Location, location

April 15,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

We moved into our current home and neighborhood just over a year ago. We truly love it here, and nothing brings this fact home to me more than when I walk the dog around the now familiar streets and down through the woods and back up again, past the houses lit up at dusk, cozy and warm and inviting.

Now that spring is here and the daylight goes on for much longer than it used to, I've been able to go back to longer, post-dinner walks with our dog. I stopped walking her at night all through the winter, because I just don't like walking around in the dark. It's not that I'm worried about anything in particular, but for me a walk should be something done when you can actually see things around you--marvel at the light on the leaves, or the daylight moon, or the way the evening clouds are tinged in pink. Walking in the dark seems purely functional--I love my dog, but I want to get something out of the walk as well. My post-dinner walk is my time, too--some of the few moments I have purely to myself to reflect on the many things bouncing around in my head. Every now and then T. or L. will clamor to come with me and I remain selfish: "No, no," I tell them. "This is MAMA'S walk." (walks with one or both of the kids is an entirely different type of experience.) All of us parents need just a few moments of me time; some chance to let the jumbled chaos of the day settle around, in this bit of peace we carve out for ourselves.

Last evening when I was walking our dog, Willa, I met some neighbors who live a few streets over (it's a large, old neighborhood) walking the opposite way. They had two small, odd-looking dogs that they had recently acquired after their youngest left for college. "We're empty nesters," the wife announced, somewhat proudly, somewhat regretfully. She laughed when she said it and I caught, oh so briefly, both some amusement at their situation and some bafflement, as if she were still getting used to describing the two of them as empty nesters. Their children, they told us, grew up here, only a few houses down from where we live. I introduced myself and we chatted a bit. I would have turned around because I had walked as far as I usually do, but because they were headed back down the street in the direction I had come from, I thought it would be awkward to walk with them, so I felt obligated to continue on further up the street (lucky Willa--usually her walk is not that long). They had pointed out three hawks to me before we parted--I couldn't see them but heard their screams, plaintive but also frantic, like they were working themselves into a final frenzied scream, which never came. As I headed up the hill, the road dipped away to the left and I saw them suddenly in the sky, circling above some broken trees. They had enormous wings and they would take turns landing on a branch and taking off again, all the while screaming; declaring themselves to the dusk around them.

There are quite a few empty nesters in this neighborhood of ours. I love stopping to chat with them. I hear, inevitably, stories of how they raised their own kids here. They look wistfully towards the woods where the pool is, or down a long street imagining again, I think, their kids tumbling down the path, or riding bikes in looping circles around the cul de sac. Last week, when I took the kids to the old tennis courts, we ran into a grandmother pushing her two-year-old granddaughter on the swing. She raised her own two kids in her house down the road. She worked as a young mom herself, and couldn't stay home with her own kids. It was hard, she told me, to have no family nearby to help, to do it all on her own.

"How wonderful that you can take care of your granddaughter!" I told her.

"This is my chance to do it all again," she told me. "My gift to my own daughter, because I remember just how hard it was."

I love to soak up these tidbits of wisdom--these stories and glimpses into the past. Sometimes I imagine myself 20 or 30 years into the future, walking the same streets, taking the path down to the pool. Maybe I'll be lucky enough to have a grandchild or two with me, maybe not. But it feels so good to live in a neighborhood where so many people have chosen to stay, to live way past the point where their kids were raised and then moved on. I can't imagine living in a neighborhood without a past; a place where the shadows and ghosts of years and years of children aren't whizzing past me on the street, or flitting through the woods to the pool; where the voices of their parents don't hang still in the air, calling them all back into dinner.