Saying farewell to a neighborhood icon
Two diggers, a surveyor, and several vans come one morning. By mid-morning, the property has been marked in bright orange surveyor’s chalk. By mid-afternoon, the larger digger has shoveled out a ditch half a meter wide and a meter deep. A pile of dirt and rocks rises to the height of the neighbor’s evergreen hedge. Looking down, from my bedroom window, it is as if they are creating a maze, a series of tunnels that someone could hide in. Every time the digger backs up and swivels around to dump a heap of dirt into the pile, he backs so close to our evergreen hedge that I hold my breath.
If seven-year-old Sam were to fall into the ditch, he would have a hard time climbing out on his own. But, it is mid-June, only three weeks until summer vacation, and my children are at school, reviewing for end-of-the-year tests, taking field trips with their classes, and trying to cram last bits of Czech grammar into their heads before the summer holiday.
Radek and the neighbors are at work. Besides the diggers, I am the only one home to witness this transformation. Although I have chores to do – laundry from our weekend camping trip, a story to write, and English lessons to prepare – I decide to bake Sam’s birthday cake. As I beat the butter with sugar, add eggs, then flour, baking soda, and vanilla, I look out the large windows by our terrace. I see the new home owner-to-be chugging bottled water in the 28C heat. I try to remind myself that this excavation is a positive thing.
Ten years ago, our children claimed the empty lot before we did. You could say they took advantage of the “freedom to roam” act, an act which allows the public in some European countries, including the Czech Republic, to access public and private land for recreational purposes (as long as those purposes do not damage or destroy the land). When we first moved to our house in a village on the outskirts of Prague, I didn’t know such an act existed. Nor could I have ever imagined that the strip of land that separated our property from our nearest neighbors would become something special.
This rectangle of space, with its knee-high grasses, prickly rose hip bushes and wild cherry trees, was a place where my children (along with the neighbors’ children) ran free. When the kids wanted to build a bunker, they met in the empty lot. After they finished their homework, they gathered around a broken-down porch swing that someone once left in the lot. When the children shot nerf guns or played hide and seek in the thick brush, they didn’t wonder if they were trespassing. The land belonged to everyone. The land belonged to no one.
Over time, we adults joined our children in the empty lot. We celebrated birthday parties, roasted the first sausages of the season in the spring and the last marshmallows of the summer. We held April 30th čarodějnice (witch-burning) bonfires and Halloween parties. We cut a path across the empty lot to walk our dogs and to reach neighbors who lived behind us.
The lot acquired a permanent fire pit where we burned brush and old Christmas trees. Before a large gathering, we, who lived closest, would bring out a table and chairs, beer mugs and wine glasses, sometimes silverware and real plates. A neighbor at the end of the street who had a riding lawn mower would trim the grass in a semi-circle around the firepit. Another neighbor dumped compost and planted pumpkins.
In the beginning, when my children were smaller, I worried. Should I let them go on the empty lot? Why didn’t they want to play in the sandbox or climb on the tree house in our fenced in garden, where it would be easier to make sure they were safe? Radek laughed at my fears. Look at the other mothers, he advised. I argued. But, their children are older. Ours are so small. Why should I let them out on their own?
Still, in my heart, I knew Radek (and my neighbors) were right. Living in a country where our children could safely play together after school and roam the neighborhood without supervision was something I had dreamed of years ago when I was a new mother leaving my then infant daughter in all-day daycare in the suburbs of New Jersey.
So, I watched them from my kitchen, a pack of children aged 3 to 13 – hunting for snakes, gathering wildflowers, pretending they were explorers from lands far away. Sometimes, they argued. I heard raised voices, saw sides being taken. Sometimes, someone ran home to tattle. But, for the most part, they came only when they needed to drink, eat, or get a Band Aid.
Later, they would ride their bikes and electric 4-wheelers across the empty lot, learn how to feed wafers to the neighbor’s Česko-slovenské wolf dogs by putting their hands out, careful not to curl their fingers up so they wouldn’t get nipped. Later, they would use their pocket knives to slice open sausages for grilling.
Sitting on a folding chair, warming my hands in the bonfire’s heat, I learned things, too. I learned fifth grade was a good time to let my older two ride the city bus alone. Why I shouldn’t plant spring flowers until after the May 10th frost. I learned that soft cheese mixed with fresh garlic made a tasty dip. And, when (just a few weeks ago), it was time to allow 2nd grade Sam to travel through Prague guided by his siblings.
One summer, the empty lot would also teach our children (and us) about the consequences of independence. It was the morning after a ritual end-of-summer Sunday night bonfire. Two neighborhood children begged to be allowed to start their own fire. Although their parents didn’t say yes, the children got matches and started a small fire. When they were bored, they peed on the fire to put it out and went to play somewhere else. But, it was too hot, and the land was too dry.
Within minutes, the small fire spread across the empty property. The flames leapt to our evergreen hedge and set it on fire. The fire marched across our grass, engulfed our trampoline in flames, melted Sam’s plastic clubhouse to the ground, licked at the wooden eaves of our terrace.
By chance, a neighbor from behind us saw smoke. He called the fire department. He and his mother-in-law ran to our house, grabbed our hose, and tried to put the flames out. Another neighbor arrived and sprayed water on the cars that were parked on the empty lot. Someone called Radek at work. Five fire trucks came.
When I heard there was a fire, I was two hours from home. My children and I had arrived from the US the night before, and we had left the house left early that morning to drop Oliver at a Boy Scout camp near Orlík Dam. By the time I returned to our house, the last fire truck was pulling out. My yard was filled with neighbors standing and staring. Smoke and ashes were everywhere. Someone offered me a shot.
For some time, there were no more bonfires. That fall, together with our neighbors, we dug out the dead evergreen bushes. We replanted our hedge. The scorched grass grew back. Our children learned that matches weren’t to be played with. The neighbors’ children grew into teenagers, and they didn’t have free afternoons to run wild. (Although, they did make time to tutor Anna and Oliver in Czech when I asked.) Time eased the hurt.
The following spring, we gathered in the empty lot for a barbeque. (Hoses and fire extinguisher on hand, just in case.) Slowly, the empty lot tradition returned. Younger children from the streets behind us joined my three, who had now become leaders.
Then, we got word that the empty lot had been sold. We joked that when the owners came to see their land, we’d tell them they couldn’t build there; we had taken it over as a community. We signed papers approving their construction plans and road access. We had one last barbeque and invited the new owners. We waited.
While Samuel’s birthday cake rises in the oven, I mix butter, sugar, and milk for butter cream icing. After school, Anna arrives in a flurry. She is sweaty from climbing the hill from the bus stop. Before I can give her instructions, she dumps sprinkles on the iced cake, arranges chocolate letters to spell S-A-M-U-E-L, and sticks an “8” candle in the center.
While we wait for Radek to arrive with the boys to start Sam’s birthday celebration, we see that the new owners, a family with four children, have come to check on the day’s progress. Their youngest daughter is 13, just like Anna. The mother of the family and I are former teaching colleagues.
As we step onto their property to say hello, the mother greets me, “Welcome to our land,” she says.
It feels strange to be welcomed to a place that has been a part of my daily landscape for over a decade, but I say, “Thank you.”
We watch as Anna and her daughter leap over the ditches gouged into the earth, climb up the rock pile, and run away to pick the wild strawberries in our garden. We chat about the best techniques for composting (she is an expert – I have no clue).
Other neighbors gather. Radek and the boys arrive. Samuel’s celebration is postponed. The children take a basketball and dribble it past one another on the road. They take off their shoes and socks (except Oliver who leaves his socks on) and run across the empty lot, up and down the rock pile, and through a mound of sand that the builders have dumped. No one, not even Sam, wants the night to end.
Finally, I bring out towels, wash sandy feet in our outdoor hose, and convince the children it is time to go inside. We wave goodbye to our neighbors-to-be and promise to invite them to ours next time.
When we gather as a family of five around our dining table to sing Happy Birthday to Sam, I think about the blessings of the empty lot. And, I am reminded that sometimes endings are beginnings in disguise.