Thanks, neighbors, for simply being there

Alan Kesselheim

I took a long trip with my family this summer, six weeks away from home. Well before we left, during the school year, we found some ideal housesitters. A young couple my wife knew who needed a place during that same time and who were eager to trade some yardwork and house upkeep. One of those rare win-win situations, a relief to all.Only, when the time rolled around, things had changed. In the last week, while our trip preparations were reaching a frantic pitch, we made contact to firm up our details. Turned out that the couple had to hold on to their apartment and no longer needed our house. More than that, they had taken jobs that required them to commute from town. We were a little alarmed at the news, but despite the changed situation, the housesitters said they remained committed to taking care of things.”No, no,” they said, “we’re still on it. We’ll take care of the house.”By then it was too late to arrange anything else in any case, so we cleaned the place, left them a long note on the kitchen table and headed off.It didn’t quite work out the way everyone had hoped. Our sitters’ situation had changed so that it was untenable for them to live there, and the chores that seemed a great trade when we first talked were now an extra burden. The neighbors said they saw them once or twice during the first week or so, then never again.The strange thing, though, once we were back, was that things seemed taken care of despite the change in our arrangements. The mail the housesitters were supposed to have collected was sitting in the cardboard box marked MAIL. The newspaper we’d kept coming had been picked up. The gardens had been watered. Everything, in fact, looked pretty good, even though it was clear that nobody had used the house.The next morning I ran into the neighbor across the street. “Yeah,” he said, “we noticed that it didn’t seem like anyone was staying there, so we started going over to get the mail and the paper. We watered the front a couple of times, too. Not a big deal. Seemed like a few people were keeping an eye on things.”Later on a friend stopped by. She rode her bike past our house all summer on her way to work. “I noticed that the garden looked pretty dry. I didn’t want to impose or anything, but it didn’t seem like anyone was watering, so I started doing it a couple of times a week.”One of the women in the rental across the alley came over to welcome us home. “Your house was looking pretty empty,” she said, “so we parked one of our cars in the driveway at night, just to make it look lived in.”Every time we ran into someone we knew, it seemed like they had been keeping tabs on things, coming by and looking in. If something needed to be done, it got done. If a door had been left open, it got closed. When plants looked dry, they got watered.None of this had been set up. Sure, our friends all knew about our trip, but that was it. We might have mentioned the sitters to a few people, but nobody was supposed to check up. It just happened. Folks noticed things, took care of stuff. No one person took on the entire burden, but between the casual attention of our friends and neighbors, the essentials were tended to and our house escaped that abandoned look that creates a target for whatever bad might come along looking for opportunity.Now, as I was growing up, my family moved a lot. Consequently, for a good part of my life the concept of community was just that, a concept. Only as an adult, living in the same town for 23 years, has the idea of community assumed a kind of tangibility. A reality made up of knowing the clerks at the post office, chatting with local politicians on street corners, serving on boards, weaving together the history of a neighborhood – and becoming part of that history.But I’d never experienced firsthand a demonstration of what community can mean until I went away for the summer and things didn’t go according to plan. Maybe it’s time to have a little backyard appreciation party for our small and wonderful volunteer band of housesitters.Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives and writes in Bozeman, Mont.