Dennis the Menace

We sit at the dining table, passing potatoes and vegetables, and my 10-year-old son suddenly announces that Bryan and Maya* are having a baby. …

We all stare at him across the table.

“Who’re Brian and Maya?” my husband finally asks into the silence.

“Our neighbors,” my son says, exasperated. “The ones at the end, facing that way.” He makes a fluttering motion with his hand. He looks from one of us to another, waiting for a light of recognition, but when we all continue to stare blankly, he shakes his head and goes back to his potatoes. …

My son has become like the cruise director of our neighborhood. He knows who lives in each house, how many kids they have, what their dogs’ names are, and even when and where they go on vacation. He knows what all the adults do for a living, when they’re home, what kind of car they drive, and, in some cases, what they have for dinner on any given night.

At first, when he was 7 or 8, I used to tease him that he was like Dennis the Menace. Back then, he was the only young child in our little courtyard, and he’d go from garage to garage and say hi to all the adults who seemed to know him. Our neighbor at the end – a 19-year-old kid who always drove his car too fast – would actually stop at Target on his way home and buy Nathan sidewalk chalk from time to time. Another neighbor at the other end would let Nathan sit in his garage and wear his motorcycle helmet while he was tooling with the machine. The young marrieds next door would invite him into their kitchen, where Cate would make guacamole for him and Justin would let him watch the work he was doing on an old BMW he was refurbishing on the weekends.

This summer, however, we have an explosion of new families and new children, and now the courtyard is filled with kids who are all in single digits, all riding bikes and scooters and squealing with water balloons and sidewalk chalk. Nathan is actually the oldest. Now he’s less like Dennis the Menace and more like the cruise director. If he’s inside, our doorbell rings every 15 minutes with another child asking if he’ll come play. Last weekend, one adult neighbor came over and brought our family a Tupperware container of salsa “that Nathan always likes,” and another came over late on Saturday to bring us an entire pan of barbecue ribs “because Nathan missed the neighborhood cookout.”

Chris and I have been woefully uninvolved neighbors for the last several years. We were really friendly and active in courtyard barbecues in the early days – when we first moved in 13 years ago, and every family on our street had a child under 5 – but since then, the old families have moved out, and we just haven’t had the energy to keep introducing ourselves to the new ones. I’m truly happy for the other young marrieds on our block when they become friends with each other – I think it’s important when you’re first starting out. But now we’re like the “old ones” at the end, and just keep to ourselves. (Our oldest child says, “We’ve become that family.”)

But Nathan changes that for all of us. He’s our good-will ambassador. Everyone knows him and, by association, they’re all really nice to us. We’re Nathan’s mom, Nathan’s dad, Nathan’s brother and Nathan’s sister. …

But the kid is always teaching me something new about myself. And now I’m learning that I’ve become pretty unfriendly over the years. I fall into the comfort of old friends, family, former coworkers, friends from high school – people I’ve known forever and who fill my life. But that familiar comfort also makes me closed off to new acquaintances more often than not, and I really should knock it off.

Maybe I’ll go introduce myself when I return the Tupperware container and rib pan. … Maybe we’ll even join the next courtyard barbecue. …

How about you? Are you less open to new friends as you get older? Or maybe more?

*All names changed to protect the don’t-want-to-be-Googled. …

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One thought on “Dennis the Menace

  1. I think that is so cool that Nathan is so “connected” to his neighborhood! He is the one that all the little kids are gonna remember when they get older and he has gone off to college and married – and the one that all the parents are gonna want their kids to be like! I love it =) As for you being the “old” couple that keeps to themselves…that’s ok. I think when we are younger we are looking for people to share advise or maybe someone to make play dates with, etc. I know the older I get, the less I go out. I find myself just comfortable being home. Of course, working a lot doesn’t help either! At least the neighbors all know you aren’t the creepy people to not get halloween candy from…you are all good by association, right!!

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