It’s May now, and I want to turn away from the serious blogs of winter, and write of more personal matters. Today I’m writing about the place where I do most of my writing, the little neighborhood in the largish New Jersey town I’ve called home for the last 25 years. It’s magical now to watch it wake up and come back to life after the gloom and chill of winter, the magnolias and dogwoods unfurling their blossoms, and tulips popping up through the mulch. The trees, the woods across the river are still gauzy green with tentative blossoms, because we’re having a particularly capricious spring, with frost warnings still coming every few nights or so.
I live in a quirky spot in Northern New Jersey, in a neighborhood that should never have been built, on drained cranberry bog in a crook of the Rockaway River, a branch of the Passaic. When they started building houses here, in the 1920s or so, there was still the prevailing philosophy than Man controls Nature and could bend her to his will—raping her outright, if he felt the need. Well, this neighborhood belies all that, and proves Nature wins every time.
But the river is in a low cycle, so all is well, for now. Eventually it will fill up our yards and pour into our basements, and we’ll deal with it, as we have in the past: Together. For even though our area is reviled by real-estate agents for its “water problem,” there is something here not often found in suburban New Jersey neighborhoods. A strong sense of community, and neighborly care, a sense that every one looks out for everyone else. It’s a special neighborhood, even as it grows smaller: A few years ago, the town and state joined up to purchase a bakers’ dozen of the more flood-prone homes and tore them down, so now an odd little ribbon of natural parkland threads along our street. It has to dodge the homeowners who refused the buyout—which we were not offered, because of the slight incline we sit on, which prevents a great deal of major flood damage. I’m a bit relieved that we were not given the option of moving, because I think we might have taken it, and I know I would miss this place so much. Not so much the land, the terrain of the riverside itself, but my good, good neighbors.
Not that there isn’t drama. I could write several novels about this one block of mine alone. The big drama these past few years has been the house across the street. It was owned for decades by an eccentric old bachelor, a pleasant enough man, but rather troubled, a drinker. I would send food over to him, making soup in double batches, because I knew he wasn’t eating properly. And then one day he collapsed in town, was sent to a nursing home, while the bank holding his reverse mortgage swooped right in and grabbed his house. They let it sit disgracefully empty and unkempt for nearly two years, while they haggled with the town over back taxes. My next-door neighbor and I searched all over Morris County until we found the nursing home where our across-the-street neighbor was, and we found him painfully frail, bedridden, yet feistily determined to move back to his old house. He asked if his lawn was being kept up, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him what was happening to his old home. Or that he had lost it completely. Shortly after he was transferred to yet another home, and we have lost track of him completely, but I think he has probably faded into that good night.
When the house was finally sold, I felt uneasy, worried it go the way most little older houses go in this part of the state, under a wrecking ball to be replaced with an inappropriately grand mega-mansion. But my fears vanished when I looked out one day, and saw two ladies of a certain age, in dungarees and plaid shirts, bravely pulling out weeds and dragging old furniture out to the curb. I made my acquaintance, and learned that they loved gardens and wildlife, and their favorite radio program was “A Prairie Home Companion.” And also, that they planned to keep the house pretty much as it was, except of course for furnishings and the landscape. They knew about the river and loved it anyway, and were willing to accept whatever might happen with it. And I just know they are going to be great new neighbors.