot, so it is often Lisa who comes to the rescue when our neighbours need some practical assistance.
You’ve gleaned that Renie is a character and when teamed up with Stan – it’s like you’ve won a free ticket to the comedy festival. A few years ago Renie knocked on our door and beckoned Lisa up to give her a hand. Stan had got stuck in the bath. He couldn’t lift himself out and Renie couldn’t lift him on her own. That definitely took the neighbourliness to a new level of intimacy. As it eventuated Stan didn’t have a clear memory of who exactly had helped Renie to help him on to his feet… so, a few days later when Lisa saw Renie and Stan in an ailse up at Woolworths, Stan was reminded by his wife as to who this person was they were bumping into at the supermarket.
At the top of her voice, Renie boomed to Stan (and all of the shoppers in Aisle 10) “This is the lass from down the road who helped you out of the bath the other day… this is our neighbour who saw you naked!”
Without missing a beat Stan looked up from his trolley at Lisa and asked “what did ya think love?”
Vern has often knocked on our door and in recent years, he has asked if Jack was free if he could pop over and change a light bulb. Jack would climb Vern’s rickety wooden ladder and complete the chore.
I reckon there is something good about all this.
Our kids have experienced kindness with small acts and they have seen and heard our neighbours ask for help when they’ve needed it. I’m not sure how many neighbourhoods run like this anymore. I think it is great for kids to not just witness, but be immersed in these little networks of interdependence.
In recent years, Wilma has had a few stints in hospital and respite and Vern let us know just after Christmas that they had decided to move into supported care. Lisa helped drive Vern for a few errands and visits whilst he was on his own. Another simple delight has been watching my kids watch their mum’s small kindnesses. When the billboard went up for the auction of Wilma and Vern’s place, the headline read ‘First Time Offered in 88 Years.’
Over the last few weeks, they’ve held garage sales and their daughter and son-in-law have been shuttling things off to the tip. Two weekends ago, Lisa and I went around to say good-bye.
Wilma was typically gracious and affirming saying we had been great neighbours. Then we met Vern in the back yard. He has always kept a neighbourly distance but this time he reached out and gave Lisa a hug. We are keeping an eye out for Renie. She’s sad that her long time neighbours have moved.
The keys were handed over two weeks ago. I think the new neighbours are taking a few weekends to move in. They are a young couple with small children. This past Saturday I heard the children’s voices as they ran around their new backyard. One remarked to the other how beautiful the garden was… Vern’s pride and joy was appreciated on first glance.
Wilma has asked Lisa to get in touch when the new family have moved in. She wants to send them some flowers to say ‘welcome to the neighbourhood.’