The longest my family ever lived in one place was when I was aged four to eleven. We lived in a house, built by my father, with a fortress of cedars on either side of the backyard to “keep out nosy neighbours”. Behind was a farmer’s field and beyond a wooded area. My father had secrets to keep and this house was the intended breeding ground.
Except it didn’t work. A newly immigrated British family moved in next door, and determined to make friends, the young mother, heavy with child, and another on her hip, pushed through the barricade of branches and shouted a cheery ‘hello’.
A relationship formed.
Mrs. was an absolute doll of a woman, with stylish blonde hair, a ruddy English complexion, and standing no more than five feet tall. Her daughters (eventually there were three) were equally as precious with their white blonde mops and delightful accents. Mr. was a Clint Eastwood look-alike and very handsome by my standards. Whatever Mrs. wanted, Mrs. got and the girls seemed equally indulged. Her self-confidence and assertiveness was admirable to a young girl like me, whose own mother lacked such qualities.
From my side of the fence, they were the perfect family. My younger sister must have felt the same way, as she spent all of her waking hours over there.
Growing up in a household where secrets and drama prevailed, we coped by projecting onto others. My mother liked to emphasize that behind closed doors every family had secrets, and that we didn’t have it that bad.
About the neighbour lady who worked outside the home as a teacher, Mom would say that her house was a mess, as if that was a mortal sin.
Another neighbour whose house was fenced like a compound and guarded by big dogs was assumed to be an ex-con and dangerous.
The old man who lived alone at the end of the street and shot at kids crossing his property was mean and ornery. (I didn’t need Mom to tell me that.)
The girl across the street, who never came out of her house, had cancer (a very scary word at the time) and her family was embarrassed, so we were never to mention it.
In other words, we had many Boo Radleys around us.
No one ever said anything derogatory about the family on the other side of the fence. They were perfect. They were to be emulated…lusted after, even…and so, my mother and I never divulged the fact that every afternoon, when Mrs. put the little ones down for a nap, she would lock the doors and drive away to do her daily shopping leaving the children unattended.
As soon as she was out of sight, I would sneak over, using the spare key she’d left for us, and sit in the house to watch over the children until she returned. When she came home, I’d use the excuse that I heard one at the door, and the subject was never discussed further.
Only recently, while planning my mother’s birthday party, did I think about Mr and Mrs Perfect from next door and realize that even they were just a projection of an ideal from a young girl who longed for a loving, normal family, and for whom the grass was definitely greener on the other side.
Mom may have been right about the fact that all households have their own skeletons to deal with, but what she neglected to acknowledge is that all households also have an obligation to face up to those demons – ours included. Other peoples sins do not excuse personal wrongs.