In the neighbourhood
Photo: Susannah Walker and the birthday girl.
On change, constancy and community.
It’s late Sunday afternoon when we trickle into the back yard. Neighbours, friends and family bearing sandwiches, morsels on toothpicks, strawberries, a chocolate birthday cake.
It’s November, the tail end of a weekend, and with it comes the first taste of a shiny new summer.
You know that feeling. The sudden certainty of sunny days to come, of evenings stretching on outdoors. Anticipation shimmers in the air, and this afternoon we bask in the hazy, lazy warmth of possibility.
We gather in the garden and perch amid thrusting poppies, lilies striped with crimson and white, frothy yellow roses. Sweet peas have taken possession of the whiskery old fence.
From a garden chair, a weather-worn throne, the birthday “girl” presides. She wears a creamy dress with a matching jacket, an outfit she crocheted herself 45 years ago.
Today she turns 92, and is somehow lit from within.
Neighbours, friends and family. A daughter, two sons, a sister, a favourite niece. Once again we come together in this back yard. Over the years, it has become a tradition.
Back when the birthday girl was a newlywed, and moved into this house from a rented one around the corner, this leafy neighbourhood was as rough as guts.
In the 60-plus years since, the house has become a time capsule, gently fading as the neighbourhood shifts and swirls around it. The newlyweds grew old here, but mercifully not grumpy. They continued to hold court and laugh in the face of pretty much everything up until a few months ago, when the birthday girl’s husband died at home.
The neighbours have set up a phone tree, leave home-cooked meals, hold gardening bees. She has learned to accept their help.
Down through the decades, the suburb’s long-termers have been joined by bungalow doer-uppers and media personalities and architects and TV actors. But no one is famous when they’re in this back yard.
The birthday party is predictable in a good way, relaxed and easy. The artist who always speaks on behalf of the neighbours steps forward and speaks on behalf of the neighbours.
Several people sing, and we laugh, and there are a few quiet tears. The birthday girl feels her husband’s absence, and so do we.
We remember, but more than anything we celebrate, safe in the shade of the biggest feijoa tree you’ll ever see. It was already fully grown when the newlyweds bought this place, and for years the proceeds of its steady fruity downpour paid their rates.
These days, feijoas still rain down but there’s not a hope in hell of them covering the rates. Instead, the locals come and fill bags for free. A neighbour who loathes the things gathers up all the ones that fall on her side of the fence, and with them sustains friendships, colleagues and family.
If you were here in this back yard, you might look around and see the goodness and think, this is what neighbourliness looks like. The privilege of belonging.
“This is wonderful,” says my aunt, the birthday girl, as she surveys her back yard kingdom.
And it is. It really is.
This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Metro.