I want to hold myself up as an object of ridicule and humiliation. I would also like to hold myself up as an object lesson.
We were having a heat-wave the summer John and James and I moved into our apartment. The next-door neighbours had—have—a swimming pool. I didn’t know them; I could only see them over the fence, splashing about in their oasis of turquoise bliss.
I’m big on sharing and hard on hoarding, and it seemed unconscionable to me, during one of Ottawa’s filthy heat waves, not to offer us escape from the swelter and humidity. I judged them harshly, those people I didn’t know, and wrote an article, Swimming pool communist, in which I painted them in shades contemptuous and damning. I accused them of being bourgeois, hermetic, smug, and insensitive to the reality of Vanier, which is mostly Franco slum.
Three years have passed, and for three years, that momentary eruption of heat-induced name-calling has been sticking in my craw. Communist is an article I should never have written, at least not with our neighbours as the springboard. I was so very wrong to judge them.
Their names are Carole (accent on the last syllable) and René. They’ve lived in the same lovingly-maintained house for thirty-five years with never a thought of flipping it for profit. They’ve weathered the changes inflicted on Vanier by the city of Ottawa, from working-class quarter to crackwhore ridden slum. Not just weathered, but adapted to with humour, grace, and understanding. René’s been in roofing and construction since forever. Carole embodies everything the archetypal version of a mother, now a grandmother, should be. Their marriage had some rocky patches, but they persevered, as couples used to do, and now they complete each other in a partnership to warm the heart.
I properly met Carole the first time at a yard sale. I’d been looking for a sink strainer, one of those slotted plastic inserts you tuck in a corner of the sink to collect vegetable peelings and whatnot, that have inexplicably vanished from the store shelves. Lo and behold, there on a table on their lawn was the very thing for which I'd been hunting. Carole and I exchanged a few words in French and English, which is pretty much the norm in linguistically schizophrenic Vanier, where anglophones are anglophone but francophones are fluently bilingual. The nature of the object I was buying prompted kitchen talk, whence Carole and I discovered a shared love of baking.
I don't recall who took that first plate of cookies or slice of pie next door, but soon enough, sharing and comparing what we whipped up in the oven turned us into real neighbours. Carole invited me to help make doughnuts for some little-league hockey blow-out; I showed her the secrets of perfect pie pastry. One thing led to another, and soon enough, Carole, René, and I were friends.
They are a couple who exemplify decency, generosity, and open-heartedness. They are as comfortable asking for neighbourly help—say, cat-sitting—as they are offering it: the propane barbeque I so love in the summer was a gift, someone's rusting piece of junk restored to working order by René. They fix, recycle, and re-use everything. What they no longer have use for, they offer first to neighbours before donating to the Sally Ann. Not for them the Brave New World mantra of consumerism, “Ending is better than mending.”
(You haven't read BNW? Go back to school! Oh, right. . . they don’t teach it in school anymore. How convenient for our corporate masters.)
There’s something wonderfully, almost magically, anachronistic about Carole and René. René goes bowling twice a week. Carole still hangs her laundry on the line, winter and summer. She kvetches about being a widow during hockey season. He rolls his eyes when she makes him come with her to Fabricville. He recycles old metal. She makes quilts—gorgeous quilts—for newborns at the Children’s Hospital and army veterans. They enrol their grandkids in soapbox derbies. Soapbox derbies! Who even knows what those are anymore? And they do everything together. Carole’s as handy with tools as René is with the washing.
Two years ago, René built a covered porch for Carole, a place for her to sip her tea, quilt, and watch the world go by. I’m often invited to sit with her. We’ve got a system going that beats telephones and texting. When she wants me to come over, she stands at her back door and rings a little crystal bell she picked up god-knows-where. The tinkling’s my signal that it’s time for tea and chatting. René, leery of the eccentricity at first, himself now rings from time to time—always way too long—and grins from ear to ear when, summoned, I appear.
So go on, laugh at me. Call me names. Accuse me of hypocrisy. I deserve it. I’m always holding forth about not judging people till you know them, yet three years ago I looked across a fence at people I had yet to meet and damned them publicly, or as publicly as blogs that no one reads allow. I could not have been more wrong, either in the making or the substance of my judgment.
When you look across a fence, be it real or virtual—a border or a shallow strip of muddy water or an economic difference—don’t judge the people on the other side until you get to know them.