Stories and photos by Nadja Peschke
An engine ignites and my eyes are pulled across the street. From my desk below the window I see a man in a navy polo and khakis rev his mower as he edges it closer and closer to an unassuming banana-yellow fire hydrant. It only takes three attempts to successfully trim around the hydrant. Another engine rev, and he perseveres on to the perimeter of a shaking maple sapling.
Window-watching has become a hobby next to reading, baking, and painting these days. I’ve found it fascinating to see how my neighborhood has reacted to the pandemic.
Our newly developed suburban neighborhood houses a mixture of North Carolinians and people who come from out of state, like our family did from Boston last April. You find people with rooms devoted to Yankee paraphernalia and others who sip sweet tea on their rocking chairs. We’re all still getting to know each other —now navigating it from six feet apart.
On my first day home from what was meant to be a semester abroad in India and Nepal I had a small issue with a recent ear piercing. I wouldn’t have had to involve the neighbors if COVID-19 hadn’t house-bound me.
My sweet neighbor Lynn was kind enough to offer me her stock of hydrogen peroxide to help clean my ear. We had been chatting across our lawns as usual, but after she ducked inside to grab the cleaner, she returned with a massive gardening glove encompassing the half-used bottle.
Setting it down decidedly between our properties she said tenderly, “I’ll just leave that there for y’all to pick up, and you know y’all don’t have to worry about giving it back.”
I suddenly realized what my mom had meant when she told me over the phone while I was still in Nepal, “Honey, things are really different in the U.S. right now.”
We still have one neighbor that disregards boundaries, though. Ethel is slightly overweight and usually pestering us for attention. But her forced familiarity and constant gabbing is the only thing that has remained consistent on the block since the pandemic came to town. She often sneaks up on us when she senses we’re sitting on the porch, looking for back scratches and tummy rubs.
Ethel is Lynn’s spunky outdoor cat.
Besides neighborly tensions, home life is a whole other can of worms. One morning I planned to go for a relaxing hike and invited my mom along. As soon as we got in the car her whole demeanor changed. She pulled out her Mama card, “I need to run some errands…” and off we went to the grocery store(s). Emphasis on the plural.
Honestly, I was happy to help with the urgent toilet paper hunt and scramble to find eggs. The people-watching was incredibly amusing, too. I overheard a disgruntled woman in yoga pants gossip on the phone about the crazy lady commandeering the last double six-pack of toilet paper (that was my mama by the way, and proud of it).
I was wearing green hiking pants, a leather belt, a synthetic neutral tone top, and a weathered olive baseball cap. The fact that I was dressed head to toe in camouflage makes no difference, our setting is North Carolina; but add on the durable daypack, filled Nalgene, and my feet strapped into a pair of hikers – I looked like I was involved in one of those dystopian movie sets gathering final supplies before the apocalypse. Forget 6 feet, people cleared a path for me and my Target cart.
I have to admit, I’ve felt like quarantining has been nothing short of an entertaining social experiment — for humans and animals. I’ve seen more dogs outside on walks than ever before in this corner of suburbia, and it makes my animal-loving heart happy.
Ethel, on the other hand, is coping by hightailing it into the woods trying to hoist her frame over the tarp barrier. She succeeded only in getting her fluffy coat full of brambles that my brother and I have since been picking out. I think I have a bramble or two still stuck on me.
During this sequestered time, we’re all starting to grow comfortable in our immediate vicinities and test the limits of the staycation, in some cases abandoning propriety like Ethel.
After two weeks of walking on sidewalks to get my daily exercise, I made up my mind to bushwhack through the woods behind our house, too – seeking the comfort of the trees since our state park closed.
I found myself waist deep in understory saying good morning to unfurling ferns and spiders spinning their webs. It was immediately satisfying to go from idea to execution. Gingerly navigating the untamed growth, I pressed my palms to tree bark and soft moss while listening to the brook gurgle downstream.
I emerged out of the forest sporting a few thorn scrapes, spider shudders, and a grin the size of a Cheshire cat’s. A young couple saw me trudging back up to the side walk and pulled their toddler aside to make space for me to pass. I greeted them cheerfully waving my hand that was holding the plastic trash I had collected.
Social distancing aside, they probably thought that I was a little strange looking but we’re all out here just trying to do what makes us feel free and happy.
From my back porch with Miss Ethel, I hope this finds you well, happy and at home wherever you may be quarantined! Perhaps you’ll explore the uncharted territory around your home today or give your animals some love.
• Featured photo is a view of Lake Norman from my neighborhood.