I have no stories to tell of eccentric neighbors, no tales of odd people or strange happenings. But I have a story to tell. I have the story of the neighbors of my youth, the story of the people who defined the word neighbor to me.
I will never have neighbors like the neighbors I had growing up on Virginia Avenue, of this I am sure. It was a small, quiet street in the city of Lancaster only one block long surrounded by busy streets on all sides. Our house, where I lived until I was 12 years old, was a brick semi-detached house with a small sloping front yard situated in the middle of the block. Most of the other houses on the block were some variation of ours; some had front porches while others had sunrooms, a few had the added luxury of a small garage in the back. It was the type of neighborhood where the kids could safely play in the street and the adults could wander down the street, afternoon drink in hand, to gab with the people sitting on their porch.
The people were a mix of older retired couples, families with high school and college aged kids, and many young families. The couple who lived in the other half of our house were Mr. and Mrs. Stiely, an older retired couple. I remember very little about Mr. Stiely, he always seemed gruff and uninterested in the kids of the neighborhood, although he would chat with my dad from time to time. Mrs. Stiely was the opposite of her husband, very kind and friendly to my sister and me. She would often offer us lemonade or cookies. We would feed her fish when they went away. I was intrigued by their home, full of knick knacks, doilies and crocheted quilts. It was full of, well, stuff but it never seemed cluttered. Everything had a place. It always reminded me of a Grandma's house.
Our neighbors to the other side were the Atheys. They were a family with older kids, although I can only remember one by name. Eric Athey was probably about ten years older than me and played in a band which made him undeniably cool. What made him even cooler was that he tolerated all the younger kids in the neighborhood. He would sit out on their front porch playing his guitar and when we inevitably arrived to pester him he would play songs that we could sing along to, letting one of us strum the guitar with the pick while he held down the chords. His band would practice in their basement in the evenings. On warm summer nights my friends, my sister and I would gather around one of the open basement windows and listen to them play. They knew we were out there, sitting on the sidewalk between our two houses in the dark. Eric would make up song titles to the songs they were about to play and announce them, "this next song is the Krissy-Katie-Megan-Missy-Jackie song" and we would giggle with sheer joy that the older boys were paying attention to us.
Across the street from us were the Martinos. The Martinos had two kids that we played with, Missy was a year older than me and Scotty was a year younger. Their dad was a geeky city politician guy who thought it was funny when he referred to us girls as "boys" and the boys as "girls". Their mom, on the other hand, was what my dad would refer to as "a looker". She typically dressed to show off her figure and usually complemented her look with full make up and jewelry. I was always dumbfounded by the fact that Missy and Scotty were allowed to leave the dinner table after taking just two bites of their meal and rejoin the rest of the neighborhood kids playing outside only to go in later and eat dessert. My parents (whose philosophy on parenting was vastly different) disagreed with this behavior and a few others, like Scotty's incessant climbing on things he wasn't supposed to (like trees, cars, roofs) and Missy's tendency to wear whatever she felt like despite the outside temperature. Still, when my great-grandmother who lived with us fell and broke her hip, it was Mrs. Martino who scooped up me and my sister and took us across the street to their house while my parents called the ambulance. I remember she let us watch what was happening from the door.
Next door to the Martinos were the Randalls. The Randalls had a son about six or seven years older than me and a son who was a year younger. Being a family with only boys, my parents probably associated with them more than my sister and I did but, in a strange twist, six months after we moved away from Virginia Avenue the Randalls bought a house in our new neighborhood and moved in behind us. Since neither we nor the Randalls knew many people in the neighborhood our families became closer and we saw a lot more of them in later years than in our years on Virginia Avenue. They still live behind my parents today.
Like most of the streets in the city, we had an alley behind our house and considered the families "across the alley" our neighbors as well. This is where my best friend Megan's family, the Decks, lived. I remember my mom and Sue Deck spending summers sitting on the front porch or in the backyard of one of our homes, chatting and drinking iced tea. Our families had "game nights" together where we would play Trivial Pursuit and Scattegories. I considered their house a second home and they were, by far, our closest neighbors.
The family beside the Decks were the Retalicks. They had four girls, Lisa, Ginny, Diane and Kathleen who all used to babysit for us. Next to them were the Wilsons who I started babysitting for shortly before we moved. The Wilsons had a swingset in their backyard and anyone could come and play on it, even if they weren't home. Looking back, I realize now how many people we knew in our little neighborhood. Miss Dehaven across the street gave me and my sister piano lessons. She was the first adult woman I knew who had never been married. There was an older gay couple next to Miss Dehaven, although it wasn't until years later that I found out they were gay. It just never occurred to me as a child. The Weavers were a family younger than ours, two doors down. I used to spend hours at their home playing with their two little girls.
Every summer we would get permission from the city to close off the street and we would have a huge neighborhood block party. It was the highlight of the summer. We would wait eagerly all day for it to start and then at 3pm the city trucks would arrive with the barricades. Grills would be fired up, baby pools would be filled with ice for soda and beer. Coolers full of hamburgers and hotdogs sat beside picnic tables full of salads, veggie trays and potato chips. Everyone brought out their folding tables and lawn chairs and set up in the street. There was music playing. Neighbors from "across the alley" were included in the block party. The parents organized games and activities for the kids. My mom's face painting station was my favorite. As the evening wore on and more beer was drunk, the men would drag the coolers out into the street as makeshift "goals" and play kick-the-can. We never wanted it to end.
I hope that one day I will again have neighbors that I feel as close to as those first neighbors, but I doubt it. I knew them in a very specific point in time, a time that seems almost surreal. The people of Virginia Avenue are etched into my memory from a child's point of view. My memories are some of the most simplistic, most mundane moments, some that I couldn't put into words if I tried. I hope that my story has brought a hint of nostalgia to you, the reader. I hope that you've enjoyed my walk down memory lane, or as I call it, Virginia Avenue.