Memoir Relationships

When "Neighborly" Doesn't Work

photo by annethelibrarian @

A while ago I chatted with Peter Lovenheim, author of the non-fictional narrative In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community On an American Street One Sleepover at a Time, He sipped coffee, and I ate a cupcake. We talked a bit about neighborhoods and neighbors. I even blogged about it.

Given my solid track record in easily making new friends wherever I have lived, it never occurred to me that I might make enemies. After our family moved into a new neighborhood, one neighbor came on particularly strong. She seemed fabulous. She brought me flowers for no reason at all, bought my son special books and funny little toys. She invited me over for tea at her house; I reciprocated with coffee and dessert.

Looking back at it now, I should have seen it coming. She was like that guy you date three times and then he professes his undying love for you. It feels a little premature, but you go with it because it feels good. Passionate. But then one day — out of the blue — he goes all ape-shit on you and breaks up.

In our case, after many months of relaxed interactions, we received one venomous phone call during which my neighbor accused me of doing something (which, for the record, I didn’t do).  It’s all a misunderstanding, I assured my husband. We can totally work this out. That night I planned to clarify, to let her know there was no “situation,” that I had done nothing. I wanted to prove I was innocent. She wouldn’t even come to the door. Finally, her husband came to the driveway and assumed the international sign of a really pissed off person: arms crossed in front of his chest, legs set wide apart, a scowl on his face.

Proverbs 27:17 warns: “Visit your neighbor sparingly / Lest he have his surfeit of you and loathe you.”

I guess I should have paid better attention to Proverbs.

Suddenly, the easy-flowing conversations ended. No more chats about favorite hairstylists, discussions about favorite painters, plumbers or handymen. No more cheery hellos. For a while, I fretted daily at the injustice of it all. I couldn’t believe that Mr. and Mrs. Formerly Such Nice Neighbors could be so rigid and judgmental, even after I’d assured them I hadn’t done the thing they’d accused me of doing.  I couldn’t believe they would bear false witness against their neighbor.

As time has passed, however, my husband and I have found that silence makes a lovely neighbor. Hubby refuses to let Mr. and Mrs. Formerly Such Nice Neighbors change the way he does anything. Hubby still mows the lawn on his big ole riding mower. He plants day lilies and futzes around with the landscaping, constantly relocating perfectly good elephant hostas from one place to another. Sometimes, he still even says hello. Call me petty, but I am not interested in forging any kind of anything with these people.

As I see it, they owe me an apology.

I did learn something from The Formerly Such Nice Neighbors. I learned that while I am likable — and I am — not everyone has to like me. And believe me, there are plenty of people out there who don’t like me, of this I am sure. That being said, the world keeps spinning and the grass keeps growing. I also learned not everyone wants to be neighborly. It’s okay.

As time has passed, I’ve had a chance to focus on my true friends: who they are and the qualities they possess that I appreciate. My closest friends are steadfast, kind, communicative, funny, creative, giving and forgiving. Each of them offers me something to learn – about myself and my place in the world.

With friends like those, who has time to worry about angry folks?

Got any good/funny/awful neighbor stories to share?

25 thoughts on “When "Neighborly" Doesn't Work

  1. Having recently moved to a new neighborhood we consider ourselves quite lucky to have (so far) made no enemies. My attitude after years living within 20 FEET of my neighbors is that a football field is a better distance. Roads and fences are WONDERFUL.

    One neighbor would very much like to be good friends but also seems to think that 2 hour conversations about the history of the horrible neighbors is ok. I can’t go there. Hakuna Matata, let bygones be bygones… you know. I don’t hold a grudge for long unless you mess with my kids. Forgiveness is rare in those instances.

    Of course less than a year ago my arms length attitude really didn’t work because our son, daughter in law and 3 grandsons lived across the street. That was complicated but they never complained about my loud music and certain members of that family would walk in, grab an Icee from the freezer and find me for scissors to open it and a hug. So not a problem. Grandma could be counted on for scissors and hugs.

    Am I going to “friend” the new nutty neighbor? No, way in hell. Will I be a good, perhaps even great neighbor? You betcha, keep up the property, help out in emergencies, be alert and keep neighbors informed keeping it brief and somewhat impersonal. I care about my new neighborhood, but I have plenty of good friends and family keeping me busy.

    1. I’ll bet you are a great neighbor, and having family across the street is different than just “neighbors.” They’re “neighbors with privileges” 😉

      Love that your grandkids could come over for scissors and smooches.

  2. In South Florida, avocado and mango trees abound. Problem is that they can grow far higher than Jack’s beanstalk and are “dirty” in the sense that they shade their surrounding territory so grass cannot grow and the supply of fallen leaves is endless. Now avocados stay on the tree (unless the squirrels get to them) and can be harvested at will but mangoes come all at once. A tree may produce hundreds and they fall to the ground like an endless hale. Then comes the infestation of little flies. We freeze several pounds(great with vanilla ice cream)but to dispose of barrels of the fruit is a nightmare (they ferment and the butterflies get drunk).Ergo: “The best place for a mango tree or avocado tree is in your neighbor’s back yard” Also advantageous if they have boat and trailers back there too.

  3. In our old neighborhood, we were a chatty bunch – neighbors were primarily retired people, and they were surrogate grandparents to my kids. I was at home, at the time, so we called/stopped in to check up on each other regularly. Another elderly couple moved into a home that had been vacant for about a year. All of us attempted to be friendly. Stop to say hello if we saw them in the yard, etc. When I baked, I took goodies to the neighbors. I took a plate over to the new couple. The man was in the driveway, he was in profile and easily could have “seen me coming” (there are many meanings to that phrase, after reading your blog!). He casually turned away. I called out a “hello.” The man started walking and kept walking faster as I walked up the driveway, saying “Hello, Mr. Smith?” in hopes of getting him to turn around so I could offer a plate of fresh-baked, warm goodies. I was within one foot of him and he kept walking, entered the garage, and closed the door!!!!

    Well, I could take a hint – though wouldn’t it have been more polite to say Sorry, I’m allergic/diabetic/dieting/not interested/ and get the hell off my driveway?

  4. Ah, such memories! Our first neighbor problem was with a lovely young, newly married couple. Both of us were in our starter homes in a neighborhood of miniature versions of “nice” houses. They were beautiful, but small (and had single driveways). Directly across from our house was the inlet to an apartment complex. We used to keep one car parked on the street so we always had easy access to either car, but after several bouts with our (parked) car being rear ended by drivers taking the turn a bit wide, we realized directly in front of our house wasn’t working! So, we began parking (on the street) to the left of our driveway, which was partway between our house and theirs. We blissfully parked there for weeks, until one morning, we came out find a scathing note under the windshield wipers, informing us (in terse and unpleasant terms) that we were no longer to park our car in front of their home! After that, they stopped talking to us, were cold and unfriendly.

    I suppose I should point out it was a minivan. Maybe they don’t like family vehicles. But it was new, not unpleasant looking. Maybe they wanted the space for a party. Maybe they just didn’t like our 3 small kids, and were taking it out this way? Maybe we just weren’t cool enough for them anymore?

    I spent a great deal of time “what if-ing” before realizing that it was “them”, not us. Perhaps there really was something more, and this was just the end of their rope. We’ll never know. But they chose to deal with it in their own way, severing a relationship.

    I cried over it, many times, but looking back, it wasn’t worth crying over. We parked our car on the street. But we were kind, caring, considerate neighbors.

    And in they end, they lost far more than we did!

    1. It usually comes down to some strange peeve that the annoyed one simply cannot articulate.

      Like you, I cried for a while; it was just so uncomfortable. I’ve learned trees can make good neighbors. I’ve also learned what goes around comes around. So it’s comin’ around. 😉

  5. When I was growing up, we had next door neighbors that were, well, different. They were a couple without children, but had a Bedlington Terrier, Chauncy, that was rumored to have his own room with a TV. Every day, they would walk Chauncy to the nearby golf course and collect balls. We think they sold them, but to who, we never knew. They didn’t talk to us much and kept their house dark on Halloween. They were very cold people. They had German accents and as a kid, I thought they may have been Nazis (oh what an imagination a child can have!). BUT, when we had my sister’s Bat Mitzvah at our home with the party spilling into the back yard, they thought that was the perfect day to hang all of their underwear on the line. What a lovely backdrop for a Bat Mitzvah celebration!

    Who knows what their true story was? Maybe they tried for years and weren’t able to have children. Maybe they didn’t like us because we were a loud household with four children. All I know is that as a kid, they scared me and now as an adult, I’m darn curious to know their true story.

  6. The too-friendly neighbor is like the person at work who is always offering you food or candy: there’s a hidden agenda.

    We live on seven acres, so we have some space, but there are still neighbors. The couple across the lane from us are awesome. Love our kids, don’t mind if our crew comes over to ride bikes, pet their horses, walk across their newly-poured, stamped-concrete patio (really). And their dog comes to our house each day after they leave for work and hangs out with the kids which means we get a loaner pet. Great neighbors.

    The people next to us? Not so much. But we don’t have to actually see them often, and I don’t even acknowledge their existence when we do see them.

    Your usual terrific writing, Renee.

    1. Should that be “couple is awesome”? And should that question mark I just typed go inside those quotation marks? Don’t want you opening a can of grammatical whoop-ass on me.

  7. Do you remember my play house story about the neighbor whose last name is a perfect adjective to describe himself? As for the later portion of the blog.. There is a saying “If everyone likes you, you haven’t said enough.” Forge on!

  8. I have usually managed to get along with my neighbours. However, there was a woman who I was quite friendly with when my oldest daughter was about 6 (they lived two doors over). Her daughter was 7, and one day the child came to my house and asked if she could stay because her “parents weren’t home.” I, of course, allowed the kid to hang out at our house. Later, I found out that the mother had indeed been there the whole time…I was concerned, because that kid had lied to get something she wanted (which is a lot more serious to me than the “I didn’t break the lamp” variety of lying). I sat down and had a frank discussion with the woman who I thought was my friend. I explained my worry that if her daughter was manipulating people by lying at age 7, what might she be like later on? The mother took it badly, and didn’t speak to me again for about fifteen years…I suddenly got a friend request from her on Facebook (which I accepted).

    Even today, I don’t think I would have handled the situation any differently…Miss Manipulator ended up doing a lot of drinking and drugs in high school, although I believe she’s calmed down since becoming a mother herself last year.


  9. I’ve got the best neighbors on one side of me, and terrible on the other. My next door neighbors are fantastic. They are always up for a chat about life, yet totally unobtrusive and give us our privacy. My kids go running through their property, and they don’t care. My dogs chase their cats, they’re good natured about it.

    The neighbors down the street, are horrors. Actually, the parents aren’t that bad. The kids have terrorized our neighborhood for years. We’ve had everything from paintballs shot at our houses (that still won’t wash off the window 3 years later), to ATV’s flying up and down our street. The latest has been the youngest, who just turned 18, has got himself an SUV. Or as I like to call it, a speaker on wheels. When he plays his “music” in this thing, my house shakes. There has been times I’ve been afraid that my wine rack is going to fall off the wall! Yelling at him does nothing (I don’t think he could hear anyway). Calling the police (which I’ve done about 8 times in the last 6 months) gets him to turn it down until the cops leave, then he’s back at it louder than ever. I guess the worst part is the parents are either afraid of their kids, or they want to be the cool parents and let their kids do anything. It’s enough to drive me to drink.

  10. I’ve lived most my life on military bases. Military families are wonderful and take the idea of community seriously! When I found myself alone with two young kids and a driveway needing clearing (husband deployed to far away places), a neighbor would appear outside, shovel in hand. When I was sick, the lady across the street made dinner for my family. Summer walks around the blocks typically resulted in invitations to grab a burger off the grill. However, sometimes all this neighborly love was annoying. (Feeling a bit guilty about that comment.) Everyone knew everything about everybody. I was ready to move into a civilian (normal) neighborhood. And it was nice having more privacy until an ice storm hit that knocked out our power for two weeks – not the entire neighborhood’s, just three houses. No one came to offer help, bring blankets, offer the use of their washer or dryer, bring over dinner, or even see how we were doing. Eye-opening moment. I have nice neighbors but I miss would-do-anything-for-you neighbors!

    Thanks for yet another great post,

    1. I have heard there is nothing quite as excellent as military families. But it kind of makes sense: those are communities created with something in common. Usually, people who find themselves as neighbors have little in-common, except maybe socio-economic bracket – and even then that might not be the case! It helps, I think, to have that commonality to draw people together.

  11. Darn it all! Snow is so beautiful, but it can be a problem especially when snow is put on your property (or, apparently if you put it on someone else’s)! Yup! Neighbors can be wonderful and weird.

  12. The other day my son got off the bus, only to have our neighbors’ son right behind. He said nobody was answering the door at home, and he forgot his key. This was the day I had it all planned out for my son to do his homework and then study for a science test, as he had to be somewhere later that day. I gave my son and the neighbor a snack, then spent fifteen minutes parenting this child as he told me how he got shoved into a locker very hard that day, and the bully who did this ended up with a 3-day suspension. Eventually, I explained homework would start soon. When this moment occurred, I told the 8th grade neighbor sitting at our table to get out his homework.
    “I do not have homework” he replied.
    “Then get out material to study for a test.”
    “I do not have any tests coming up,” he replied.
    I was thinking to myself, he must know I want quiet time for homework, find something to do, you are in 8th grade!. So I said “We are doing homework; find something to do”. He actually looked confused. Thirty minutes later his brother and mother appear home and called us. Off went the 8th grader.

    In 8th grade can’t the parents hide the key somewhere? The child does this at least twice a month. The next day as my son went over to play next door, he put a plug in for us and asked the child’s mother if we could help out by holding a key to their house in preparation for the next time their child forgets their key! The mom said she would think about it. Any suggestions for next time?

    1. I am wondering what you get out of this relationship? Because, it is wonderful to be neighborly, but there is the point where you can start to feel like you are getting used. I wouldn’t want to be the key-keeper for this kid. If you value the friendship with the parents, maybe you could suggest that the family try hiding a key and then have their child call them (at work or on a cell) to indicate that he has gotten in safely. You might even let them know you are willing to be an emergency back-up cll in case he can’t reach them … but that you are trying to spend quality time with your family immediately after school to set good homework procedures for our son and having their Crazy Dependent Eighth Grader (I mean, beloved son) just isn’t working out. 😉

      If you aren’t great friends, I’d just say the arrangement isn’t working out and Eighth Grader can’t come over during homework time which occurs between the hours of x and y. If Boy knocks on the door, you just don’t answer. He is not your responsibility. Will they be mad at you – probably, but maybe if you aren’t so accommodating, it will force them to teach Boy of the Streets to use a key.

      I think you need to start to set firmer boundaries with this family. It seems hard, but once you start saying ‘no,’ it gets easier. Try it, you’ll like it.

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