Whispers from our neighbors' garden used to climb into our yard along with their ivy.
My mother, putting her fingers to her lips in the universal signal for silence, would cuddle with me as we sat perfectly still and listened to the neighbor lady gossip with her sister, who lived a few blocks away, or with one of her friends who'd show up for cake and coffee.
My mother would've been happy for an invitation into those conversations. She would have liked to consider the older woman a friend and confidant. But our neighbor didn't find us to her taste: She considered my mother, who was shy, circumspect and nervous about her accent, unfriendly. We found out that much by listening in.
From experiences like that one, I learned from an early age to be wary of neighbors - and, like my mom, to yearn for welcoming ones.
Because the relationship relies on a complex mix of fate and free will, your neighbors can fall somewhere between family and friends: You didn't quite personally choose to have a bond with them - but you do. Sharing space - whether it's a particleboard wall so thin you can hear when your neighbor coughs, a backyard fence over which shared honeysuckle grows or the river defining your thousand acres from your neighbor's contiguous property - is a bond just as sharing a parent is a bond.
You might decide to ignore it, but it's still there.
After all, something brought you together. Whether choosing to settle in briefly or settle down long term, it is based on factors such as availability, cost, convenience, amenities and whether Wi-Fi is included.
I once lived next to loathsome people. I didn't know if they were running a circus, a brothel, a rodeo or all three out of their one-bedroom apartment, but they were doing something repugnant, which, from the sound of it, might well have been slanted toward the diabolical. What was worse, they did it loud and all the time.
Whatever you think I'm complaining about, it wasn't that. It wasn't just loud and odd sex or seriously weird visitors or screeching guitars in the middle of the night. Those activities they saved for major religious holidays. Whatever they did the rest of the time involved breaking glass, the smell of flame-retardant materials coming dangerously close to their ignition points and expletive-heavy yelling between adults.
Naturally the cops came all the time because the whole building reported these incidents. I wasn't their only neighbor. There were folks on either side and across the hall, as well as below and above.
The off-site landlords didn't spend too much time handling complaints from low-paying tenants. The police did all they could, but apart from checking on safety and issuing warnings, there wasn't much the officers could do. They were handling bigger issues.
As the months went by, the bad neighbors were having a curious effect: They were bringing the good neighbors together. It wasn't healthy, because we were all moaning and griping and gnashing our teeth, but we were doing it collectively over cheap wine and snacks at various people's tiny apartments, ones we'd have otherwise never seen. I felt guilty, as did others, because the glass-shattering tenants must have had problems, but a newfound sense of camaraderie, as well as plain old fear, eclipsed my good Samaritan impulses.
Then, one day, the bad neighbors moved out with more noise, yelling and people who helped them drag boxes crammed with stuff down the long hallway. They left the door open and the place empty. It smelled like a subway platform on a summer Saturday night.
It rented within two days. The new neighbor was a graduate student who would have made a monk seem wild. The rest of us went back to saying "hi" at the mailboxes but stopped the informal gatherings. It was as if the drama had ended and we'd filed out of the theater.
I didn't miss the bad neighbors, but I missed being a good one.
My neighbors now? They are perfect. They're considerate, warm, engaging and trustworthy. We look after each other. There's good talk, no yelling, much laughter and, as far as I know, no whispering. My mom would have loved it here.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.