The Art of Being Neighborly

farwell baby shower (1 of 51) Since moving to Madison six years ago, we've basically had the world's best neighbors. First, there was the young woman and her three-year-old son who lived above us in a two-flat on Jenifer Street. We'd swap dog-sitting and baby-sitting, borrow cups of flour and cereal milk, and share weekly beers on the front porch. We watched her son grow from toddler to kindergartner, and today he's pretty much the coolest 8-year-old I know.

Then there was the 10-unit condominium complex a couple of blocks away, a mix of owners and renters, where a typical Sunday morning might find half the units making pancakes together and watching Meet the Press. We turned the strip of grass between the street and sidewalk into a community garden; after dark, someone would light the fire pit as folks gathered around; and when dogs and babies entered the mix, the building adapted, our close proximity breeding a a special commitment to being neighborly.

When we moved to our little house a few miles away, we mourned the loss of the neighbors we'd left behind. No one else, we figured, could be that wonderful. And yet, here we find ourselves next door to a cool couple with an awesome dog and a huge garden, neighbors who leave home-brewed beer and homemade bread tucked inside our screen door, who stop by with bags of just-cut garden greens when they know we're having company. I am not a patient or prolific cook (and our garden this year is pitiful), so I've wondered how to return their wonderful favors.


Last weekend, another neighbor (a talented nature photographer and animal-lover, who gives us veterinary advice for our accident-prone dog) noticed that the cherry tree in our front yard had almost reached its peak. To my native Southern mind, fresh fruit is best eaten in the form of cobbler. So I grabbed a big bowl and started picking.

Afterward, I used this ridiculously easy fruit crumble recipe from The Kitchn -- not a true Southern cobbler but close enough to satisfy, and so, so simple. Six cups of pitted cherries was enough to make three small batches of tart cherry crumble -- one for the gardening-baking-brewing folks, one for the photographer, and one for us (of course!).

The next morning, I made the rounds. The photographer came to the door, and when I handed her the pan, she grinned. Turns out, it was her birthday. We stood on her front stoop and talked awhile, about the drought last year that withered all our raspberries, about the grape vines in her backyard, about how lucky we feel to live in a place where there is food growing outside our doors. It was one of the longest conversations she and I have had.

It should go without saying, but it feels really good to do something nice for someone else, for no real reason other than you wanted to. There is an art to being neighborly, and sometimes I worry that I've lost some of my neighborly know-how, now that I don't share walls or ceilings with other people. But just because my home and its nearest kin are separated by several feet of lawn and driveway doesn't mean I'm in any less need of the borrowing and swapping and sharing and tending that come when you actively share space with other people.

We've lived on this block for two years, and we still haven't met everyone who lives here. Luckily, there are more cherries on that tree -- which means plenty of chances to introduce ourselves, one cherry crumble at a time...