Life is so much better with good neighbours

  • November 8, 2011

Recently, our next-door-neighbour died.

Technically, he was no longer our next-door-neighbour because he had sold his house and moved into an apartment about a month earlier. But I will always remember him as our neighbour.

John Macaulay was 83 and a wonderful man who built his own business that supplied science kits to schools before retiring some time ago. His funeral was packed with people from so many different parts of his eclectic life. His two sons and grandson spoke well, along with a friend of some 70 years, who told a story about his last conversation with his friend. John called him just days before his death to alert him to a “great sale on underwear” at Sears.

It was a heart-warming story that brought much laughter; especially when he pulled out a package of new underwear he’d bought on his friend’s thoughtful recommendation.

This is not a column about John Macaulay, although I could fill this page with some colourful stories. It is about neighbours and as Jesus said: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

Too often we squabble and nit-pick with neighbours, or, I think almost as bad, choose not to get to know them and let them be part of our lives. Wouldn’t our communities and our world be better places if we made the effort to get to know our neighbours just a wee bit better?

After John’s funeral, my wife and I were remembering the various neighbours we’ve had over the past 22 years that we’ve owned three different homes.

Most have been absolutely wonderful people. (Okay, there was Krazy Ken who loved to call the fire department, animal services or any other government department if he thought the most miniscule and obscure bylaw was being infringed.) But most of our neighbours have been great.

Then it occurred to me: over all those years, we’ve only had one nearby neighbour over for dinner, Jack Haddon, a fascinating man who flew a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain. We’ve had plenty of friends in our current neighbourhood over for dinner, but they are friends first from hockey, golf, book clubs etc., not neighbours first. There is a difference.

In fact, at these dinner parties we often tell a story about lovely neighbours from my childhood. Dr. and Mrs. Maxwell lived directly across the street.

When we were getting married, my dad smartly asked us to invite several neighbours, including the Maxwells. But their health was not good, particularly his, so they declined. Mrs. Maxwell insisted on giving us a gift anyway. She phoned and asked me to come and fetch it.

When I got home, I unwrapped it and it was a Mr. Coffee coffee-maker. Or so I thought. I never opened the box.

Over the phone, I told my ever efficient wife-to-be about the gift and she immediately put a card in the mail to the Maxwells thanking them for the coffee maker.

A few days later, there was a knock on the front door. It was Mrs. Maxwell, who despite having mobility troubles made the trek across the street.

“Bob, let me ask you a question,” she said. “Are you a knucklehead?”

Taken aback, I stammered some nonsense and she said: “You didn’t even open that wedding gift, did you? Go get it.”

I handed her the Mr. Coffee box. She opened it. In it was a very old, hand-painted glass basket with a silver handle and lid.

“This is called a biscuit barrel. It was my grandmother’s and it was made in the 1880s. We wanted you to have it so that you might use it at dinner sometimes and maybe think of us,” she said.

It was touching that she wanted to be part of our lives even long after she was gone. That was a neighbourly thing to do. We still treasure that biscuit barrel.

Before John Macaulay moved to his apartment, he brought over several little things, including dainty porcelain dishes and some flowers. What a neighbourly thing to do.

It is too easy to be “a knucklehead” and not open our lives, just like the coffee maker box, to people living so close.

Now, the old proverb may be correct that good fences make good neighbours. But smiling and talking over the fence can only make our communities and our lives better.

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