For two days near the end of February, winter-weary Pennsylvanians were treated by some trick of nature to daytime temperatures that belonged to spring or even summer. The brief respite from winter’s chill allowed me to revive a habit of 40-minute walks I had all but abandoned during the coldest weeks of the past two months. About half an hour before sunset on one of these warm days, I gleefully laced up my exercise shoes, donned a light jacket and stepped outside for a stroll.
In late October I bought my first home and moved from a small apartment on a busy city street to a complex of townhouses just six miles north of my former abode. Since then I have enjoyed traipsing around my new neighborhood—in and out of the townhouse cul-de-sacs, along a road that runs by a short stretch of woods with a small pond, and into a development of single-family homes built on a hillside next to a brooding mountain.
Because I moved in the fall, I have taken most of my walks in my new neighborhood during the abbreviated daylight available at this time of year in my part of the globe. But the unseasonably warm temperatures, combined with the gradually lengthening days, enticed me to try a sunset walk instead.
As I strolled briskly along, I was delighted to see what seemed like multitudes of my neighbors on the sidewalks as well—many more than I had encountered during my previous perambulations. Nearly all were walking their dogs, and some were so addled by the weather that they were wearing only T-shirts, shorts and sneakers. We exchanged cheerful hellos, and I quietly congratulated myself on moving to the friendliest neighborhood I have ever lived in.
As daytime turned to dusk, the crowd on the sidewalks thinned considerably, and I found myself nearly alone in the fading light. The homes I passed now had lights in the windows, and at times I could see a glimpse of a cozy interior through an open front door as I glided silently by. Every now and then the breeze would waft various scents of domesticity my way: the aroma of a steak cooking, tomato sauce simmering on a stove or the unmistakable, almost cloying perfume of laundry tumbling in a dryer.
Occasionally a car pulled into a driveway; the occupants got out, quickly shut the car doors and hurried up the front walk to their home, like sailors eagerly disembarking after a long voyage. On a nearly dark dead-end street, a lone teenage boy stubbornly dribbled a basketball under a hoop in front of his house, then leaped in the air with something like blind faith to stuff the ball into the net.
These various symbols of home sweet home, repeated many times as I passed by house after house in my neighborhood, had a curious effect on me. I was comforted by the sights, sounds and scents; I felt lucky to have moved to such a safe and serene place. And yet at the same time, I experienced an emotion that was close to sorrow, and I could not begin to explain why.
After years of living on my own in a city apartment, did my glimpses into the lives of my neighbors make me—a single woman—feel like something of an outcast? Or did the lighted interiors, the scents of meals being prepared and the sight of cars ferrying people home from work remind me wistfully of my long-ago childhood—the last time I lived in a house with a family abiding together under one roof?
Both explanations are plausible. But I wonder if I might also have been moved by a sense of the vulnerability behind the seemingly safe and predictable world I walked through. The sun goes down, people come home from work, lamps are lit in living rooms, children stop playing and come inside, dogs and cats curl up on rugs, and families sit down to dinner while laundry spins in washing machines and dryers. This routine seems so inevitable that teenagers can hardly wait to break it by leaving for college or other adventures the minute they turn 18.
And yet, for all of their predictability, the rhythms of daily life are also fragile. The dark angels of illness, death, job loss or divorce can fly into a home at any moment, spreading uncertainty and shattering the suburban calm. At least a few of my neighbors have likely had visits from these dark angels already; there may well be more turmoil within the walls of the townhouses I pass on my walks than their handsome brick exteriors would suggest.
The spring-like temperatures of the past week have now vanished, and winter has returned to my region. I don’t intend to wait until spring arrives in earnest to walk through my neighborhood again. But perhaps I will go back to taking my strolls during broad daylight. I can’t rid my neighborhood of the foreboding shadows that come with twilight. But I can choose to be safely inside, with my own lamps lit, when they arrive.
Copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper
Lamp in Window Photograph Copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper