Dispatch from the Post-Election Suburbs

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we headed toward the 2020 general election, COVID-19 numbers rising, two Trump signs appeared on our neighbors’ property: one in the window next door and one in the yard of the house next to them. The yard sign two houses over stayed, alone and untouched, till after the election. Next door, though, an insistent blue POLICE LIVES MATTER placard was added in an upstairs window, and then the bright red sign of a local candidate in the yard. Then, in the windows, another Trump sign, then a “Women for Trump” sign, then another sign with Trump’s portrait on it. Later, a small “Back the Blue” placard was placed in the yard, this one tucked up close to the house; if not for all the other signs, I might never have noticed it at all. Every day, it seemed, a new sign was added to those windows. It was strange and sad to see them proliferate from inside the house as the virus continued to rage outside, fueled in no small part by one defiant Trump rally after another across the Midwest where, as reported on the news every night, people shouted into cameras that COVID didn’t exist at all.

We never saw the neighbors at all once the signs started to multiply; we hadn’t seen them in weeks. Granted, we live in a suburban neighborhood where people pull their SUV’s into their attached, two-car garages and enter their homes from there. Nearly every yard is fenced for the family dog or lined by tall hedges designed for privacy. Unless someone is mowing or still has kids young enough to play together (ours are grown), suburban neighbors just don’t see each other much. It’s not like the small-town neighborhood I grew up in, where everyone knew everyone, where so many families lived in their homes for generations. There’s been a lot of turnover on our court in just the last few years, houses sold due to divorce, or aged parents no longer needing the space, or for reasons we’re not aware of, moving trucks suddenly in the driveways, loading, with another truck in the same driveway a few days later, unloading.

The neighbors next door, the ones with the proliferating signs, are still relatively new and pleasant enough, the kind you nod and wave to, chitchat with from the driveway. We typically only see the husband, who dutifully mows the lawn, brings our trash cans up from the curb if we forget, always seems vaguely anxious or lonely, wanting to talk. I try to avoid him. His eyes always search mine as if looking for agreement to whatever he says. His questions border on intrusive, though with nothing pointed enough to call him out on. Maybe it’s the senior version of what my kids call “socially awkward,” but from the start I thought he was sussing us out, “pumping for information” by mother called it when we were kids, warning us against folks who might take advantage that way. “Mind your business,” she’d tell us.

He’d complained in our first conversation that they’d moved here from Clintonville, a neighborhood near the university where “people are always in your business.” I laughed and told him we’d actually hoped to move there at some point. Quite a few of our retired professor and artist friends live there, and many of the open-mic poetry shows I attend run down High Street, through that neighborhood and across campus, into downtown Columbus. “Ohh,” he said throwing his head back and making a sound that was more like “Ooo — rgh.” The kind of sound you make when you roll your eyes in frustration or disgust, but he did not roll his eyes, and he didn’t stop smiling. He just kept that steady gaze.

That was the last time I saw either of the neighbors, or the friend, and just after that, the signs started dotting the windows like a strange political pox.

I’ve never been sure if their bringing the trashcans in was a friendly gesture or a scolding one, but when COVID hit and we were all freaked out about touching surfaces of any kind, it made me crazy to see he’d brought the cans up to our house again. I used a Lysol-soaked rag on the handle as I dragged them the rest of the way back behind the house, washed my hands thoroughly, and quickly became attentive to bringing them up from the curb myself as soon as they were emptied.

One day earlier this summer, on the way to the mailbox, we heard the wife chatting with a friend now in the habit of dropping by where the two women talk loudly, unmasked and a few feet apart, outside her parked car. The friend was excited about the new handgun she’d just bought, and our neighbor was congratulating her happily. One day in early October, soon after early voting started in Ohio, the friend was complaining about somewhere she had to go. I was anxious to get my mail and get back inside my house; I didn’t like the vibes. I imagined she was talking about voting but didn’t actually hear that. I didn’t want to hear any more detail of any kind. The only thing I heard clearly as I hurried back to my own front door was the neighbor saying, “Well, don’t shoot anyone when you get there.”

That was the last time I saw either of the neighbors, or the friend, and just after that, the signs started dotting the windows like a strange political pox.

It was strange to see the Trump signs proliferate at the same time we stopped seeing any actual sign of human life. I began to wonder about their teenage daughter, a beautiful, friendly girl who’d just graduated high school. Back in May, a huge green and white graduation banner — school colors — had been placed over their garage. Friends and classmates drove past, offering cheers and congratulations, and we called our own hearty congrats over to them as we trekked down for the mail. They seemed surprised and so very pleased. It had only been a few years since our own kids graduated from the same school. Their daughter was always pleasant and polite, with a friendly, easy smile. We were happy they’d found a way to celebrate the occasion, and only slightly concerned later when a large party tent went up in the back yard. The weather was warm and people were beginning to congregate outside in all kinds of ways, making decisions about family gatherings and friendly pods. There were bright balloons and a few white plastic tables. We never heard much noise and never saw who might have come by. We tried not to think about it at all. Except for checking the mailbox and our daily evening walks, we never leave our house at all, and no one comes by.

On the day it was announced that Trump had contracted COVID, every Trump sign disappeared from those windows. Every single one, gone. Only the local candidate sign in the yard remained, and the two police placards.

When Trump went back to the White House, gasping and defiant as he stood at the balcony and glared into the cameras, one of the signs went back up. In the days that followed, as Trump kept himself in the news claiming full recovery, claiming COVID wasn’t so bad after all, the signs returned, one by one, until they filled the windows once more.

Not long after the election, on a rare outing for curbside pickup of something that couldn’t be delivered, I pulled up to our driveway noting that both neighbors — the man next door and the man next to him — were walking down to their mailboxes at the same time. Both looked tired and dejected, walking with stooped shoulders and unsmiling faces. I stepped out of my car just as our neighbor nodded to his and said, “Hey, what do you know?” The other man shrugged. “Not much,” he said. “And even that’s probably lies.”

* * *

We were overdue for a lot of work in our yard this summer when we called an arborist about a tree we thought might be dead and three or four arbor vitae that had turned brown in the long row of hedges that separate our yard from the neighbor. We’d already lost three arbor vitae a few years earlier that had left a hole in the wall of greenery so that we could see their back yard from our kitchen window. They’d just moved in, and it felt awkward to see them outside as they added on to their deck and built a fire pit. I didn’t want them to think, if we happened to glance out our window, that we were spying, and I wasn’t comfortable with the thought they might see me, puttering in my pajamas as I fixed a snack or meal, or sitting at the table working on a project. At night, I closed the vertical blinds so they could not see in at all, something I’d never bothered with before the arbor vitae died.

We’d been standing twelve or so feet apart, unmasked, and for a few moments, the world had seemed normal. For a few moments, we’d forgotten it wasn’t.

The arborist ended up removing five arbor vitae, creating more holes along the fence line, and a total of nine trees: one big weeping cherry in the front, and eight double-planted spruce in the back. I’d not even realized there were eight trees there. They were huge, in the far corner of the yard, and combined with a lot of overgrown honeysuckle and some hackberry scrub, provided more privacy than I’d realized. When they came down, it opened our yard to the neighbors in back whom we’d not seen or talked to for years.

One day, clearing out some brush and planting maple seedlings, Charu, the neighbor in the back, peeked over the fence to chat. Our boys had played together when they were small, and the gate between our two yards, hidden entirely by the overgrowth, was now exposed and leaning awkwardly. Her son was in medical school, she said; we told her ours was in college. It was a lovely and pleasant reminiscing but also a brief one; our mid-November warm spell was already turning cold. “Well, we should get together in the spring, when it’s warmer,” Charu said. “Yes,” I said. “When it’s safer.” She looked briefly surprised before catching herself and nodding. “Yes, yes — when it’s safe.” We’d been standing twelve or so feet apart, unmasked, and for a few moments, the world had seemed normal. For a few moments, we’d forgotten it wasn’t.

A few nights later, a storm blew through and the wobbly portion of the fence, the section with the gate, fell down completely, an open portal between our two yards. It seemed a lovely thing, despite the damage: a metaphor. An open door. A wall come down. I’ve not seen Charu since, but the weather has been wet and cold. I don’t think either of us is worried about the broken fence, which is theirs; it fell into her yard, and we have no worries about waiting till spring for it to be repaired. Every time I see the broken fence from our uncurtained windows at the back of the house, it seems a lovely thing. We watch the moon rise over Charu’s house every night while we watch TV.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the house, the arbor vitae continue to turn. At least three more already look like they could be removed; several more are spotting badly, turning brown. We may have to remove them all. I am as anxious about one side of the yard as I am fully relaxed about the other.

* * *

It’s been a strange thing for this election news to go on and on and on. My husband and I, news junkies who’ve watched an inordinate number of hours of television since the pandemic began in this country, finally switched from CNN to binge-watching West Wing on Netflix after dinner each night. When we do catch up on bits and pieces of news, we’re continually aghast that so many have not accepted the election’s results. The signs in our neighbor’s windows — all but the ever-insistent BLUE LIVES MATTER sign in the upstairs window and the small “Back the Blue” sign tucked up close to the house in the yard — disappeared.

We’ve been continually aghast, too, at the COVID-19 numbers raging ever higher. We’d told the kids early in the fall that we did not expect to spend Thanksgiving together, that we could perhaps do porch pickup for a few treats and plan an extra family meeting on ZOOM. We’re past even that now, though; it’s Christmas Day. We’ve not seen the kids in person since early March. Our seventeen-month-old granddaughter had surgery for hip dysplasia in May and spent months recovering in a series of casts; she’s now walking and beginning to talk. She knows us mostly as faces on a screen, blowing her kisses hoping to make her smile. She holds her fist to her mouth and blows them back, just as she does to Elmo while watching Sesame Street.

Still, our family is lucky to be so close, lucky to be healthy, lucky to all be working or in school, with access to food and to medical care. Our son and his girlfriend, who live in Brooklyn, both had mild cases of COVID early on. My cousin in The Bronx lost her life partner: he was listed on the New York Times front page obituary. Extended family and friends have all suffered badly, far too many have experienced terrible loss and terrible uncertainty. We know how many struggle, and with so much, how our country and our city continue to face crises that started long before the pandemic and are likely to continue after. When Casey Goodson, Jr., was shot three times in the back, Subway sandwich in hand, by a local county deputy, the insistent, screaming, BLUE LIVES MATTER sign in our neighbor’s upstairs window finally disappeared, though the tiny “Back the Blue” sign remained. Less than three weeks later, on December 22, Andre Hill was shot by a Columbus police officer. Yesterday, Christmas Eve, I watched his funeral on a local news livestream. After, when I went out to the mailbox, I couldn’t help glancing to see if the last sign next door was still there. It is, still tucked strangely close to the house in that one corner of the yard, now covered in snow.

* * *

A week or two ago, sitting at my kitchen table and staring out the patio windows where I could see both our browning hedges and Charu’s broken fence, I meditated over our country’s obsession with walls, the concept of walls coming down, the poetry of Robert Frost, my own tendency to watch for signs of all kinds — and not just those so blatantly beside me lately. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Frost wrote, “That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it.” I wondered why I saw the broken fence — and the loss of trees that allowed the windshear that brought the fence down — as opportunity, while the dying arbor vitae still filled me with dread. I wondered why I couldn’t see all the gaps and gapes and holes all around me, all the inexplicable loss, as the same clear symbol for breakthrough, birthing, opening, opportunity.

I’ve meditated since on the guiding force of the moon we watch nightly, removed from whatever we’re watching as it rises higher and higher in the sky. We had a rare Blue Moon on Halloween this year. The next night, Daylight Saving Time ended, and we turned our clocks back one hour. Darkness comes early, but it lends itself to real beauty. November’s moon is the Frost Moon, also called the Beaver Moon: it marks the season when beavers complete their lodges, bedding down for winter. December has brought the Cold Moon, also called the Long Night Moon. Even without a pandemic continuing to rage, this is the season for hunkering down, hibernating till spring comes with all its sprouting plants and grasses, new blossoms, the work of a new and hollowed, harrowed hope. We’ve many dreadful months of sickness and death ahead; we’ll continue to mourn. COVID vaccines are on the horizon; they’ve already begun for some health care workers. As to our other epidemic, the Columbus City Council declared racism a public health crisis in our city this summer. In November’s election, an amendment to the city charter was passed, creating a Civilian Police Review Board. I don’t know what will happen with our hedges, our fences, and our neighbors; I don’t know what will happen with our city. But as the Long Night makes its way toward full, there’s room for planning and planting, for the hope that — however tenuous, waxing and waning — is there. It always comes, lighting our way.

________

Note: Title Graphic (by the author) updated 12/27/2020.

Paula J. Lambert is a literary and visual artist from Columbus, Ohio. www.paulajlambert.com

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