If These Old Walls Could Speak

It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one’s neighbor–Eric Hoffer


For years, I watched her wandering the city, talking to herself, hugging her clutch of plastic bags to her chest defensively, avoiding eye contact, wearing dirty and mismatched clothes–her entire being an illustration of unchecked mental illness.

I saw her everywhere: muddling around downtown; getting off the bus; scuffing along the train tracks; tramping down the nearby avenue. The very sight of her rent my heart. I would look at her and feel every sting of homelessness. I would look at her closed-in, tight, disconnected, angry face and wonder if she would take a coat or blankets if I tried to offer them to her, or if she’d back away fearfully, yelling at me to leave her alone. I thought of her being so very cold, so very hungry, so very sick.  I thought of her sitting inside the foyer of the transit station, perhaps warming up a bit before heading back out onto the icy sidewalks. I thought about the nobility of the soup kitchen and shelters that offer assistance–that are brave in ways I am not. I wondered what was in those plastic bags she carried around all the time. I wondered if she was aware of herself. I wondered if she was lonely.

I wondered if anyone loved her.

Then I started noticing her shuffling along our block.  The second or third time I looked out the window and spotted her shambling self, I pointed her out to Byron.

He responded, “Yeah, she lives across the street, kitty-corner, in the house on the triple lot. She’s walking home.”

HUH? Someone actually lived in the abandoned house diagonal to ours?  Sometimes, with the things he knows that I don’t, it’s like Byron lives a life entirely separate from mine, one that exists outside his head and in the world around us. That’s probably also why he knows how to rewire lamps while I am only able to imagine nighttime conversations between the Obamas, those words they exchange as they set down their books and reach over to click off the lights (Barack, yawning: “I still think Dick Cheney is a real-life Voldemort.” Michelle, adjusting her spaghetti straps: “True dat, puddin’ head.  Now sleep well; keep the red phone on your nightstand, but only use it in the case of impending nuclear disaster or a pressing need for midnight sausage pizza delivery. Order me some cheesy bread, if the latter crops up. Oh, hell, even if it’s the former.”).

As it turns out, Byron also knew that this woman, whom I’d assumed was alone, homeless, and unloved, lived in the house across the street with her husband.  He was home bound with some sort of health problem. Her name was Jackie. Beyond that, beyond what we could see of the broken front steps and rotten porch floorboards, we knew nothing. Her name was Jackie. She had a name. And every day she would make her way out of the house that should have been condemned, take the bus downtown, and start walking the streets with her plastic bags. Her husband, nameless to us, never once seen outside of the house, stayed in. This was their schedule.

Eventually, a few of the neighbors who had known Jackie before her deepest descent into mental illness learned more. I caught one neighbor as she carried a huge styrofoam container of warm food across the street. “I try to check in with Jackie sometimes. She told me today she’s really hungry and hasn’t eaten for a few days.” Then the family on the end of the block gained enough entrance to the house to realize that things needed to change. The city was alerted; support services were called into action. The husband was given a place in a home that could provide the medical care he required.  Jackie started sleeping in his room, on the floor, so that she could eat his meals. The rest of the time, she and her plastic bags roamed the streets.

The family at the end of the block, headed by a high school principal, facilitated her move to a home with proper care.  They convinced her to sell the house on the triple lot.  They spent a week heading into the ramshackle structure and filling big black garbage bags, ultimately carrying 40, 50, 60, 70 bags of hoarded junk to the dump.  As they emptied the house, they recoiled from the mold coating the walls; the walked carefully, so as to not plunge through the broken boards. They attested to the house’s appalling state.

Then a “For Sale” sign went up.  It stayed up enough months for a family of raccoons to move into the attic, using the broken windows as a point of easy access.

Then the “For Sale” sign came down.  The neighborhood awaited the day big machines would come and tear down the house. Every toddler on the block was aquiver with anticipation. We wondered if an ill-imagined McMansion, completely out of character for the feel of the block, would be erected in its place. In the preferred scenario, we wondered if some clever architect would come up with a plan for a new house that felt “old.”

It was a moot discussion, as the buyers intended to keep the structure intact, to put in new boards, to wipe and paint the walls, to replace broken windows,

to flip the place and resell it at a hefty profit.

This they did.


The buyers moved in a couple of years ago. Whereas Jackie and her husband’s inability to function normally created unhealthy boundaries around their lives, the new family immediately exhibited their own unhealthy boundaries–in this case, with the children having none at all and the parents replicating the presence of Jackie’s husband: unseen to the point where onlookers question their existence.

In my worst moments, I like to pretend we went to Turkey just to get a year away from them.

They’re really not that bad, but I do enjoy the drama that comes from cultivating a feeling of annoyance. Also, every story’s better with a villain, and since our neighborhood is, by and large, exhorbitantly wonderful, I sometimes need a little pissy yang for all that positive ying.

So I jam figurative black hats onto their heads, just to differentiate them from all the white hat wearers doing hopscotch on the sidewalk-chalked pavement in front of our house. Truth is, if I cast my mind over Villains I Have Known, it becomes quickly apparent that black hat wearers are, to a person, fascinating characters. That is, if they’re not pulling guns from their holsters outside the saloon and pointing them at you while you scramble around the back of your pa’s wagon, trying to find a pitchfork with which to defend yourself.  Pointing guns is just mean, especially when you only have a pitchfork at your disposal, and what are you supposed to do with that? Toss it like a spear at the moment the gun fires?  Here in the Midwest, we call those odds “really not very nice at all.”

Abstractedly, they are fascinating, these black-hat-wearing neighbors who moved in two years ago.  Because the adults don’t present themselves directly, we’ve had to sleuth out the bits of information we have on the family.

There are three kids. (UPDATE: since this post was written, another has been added; a few months ago, I spotted her toddler self in the middle of a busy throughway. By herself.)

That, we knew off the bat.

What with the kids swarming our lives and all.

Since the week The Black Hats moved in, the welcoming types in the neighborhood have had ample opportunity to consider the concept of boundaries and how we often don’t know lines exist until they’re crossed. For example, the kindly family next door to the new family was extremely excited that their nine-year-old boy hit it off with The Black Hats’ seven-year-old boy.  For so long, nine-year-old boy had been craving a nearby friend close to his age, for weaponry play is infinitely more fun when you have someone to stab at. With the two boys living next door to each other, there could be some backing and forthing, with an easy flow between houses and families.


In reality, seven-year-old Black Hat boy spent all day, every day, in the yard, house, porch of the kindly family. At no point did the play take place on the Black Hats’ triple lot. Black Hat boy’s two younger sisters spent all day, every day, in the yard, house, porch of the kindly family, too. It was never a matter of invitation. It was a matter of waking up in the morning, with the Black Hatted seven, five, and three-year-old children wandering next door for their daily amusement. All the better when snacks were provided.

Within a month, the kindly dad on duty sat outside for hours every day, looking frozen as four children mobbed his previously-controlled life, one where people would come to his house when it had been requested. Had it been only his nine-year-old boy on the premises, Kindly Dad would have had some time off throughout the day, for parents of young kids design their days around the odd moment of respite for themselves. Had it been only his nine-year-old boy and the new friend, the seven-year-old next door, Kindly Dad would have had even more time to kick back and dwell in his own head as the lads threatened each other with light sabers.  However. With the two younger girls attacking his space, both of them too young to be left untended, Kindly Dad found himself running a distinctively not-for-profit daycare.

Bewildered in the way of a Midwesterner who takes a loaf of bread over to the new neighbors to welcome them to the neighborhood and subsequently ends up with the new family’s children in his care from that moment on, Kindly Dad sank into the kind of long-suffering tolerance that is, in fact, repressed panic. When he wasn’t bandaging scrapes or refereeing the interactions, Kindly Dad would sit in the rocking chair on the front porch where he, formerly, had sat every afternoon and snoozed a little while his son read Harry Potter. Overwhelmed, he’d put his hands over his face and sink his elbows down on his knees. At that point, the three-year-old Black Hatter would climb up the back of the chair and over top of his skull, landing with a plop in his lap to say “I’m firsty.”

During all of this?  Black Hat mom was off site, as ever, and Black Hat dad remained indoors. We knew he was in the house because we could  hear his voice bellering out “BOYYYY!” a few times a day, usually when one of the girls headed inside, wailing, and Boy needed to be taken to task for not watching her well enough. Boy was in charge of everything; Boy was in trouble a lot. Boy was seven.

It appeared Black Hat dad had missed the parental lesson advising those with youngsters to work in consort, as in “If you have my kid over for a playdate, then I’ll have your kid over for a playdate because not only will that make our kids happier, it will give each of us a few quiet hours in our lives to wash dishes or write some emails or shower for the first time in four days. In short, yes, let’s help each other out.” Instead, Black Hat dad seemed–still seems–more than happy with a one-way street arrangement…although “arrangement” implies there was some agreement made and not simply that his unwillingness to engage catapulted his neighbors into Default Childtender Mode. His agreements were struck through passivity, inked by his absence.

Thus was the state of affairs as we left for Turkey. When the Black Hat kids weren’t mobbing the kindly family, they were wandering the neighborhood. On one occasion, the same woman who used to take styrofoam containers of food over to Jackie found herself chasing the Black Hat three-year-old as the girl raced towards one of Duluth’s busiest streets, a road that serves as an urban freeway for all the southerly traffic heading up the popular North Shore.  Styrofoam Neighbor caught the three-year-old just before she plunged herself into the steady flow of traffic. At this point, the three-year-old was three blocks from home.  No one in her family had missed her.  No one knew she had been saved by a neighbor who had caught a glimpse of her Too Far from Home for a Three-Year Old Alone.

A big part of this issue, of course, is that the neighborhood fears conflict and, hence, holds up its part of the “agreement” by continuing to support the system Black Hat parents created. Some of that fear of conflict comes from being Minnesotan; some of it comes from wanting to do the right thing when it comes to children who are under-parented; and some of it comes from not wanting to live in a state of sustained hostility, which is the most likely outcome were anyone to lodge a list of grievances with the Black Hatters. How to tell a parent that he/she is doing a crap job and has disrupted people’s lives through an unwillingness to step up and take charge of his/her own spawn…without that conversation falling into a nasty thrust-and-parry in under a minute? On the positive side, that would be one less door to knock on every October 31st, which means the overstimulated trick-or-treaters could get home a few minutes earlier to sort out the Almond Joys from the Snickers, which is a little something I call bonus!

For me, I went from zero to peevish with this family in record time. Before I even had the chance to make a friendly overture, I was reeling from the boundary violations. Before I even could bake some cookies that would serve as a vehicle for introductions, I was being asked by the Black Hat children what was in my pantry. It was breathtaking, and it got me, very quickly, to a point where I didn’t want to play nice with any mom and dad who fostered such behavior. The repeated disregard for boundaries–both literal and figurative–got my back up right quick, and I realized that my elevated level of annoyance rendered me unable to walk across the street and begin a non-ranty conversation. After months of brainstorming, my best opener still was, “Okay, so this business where you let your children roam freely through the lives of people whom you’ve never even met? I find it appalling. If we’d ever,  say, spoken before, then perhaps your children’s over-familiarity would have some small basis.  However, and here’s the easiest parenting tip I can give you: if you can’t pick someone out of a police line-up, then your children shouldn’t be in his house.”

So, yea, I’m pretty sure with an opener like that, the conversation could only disintegrate. Even with the passage of months, years now, I’ve been unable to calm down my emotions on this issue enough to attempt a more even-handed approach. Because it just. ticks. me. off. that the desire for hours free from children means these kids are allowed into the private spaces of people the parents have neither laid eyes on nor spoken to. How dare those parents not protect their children, not serve as the buffer between their progeny and potential dangers, not vet the world even a little bit? There’s something incredibly selfish about that–and even when I consider the Black Hatters’ point of view and how they might regard their children’s lives (“I’m really introverted and don’t like interacting with people I don’t know” or “We want our kids to have an old-fashioned childhood, where the world is their playground, and they just head out in the morning and play outside until dark; we’re no helicopter parents!”), that remains the obstacle:  on some level, blasting your children out into a new neighborhood without ever walking around that neighborhood with them or getting to know a few people, well, it’s irredeemably selfish. Get over your introverted, “we’re like the pioneers” selves and show the freak up for your kids because that’s part of the bargain when you made sweet hot love to someone with a functioning uterus:  if something with lungs later emerged from that uterus, and you decided to keep it, you would show the freak up.


This seems as good a time as any for a commercial break. Today’s ad features Jocelyn’s Black Friday List of Things That Make Her Crazy! (accompanied by a promotional shot glass filled to the brim with Jim Beam, available for a limited time only):

1) Meetings

2) Committees

3) Whiny Martyrs

4) Whiny Martyrs at Committee Meetings

5) Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Hope Solo (see #3)

6) People who never venture outside of the place they were born, especially people who live two miles from a state border yet have never left their home state

7) The last ten minutes of the daily Elmo segment on Sesame Street

8 )  Anti-gay “reparative therapy”

9) The fact that alcohol isn’t calorie-free

10) Outdoorsy, athletic types who can only have conversations about their race times and not what books they’ve read

11) That Kar-douche-ians (finally a use of “douche” that feels right!), Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh can marry repeatedly in ways that clearly sh** on the institution, yet these couples can’t (UPDATE: YES, they CAN!)

12)  Off-leash dogs within the city limits

11) Parents who rationalize their way into not minding their children, especially at the expense of other people’s comfort

This advertisement has been brought to you by the letters “C-R-A-B-B-Y J-O-C-E-L-Y-N.”


From the start, Byron and I dealt with the Black Hat kids according to standard household policy: you can come over if you’ve been invited; if you haven’t, and you put even one toe into our yard, we will be in your face on the issue. This was a hard lesson for the Black Hat kids, particularly when other children were playing in our yard, and I had moments of being The Scary Lady Enforcer who would head outside, head outside, and head outside again to remind them, “We have a rule at our house that you can only play in our yard if you’ve been invited. We invite kids over when we have deliberately decided we’re ready to be in charge of them and when we know their parents. You can run home and tell your mom or dad that.” Mostly, what the Black Hat kids would do, though, was line up along the sidewalk, toes touching the edge of our grass, and holler out suggestions and commentary to the kids in our yard. That was–how to put it delicately?–challenging as a mo-fo. A few times, I went out and told them that their presence was making it hard for everyone and that they should just head on over to their own yard and make some good fun there and that if Mom or Dad wanted to come out and have a chat, we could probably arrange something. Meanwhile, I remind you, Black Hat Dad was sitting in his house, the windows open, well able to overhear everything, if he cared to. After awhile, our kids didn’t want to play out in the yard so much, as the political relations involved in enforcing household policy were getting them down.  In actuality, they didn’t want the Black Hat kids to come over and play, as there was no match in age, gender, or interests, and the Black Hat kids interacted with each other disrespectfully–as siblings often do–but with a level of anger and tension and smack talk that upset the ease of our relatively-peaceable kids.

So, with vigilance, repetition, and less time outside, we dealt with the constant infringements on our space. Inside myself, I wrestled with wanting to assign blame to the Black Hat kids when I knew my real anger was targeted at their parents. I worked on treating the kids reasonably well at the same time I shut down their efforts to move in.

Then we went to Turkey, with the sounds of our warnings to the family renting our house still echoing across Lake Superior.

When we came back, a few things had changed. For example, the family renting our house loved the neighborhood enough–despite its accompanying headaches–that it bought a house two doors down, having proven to be not only the best renters ever but, additionally, the most organized, best-disinfected, most efficiently-run family on the block. What’s more, the Kindly Family had completely retreated from relations with the Black Hats; the boys never played together anymore, and the Kindly Family was extremely cagey about how and when they spent time outside their house. Equally notably, the divorced dad next door to us had managed enough conversations with Black Hat Dad that they had worked into something like an agreement to have an arrangement. Sometimes, now, Divorced Dad leaves his kids in the care of Black Hat Dad, which, in reality, means all the kids head into Divorced Dad’s house without supervision and wreck the place until he gets home.  At one point, Divorced Dad leaked it to us–with the self-conscious shrug of a father who’s afraid to cross his children’s whiny, martyred wishes–that the Black Hat kids had slept over at his house 26 nights in a row the previous summer. Can we all holler a collective “EXCUSE ME?” at this juncture? At any rate, when school is not in session, Divorced Dad’s kids are in the habit of spending all day, every day, with the Black Hat kids, an arrangement that suits both fathers. On the days Divorced Dad’s kids are with their mom (she has primary custody), Divorced Mom, who lives several blocks away, can expect at least one Black Hat kid to be on her porch by 8 a.m. every day. This summer, upon opening the door, Divorced Mom, a woman who’s having trouble feeding herself and her kids these days, would routinely be told by the now-seven-year-old girl, “I’m hungry. I haven’t had breakfast. Can you give me breakfast?”

Again, routinely this summer, while one kid would be at Divorced Mom’s house, the now-four-year-old Black Hat daughter would be heading a few doors down from her triple lot to the home of a couple of empty nesters in their 50s.  Every morning at 8 a.m., the four-year-old would be on their porch, waiting for Mom Empty Nester to spot her. When that front door would open, she’d say, “I need someone to play with. Will you play with me?”

Every. Day. For. Weeks.

The crowning moment of our return to the neighborhood took place after we’d adjusted to the fact that the Black Hat kids had been somewhat more absorbed into the neighborhood and that, if Paco wanted to play with his longstanding excellent pal, Daughter of Divorce, that meant her ubiquitous sidekick, a Black Hatter, had to come along. So we decided to capitulate and let Daughter of Divorce and Black Hat daughter play in the yard, as it had become impossible to snag Daughter of Divorce on her own. Of course, when Black Hat daughter was in our yard, Black Hat son was a natural add-on. He was supposed to be watching his sister, after all.  Our return from Turkey, therefore, saw the two girls playing with Paco (his verdict? “I like it so much better when it’s only Daughter of Divorce”) and the now-nine-year-old Black Hat brother sitting on our frisbee swing

…or jumping on the trampoline.

Before either of the elder two Black Hatter kids got on the trampoline the first time, I wrote up an ad hoc permission slip that required parental consent not only for the activity but also for paying any associated medical bills. Certainly, it was in no way legally binding; certainly, though, it helped make some sort of point.

It was the trampoline that brought about the crowning “you’re back!” moment for me. On that day of opening up the trampoline as an option to the Black Hat kids, when I stood out back on the deck overseeing the first few minutes of jumping rotation and making sure everyone was abiding by the rules, I suddenly had a visitor.

It was the four-year-old Black Hat daughter, decked out in her swimming suit, all keyed up for some trampoline jumping herself–despite the lack of invitation. Not ready to take on the increased level of responsibility necessary to keep a preschooler safe in a crowd of older kids, I stonewalled a bit (because hell if it isn’t a slippery slope once you’ve let some of the kids in a family come touch your stuff but then want to turn away the younger set). As she stood, teetering on a line of rocks between our property and that of the Smartypants Family next door, I told her she needed to go home and tell her dad he had to come talk to the stickler neighbor lady before she would consider allowing a four-year-old on the trampoline.

The compact, swimsuit-clad body raced away.

Two minutes later, she was back, tears streaming down her face. “He says I can’t.  He says I’m too young.”

I KNOW. I wondered when Black Hat Dad had sprouted that tendril of assertive judgment, too. Well played, Black Hat Dad. I’m going to give you this one. Well played.

Have relayed her father’s word, the four-year-old looked at me, still crying, and asked pleadingly, “So I can go on the trampoline?” No, honey. Nope. I summarized it for her one more time: you have to listen to what your dad says, and so maybe in a few years, you can come play on the trampoline.

My refusal tripped her into full-on meltdown, the likes of which I–worker in church nurseries, fully-booked babysitter, full-time nanny, parent of two–had never before witnessed. The shrieking. The wailing. The screaming. After that, there was a fair bit of screaming. Some wailing. Then shrieking. During one particularly spectacular twenty-second stretch, gnashing was interrupted only by clawing at the swimsuit straps.

I used the moments when her head spun around on its axis and green bile spewed from her mouth to wrap up my role in her display (I’m pretty sure I was supposed to be playing Concerned Audience, but, um, yawn). “Hey, kiddo, this is not going to change anything. You heard the rule. We’re done talking. I’m sorry you’re sad, but now you need to go home and tell your dad to play with you. You can find something really fun to do at home, so trot on over there now. Maybe you can find a pet raccoon up in the attic.”

Naturally, every time I spoke, my words echoing from on high as I stood up on the deck and watched her try not to fall off the line of rocks upon which she teetered, the preschooler’s tantrum escalated. Once actual devil horns started sprouting from her forehead, I changed my tack. “Now you’re done. You have until I count to five, and by the number five, you need to be out of my yard and off my property, or I’m coming down there and picking you up and carrying you out to the sidewalk. You may not be on my property any more.”

“BUUUUUUT,” she choked, her forked tongue darting out and lashing her blotchy cheeks, “this isn’t your yard. I’m on the rocks.”

“Ugh. If you want to split property lines, I’ll play. If it isn’t my yard, then it’s the Smartypants Family’s yard, and although they’re out of town right now, I happen to know their rule, too, is that you have to be invited before you can be on their property. You haven’t been invited. No matter whose yard it is, you may not stand there any longer. This is your second warning: I am going to count to five, and then I’m coming down there, and I’m carrying you out to the street.”

Mentally, my brain was gaming out the possible endings for this scenario. Most likely, she’d see me coming and bolt. However, if it actually came to my woman-handling her, it would be essential that I grip her hard and fast and make sure her legs were in my clutches. I’d probably have to go for some sort of Gordeeva and Grinkov pairs skating move and hope for no deductions. Also, what if Black Hat Dad broke form and responded defensively to my actions? What if he, using the thing in his house called a window and spotting me wrangling his daughter in full crouching curve lift,

(I do favor a plunging neckline)

opened his front door and snarled, “What in the name of histrionic flourishes are you doing to my kid?”

Were that to happen, I knew I would need to keep myself from cramming his four-year-old down his esophagus and holding his lips closed until he swallowed. I would need to be able to counter anything he might say in a way that felt authentic but controlled. As I slowly counted to five, I hit upon the way I would handle an interaction that was veering towards confrontational. I would deposit his fit-thrower in front of him and simply clip out, “This is YOUR responsibility. Not mine. Do not ever make it mine again.” Then, before I could get more wound up and back myself into a position to feel regret, I would stomp away.

Quite fortuitously, just as I wrapped up my countdown, hovering between “four” and “five,” the oldest Black Hat child showed up, looking both sheepish and apologetic. “Sister,” he said loudly enough to be heard over the sound of her head exploding, “Dad says you need to come home now. He says if you’re having this kind of a fit, that means you’re tired, and it’s bedtime. You need to come home for bed now. Dad says.”

Her response was awe inspiring.  The very clouds in the sky shuddered with fear, and the sun hid behind the moon in full lunar eclipse, as the Black Hat preschooler screeched, “IIIIIIIIIIIIII.  AAAAAAAAMMMMMMM. NNNNNOOOOOOOTTTTT. TTTTTTIIIIIIRRRRRRRREEEEEDDDDD.”

She had a point. I mean, it was only 5 p.m. And her behavior had been impeccable up until this unfounded accusation was thrown at her. I almost wanted to counsel her, though, “You really ought to latch on to that ‘tired’ alibi. Because if you’re not ‘tired,’ then everyone will have to start suspecting you’re actually a colossal piece of work. Generally, and this is firsthand experience speaking, it’s best to go with ‘tired.’”

Her nine-year-old brother looked me in the eyes with well-justified desperation. More than happy to take the rap this once, if it meant he got a freebie, I quickly got him up to speed with my whole Countdown and Carry strategy, ending with “So I’m on my way down the stairs here in a second, at which point I’m going to grab her and take her out to public property.”

“She doesn’t know what ‘public property’ means,” he advised.

“Yea, but what better time to learn that there’s a distinction between kinds of places in the world?” I countered.

As we conversed, the meltdown From Her Swimsuit Self continued, causing monks in Tibet to stop ringing their bells, clap their hands over their ears, and mutter, “Kee-rist, what the frick was that?”

I mean–reality check here–wouldn’t you say it almost seemed like, well, you know, so long as we’re on the subject,

even the most lax parent might have bothered himself to head outside and round up his child, if she were throwing a tantrum of such scope that, 9,500 miles away, chunks of the polar ice caps were breaking off and sliding into the ocean?

Not when you have a nine-year-old to do your dirty business, apparently.

Sliding into his life’s assigned role too easily, Black Hat brother assured me, “I’ll get her home.” Then he called over Son of Divorce and told him that they were going to pick up his sister and take her home.  But first, in a gesture so lovely it momentarily staunched the emotional hemorrhage, Son of Divorce put on the sweetest voice I’d ever heard from a kid who lives for Legos and the Mario Brothers, bent down on one knee, and asked the wreck in front of him, “Hey, Neighborgirl, do you want to play ball with your brother and me? We’re playing ball, and we want you to come play with us. Do you want to come out front so we can throw it to you?”

The echo of her negative response was later heard by a climbing party just heading out from the base camp on K2.

Looking at each other, shrugging, garnering my complete admiration, the two boys plucked up her feisty form, one taking her armpits, the other her ankles, and they trudged her wriggling body the 30 yards home.

Well, I thought to myself, reflecting on the previous eight minutes of my life, at least I know Turkey’s still there if I ever need it.

Shortly after The Standoff, I was chatting with Mom Smartypants next door, letting her know about the drama-filled boundary enforcement I’d been doing while they were out of town. She did me one better; she told me, “Okay, so I was a little bit crazy stalker neighbor a few weeks ago.” I urged her to go on, assuring her I could out-crazy anything she might offer up. “Well, so I know the Black Hat Mom’s first name. And I know that she started her own [textile-related] business when they moved to town. So I googled her first name and her business and ‘Duluth,’


No, really, you guys.  GUESS WHAT?

Black Hat Mom–remarkably absent from this story thus far–is





Right about here, I’m tempted to lay out my biggest-ever load of malarkey and tell you I registered the fact of her blog and then, quite maturely, returned to the usual la-di-da of life.

Oh, please. Let’s get real. I hightailed it to the computer so fast I left track marks on my husband’s back because he made the mistake of trying to climb the stairs in front of me.

I found her blog easily. I spent several late nights trolling through the archives. I read each new post avidly.

What I have learned calls into question every single thing I knew for sure–every single thing I’ve reported in this post so far. Here’s the rub: the Black Hat Mom is smart and funny and has a clear voice and is self-deprecating and is hugely talented. I really like her blog. Her unseen husband used to be a professor and continues to run a non-profit in Washington D.C., where they used to live. I guess that’s what he’s doing inside the house all day, every day. I guess he doesn’t necessarily see himself as the Dad on Duty. She grew up in Duluth. She taught high school for 12 years when they lived in the D.C. area. She is more than a little obsessive about her work. She travels frequently. She posted a vignette about growing up with the kind of freedom that let her do rock jumping into a local river at age 12, with her mother never caring where she was. She posted this a couple of weeks after a 13-year-old, rock jumping in the exact same swimming hole in the exact same river, was swept away. Every last emergency vehicle in the city raced past our neighborhood that afternoon. Emergency workers spent days trying to find the teen. His body was eventually found floating in Lake Superior, having been fed into that vast body of water by the freedom-loving river. She wasn’t home when any of this was happening.

And yet.

In her blog, I really like her.

Wait. How can I really like her?

To have such deep issues with a person in real life yet be presented with such an entirely different person in her blog is disorienting, to say the least. To have rarely in two years seen this mother with her children (it’s been twice:  she let them swirl around her while doing some landscaping this fall, and she followed them around with her camera during trick-or-treating), to have never once seen this woman’s face until I studied it on her blog, to have been an onlooker to her children’s anger, need, and neglect–to have such disrespect for someone who lives across the street but be so charmed by the same person in her blog–

well. My, my.

Certainly, my skeptical self reads into her blog what she doesn’t say.  Even more, I get a fair bit tired of how everything in her life and work is packaged as an issue of Martha Stewart Living. Groom reads her blog and finds himself exasperated with how she uses the same Photoshop tricks to edit every single photograph (“blur the corners!”).

We are able to see how the carefully-packaged blogging persona can be out of alignment with the reality.

How else could I have been Madeleine Albright all these years without any of you knowing?

The business of our unseen neighbor, the passionate textiler, posting photos of her adorable children is disconcerting, though. I also have felt sad, when reading her blog, that she seems so fun, so worth knowing, so interesting, yet she has never given any of the people closest to her on the planet the chance to be her friend. I can’t feel insulted, as it’s not personal. She’d have to know me for it to be personal.  But I do feel sorry about it.

Worst of all are the posts where she does this thing all homeowners do:  she makes fun of the people who lived in her house before her, taking photos of their terrible choices and tragic handiwork.

Those of us who know the story of her house could share at least some tidbits of its history with her. We could provide her with the larger context that led to dumb nails being nailed dumbly into the wainscoting in the dining room. Over a glass of wine, we could fill in some of the blanks that would help her re-package her complaints into understanding.

We could develop the idea that the walls she frets about painting the right color used to house people with feelings, worries, and fears. They used to house people who were hungry.

As they do now.

We could talk together about the kind of courage it takes to show up inside a house and view its pains and take charge, as the Helpful Family on the Corner did for Jackie and her husband.

We could suggest that her life choices oblige her to treat the humanity within her newly-decorated porch as though they matter more than the daybed purchased “at a steal.”

We could accept, with her, the idea that we all should follow our passions in life–and she has been fortunate to find hers, in her new business–but it would also fall upon us to suggest, from the perch of friendship, that if one has children, and they are loved but not The Vocation, it still behooves that person–her–to drum up an effort, to make the children feel special, to make them feel seen, to know where they are, to view the world through their eyes, to give them limits, to find them enrichments, to assure them of their value,

to convince them, whether or not it’s completely true in the recesses of her heart, that she would not know passion without them–that they are her greatest obsession.

I look across the street, at the newly-landscaped front yard, and wonder what really goes on in that house. It used to be a dark place. Then it was a ruin. After that, it was confusing and annoying. Often, I brooded that a house so closed-down to the outside world must have some bad, bad things happening inside of it. Now, thanks to a barrage of predictably-Photoshopped pictures, I know it is superficially glossed up with suitably complementary colors, sassy accent pillows, and artfully-folded napkins.

Still, I look across the street and watch the now-being-homeschooled boy mow the lawn; I listen to him mock his younger sister for having to repeat first grade; I see a barefoot four-year-old running down the street in November,

and it still feels dark.  Like something beautiful is being ruined.




23 responses to “If These Old Walls Could Speak”

  1. Jess Avatar

    Wow, Jocelyn. Just… wow.

    You’re my kind of neighbor. 🙂 I wish I lived next door.

  2. geewits Avatar

    That’s disgusting. I know from first hand experience that a blogger’s persona can be a complete fabrication. But for someone to have their tiny children traipsing around all day asking for food is really disgusting. I’m sorry you have to deal with that. I can only imagine how tiresome it is. I always like the idea of an anonymous letter. My husband had to do that with a guy a work that reeked of body odor and just pure old stank. It worked! Good luck.

  3. Lil Avatar

    OK, that’s just fucked. If you don’t want the responsibility of kids do what I did and don’t freaking have kids. It’s quite simple to arrange actually..

    Oh, and for the record, the fact that alcohol isn’t calorie free annoys the hell out of me too.

  4. Jeni Hill Ertmer Avatar

    We had a neighbor similar to what you described here for a little over a year or so. The family lived two doors up from us and had a young girl, about 10 years of age and a little one -a girl who was probably about 14 months old when they moved in. The little one was the older one’s responsibility 95% of the time although occasionally, one would see the father actually walking along the street with both kids in tow. Last year, the mother apparently got into some issues with the law that involved a friend of the parents spending the night there along with some teenage boy and somehow or other that second woman and the teenage boy were involved in an illicit act between a female and a male under the age of consent so I believe that other female ended up landing herself on “Megan’s Law’s List as a sexual offender. Then this spring things apparently went from bad to worse, as that family’s finances plummeted due to the father’s lack of steady employment and indulging in other illegal activities to the extent that by the end of June, their landlord had evicted them and now, that house sits vacant with a big old for sale sign out front. The owner of the house had to do a whole lot of fixing up of the place -massive cleaning followed by lots and lots of repairs and painting the entire inside, plus replacing some of the appliances too -work that gave my daughter and her boyfriend some fairly steady employment during the summer months. Last news on the former residents -couple are separated and the father made the news last week as he was listed in the paper & on TV too as our county’s “Fugitive of the Week” -having skipped out on a hearing for a DUI and a few other charges. When the family moved out, they left behind though a dog, chained to his house in the back yard and which two neighbor families fed said dog for over two weeks before the father’s sister finally appeared and took the dog and they also left behind a cat in the house that had two kittens -one of which fell out of an upstairs window and which my daughter saw and rescued and that little kitten is now growing fat and sassy here, chasing our dog around the place and occasionally responds to the name we gave her of “Pearl the PurrBall” because this cat purrs constantly -even when being bathed (with our dog as her tubmate!) Just sad no matter were these things happen or whether the kids get a little guidance or none at all though.

  5. kmkat Avatar

    Hmmm. I really, really like the idea of the anonymous letter signed by every family on the block (/s/ “Anonymous” scrawled in seven different inks and handwritings). It is tragic to think of those kids as teenagers and adults, grown up but not grown-ups, never having had the least instillation of social responsibility. If they make it that far. Social services? Child protection? I know they are always over-booked and often under-staffed, but it might be worth a try.

    You have my sympathies. But I really, really, really loved reading your writing. Martyrs have always been on my sh!t list, too — my mother was one but I managed (mostly) to triumph over that little personality quirk. #6 on your list, never venturing beyond narrowly prescribed boundaries to investigate what’s on the other side, has always baffled me. When Smokey and I were in the Naval Reserve and twice spent two weeks in Japan, there were a not inconsiderable number of personnel who never ventured outside the main gate of the base. I have no words to describe my incredulity at such behavior. How can people not say “Yes!” to life when it is offered to them on a platter?

  6. lime Avatar

    uh…let me echo the first commenter….wow….just wow. i am disturbed on so many levels. i am having flashbacks to some of my own black hat neighbors as an adult and as a child. i want to rattle those parents on your behalf…whether they are brilliant bloggers of heads of charitable organizations or not. i want to ask them about the incongruity of being a homeschool family, which i absolutely cannot wrap my head around since such a decision at best connotes wanting to do right by one’s children and taking their job as parents seriously enough to take responsibility for all the education provided, presumably because the parents can do a superior job to what is available locally. clearly, they ain’t doing that. at worst it is a decision made based on fear of “the world” contaminating one’s perfect progeny and it becomes such an inward and isolating thing…..and uh, well, that’s obviously not the case…except for the absentee parents. dark and ruinous indeed.

    1. Jocelyn Avatar

      The thing is, dear Limey, they are only homeschooling the oldest, the boy. The middle girl is apparently repeating first grade now in the public schools, and the four-year-old started at a Montessori preschool this fall. So, when a family pulls only one of its children from the schools, that means…??? I have lots of conjecture. All I know is that he’s fundamentally a good kid–albeit fairly angry.

      1. lime Avatar

        actually, i have said for many years that homeschooling is such an individual decision based on the family, local school situation, and the individual kids, that i can see different decisions made for different kids in the same family but that is presupposing decisions based on sound logic made by responsible parents….i think that scenario is precluded by your description.

  7. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

    Has anybody called Child Protective Services? I certainly would–this is terrible and I feel so very sorry for those children.

    1. Jocelyn Avatar

      Very good question, Jenn. Some of us have been trying to get CPS involved with another neglected kid who lives a couple of blocks away. He’s a hard case, in his own way. Small snippet from his life: his dad is a user and drug dealer who took a gun to someone in a public area a couple years ago; there was a citywide manhunt that ended up with the K-9 team racing through our yard, guns drawn. There were police with M-16s on every corner for HOURS that night. He was finally caught. And, you know, released on some technicality. At least the landlord told that dad he couldn’t come back to the house, or the whole family would be evicted. Since then, it’s never-stand-up mom and son there alone…with 8-year-old son walking the streets many afternoons during school hours. One neighbor has called him in as truant. Nothing has happened. When an equally-serious event to the manhunt happened a year before that, one other mom called CPS and was told there has to be lengthy documentation before action can be taken. So we all are watching with that kid.

      It seems like the BH family does enough right to keep within acceptable parameters. It’s just that my boundaries are tighter than those the CPS can enforce.

      1. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

        I hear you. When we had issues with a family down the street, I called CPS on every little thing–to create the paper trail. I also talked to the school and told them what we were seeing at home and asked them to report every little thing as well.

        Eventually, the kids were in foster care/group homes for a short time and the father was convinced to leave the alcoholic mother and move in with his own parents to get the kids back. It’s a much-improved situation.

  8. secret agent woman Avatar

    Maybe since everyone else in the neighborhood seems to agree, a couple of you could be deputized to go over and talk with the neighbors? Not in a “keep you kids the fuck off my lawn” way, but an “I wonder if you were aware…” sort of way. They may be genuinely unaware of how their kids are perceived. I do feel terribly sad for those children.

    (BTW, when you asked in a response to my comment on an earlier post if dickwad was a more acceptable term, I realized that I have never once uttered it. I do, however, say fuckwad, which I guess means the same thing.)

  9. Meg Avatar

    So, essentially, Clever Blogger BlackHat Mom had children in order to acquire cute props for photos? And NonProfit BleedingHeart BlackHat Dad cares more about the welfare of whomever his nonprofit serves than that of his own progeny? Shame, Shame, Shame! (in Gomer Pyle voice). Most every neighborhood has its slightly annoying, uninvited, unsupervised child or two hanging about, but usually there is a far more sympathetic back story. An intervention is urgently needed in order that both parents and children do not miss what little may at this point be salvaged of their family. I volunteer.

  10. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar
    Green Girl in Wisconsin

    Holy. Crap. I’m almost (ALMOST!) speechless after reading this. And dying to see the blog.
    We had similar neighbors, similarly disinclined to parent, and I’ll tell you, it took a neighborhood to help raise their kids. Then we moved and I watch these kids morph into teenagers and I keep wondering…
    And that house seems to carry a curse, no?
    Your instincts to keep the kids off your property is good, I’d be doing the same. It’s a safety thing, and a liability thing, and those parents need to clue in.

    1. Jocelyn Avatar

      I am emailing you now.

  11. pam Avatar

    Have been there many times, seeing dysfunctional parents as both a teacher and a neighbour. Have seen the undesexed pets breed, and be abandoned, unfed, when these people have been told to vacate premises.
    Have done mandatory reporting in my role as teacher, worried that parents will put two-and two together and figure out it was me – every one who reports bravely lives with that.
    It is the border-line cases such as you’ve mentioned that rile.
    At three, my daughter had a little friend who was always at our house, often because her mother and the alcoholic man a few doors down wanted to lock themselves in for fun times.
    Giving in to her tired pitiful cries of “I just want to go home” I took her back, and even though I called out within the house, there was just mumbled, hushed responses behind closed doors, and no show.
    Final gob-smacking moment was when the mother said to me” I intend to take little “X” interstate permanantly to live – when (father) picks her up from here (my place!!) this afternoon, perhaps you can let him know.”
    No lady. that would be YOUR job.
    “Oh in that case, it might be fairer to her if you keep her longer while we discuss it.”
    Yes, and feed her dinner too, thinks me, and do I cater also for heart-broken father?.
    It is the gall of these people that astounds.
    Father said, a couple of months later, “I have little “X’s” new address for you” but because of possible continuing contact with the mother, I didn’t want to know. Very sad. Everyone misses out, when you come to think of it, with sadness and anger mixed.

  12. ds Avatar

    Heartbreaking. Heart is breaking, for Jackie and her husband, and for those children…nothing else to add, because it has all been said. (Except that I will spend the next several weeks reviewing my parenting & wondering.)

  13. Bodaciousboomer Avatar

    The Kar-douche-ians. LOL!

  14. chlost Avatar

    This story hits me in many different ways. As a professional who handles child protection cases, it is nothing new.
    As a child, we had neighbors like this. I think that my mom made a decision, whether knowingly or not, that she would stand in for the absent parent. This young girl came to our house for breakfast each morning before leaving for the bus. She spent many evenings at our home, and sometimes weekends. Her mother had severe mental health issues, and an older sister had left home.
    My cousin also became entwined with a group of “gypsies”. It was a big group with many, many children, all of whom were routinely ignored. When I spent a day with my cousin (before I realized who these people were), these children hung on me while I read a book, or talked to my cousin’s children. It was like they had never seen a book, or had an adult read aloud to them.
    I feel your frustration. But my bleeding heart cries out-“it isn’t the kids’ fault”. Anything an adult can provide to them in the way of supervision, meals, or just caring about them could make all of the difference in their lives. Is there any way that the neighborhood could “adopt” the kids in a way that would be workable?
    Sorry, my heart just breaks for those kids. I see too many of them every day.

    1. Jocelyn Avatar

      I appreciate your thoughts. Really. I think we totally agree in the sense that there has to be a conscious decision to take on such kids. My feeling, from years back with some other kids we encountered, was that if I couldn’t truly commit to being there and being The Person for kids, I shouldn’t start in the first place. I know that’s a tough stance. I do. Either I’m agreeing to do it all the way, or I don’t enter. That’s where I’m stuck right now. I don’t think I’m ready to do it all the way, as I send my kids off each day so I can have time to do my job. The boy across the street? He would need me during those hours. He’s home. He’s needing. I don’t feel at all ready to compromise my work hours (which take place from my house). Etc.

      But, yes, I know how you feel. Were the various families on the block not already feeling more than full up, we could have this discussion. Hard, cold reality? Probably, we’re all falling into our beds with deep fatigue each night before we consider how to take on other people’s kids.


  15. Deborah Avatar

    The twist in this story must surely be your discovery that the parents are not uneducated, substance-abusing ne’er do wells, but articulate and intelligent in at least an academic sense. This makes things easier, and more difficult – easier because there’s a glimmer of hope here because of their background, and difficult because it means you’ve had to rein in your previous assumptions and accompanying judgments. Theirs is a parenting choice, and you have some evidence to suspect it is deliberate, and considered valid by the mother, at least.
    To go slightly off-course for a moment, have you read ‘The Glass Castle’ a memoir by Jeannette Walls? I won’t go into it here, in case you do know of it, but if not please email me or you could just look it up, of course! The book challenged me to consider that some people choose a way of life completely contrary to good sense and convention out a real belief that their way is better. And who’s to say that they don’t have some reason to think so?

    However, the evidence in front of you is that these children are very needy, not just emotionally, intellectually and socially, but physically. Hungry, for god’s sake. Once in a while happens to everyone, but it would seem to be clear that the lack of attention has these kids running on empty way too much.

    You have three choices. You’ve too caring for one of them. You’ve tried another one, and it’s not working either, for all the reasons you state in your reply to chlost. The third, which you refer to as ‘confrontation’ is in fact ‘communication’. There is no guarantee that it’s going to work, either, but as I see it, it’s the only humane option left to you. What you might fear could happen is nothing compared to what those kids are dealing with right now.

    If you haven’t heard of ‘Vital Smarts’ and ‘Crucial Conversation’, I think it could be helpful to take a look at their website. http://www.vitalsmarts.com/userfiles/File/newsletter/Newsletter%20042711QA.htm
    This is an example from their newsletter archives of how they suggest dealing with a difficult situation – a lot of what Vital Smarts does is in workplace settings, but in the weekly questions (you can submit your own) you’ll find all manner of personal situations.

    I am against the anonymous letter. It only provokes a defensive attitude – an ‘us against the unknown them’ hostility. I am, however, a believer in written communication as it gives you a chance to present the issue in a thoughtful, non-confrontational way and can open the door to a conversation. This is a truly, truly difficult issue, because of the children involved. Everybody’s had a bad neighbour at one point or another, but what you’re dealing with is far weightier than mere anti-social behaviour – rudeness, waist-high weeds and all-night parties wouldn’t provoke this level of anguish nor have such profound consequences (for the children and the community).

    Hilary’s ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ idea came to mind while reading this. All very well to suggest that the community band together to help these kids outs, but our society just doesn’t work that way. I can see potential for a compromise, but it would have to be a strictly-negotiated one, since the Black Hat parents do not seem to have the usual notions of what constitutes reasonable social access for their children. And that’s only one of several notions they’re lacking, imo.
    This is a fascinating story, I must say, mostly because the BH parents are not villains. They are unconventional parents, to put it non-judgmentally, and it may well be that they haven’t deliberately put aside convention, but simply have no other experience in their own upbringing to suggest things could be a whole lot better for their kids. Mom’s comments about growing up free and not overprotecting her children remind me a bit of the mother who hit the headlines a few years ago when she gave her 9-year-old son some pocket change and told him to manage alone in NYC for a day.

    The Black Hats have set no boundaries, it seems. And you’re having trouble setting your own. And nobody is communicating. You know that famous phrase that came out of the 60’s – ‘what we have here is a failure to communicate’. There is no problem I can think of that did not come about, or was not exacerbated by a failure to communicate.

    Having said all of that, which is next to useless in that it’s all very well to suggest you do some talking to them (possibly, ultimately, with a professional mediator) but it’s extraordinarily difficult to do that. Keep your eye on the horizon – the one that those kids are headed for, and the one that the commuunity lives in sight of. Fear of confrontation often comes about because the players fear a personal attack. It’s not personal.

    You are a compassionate person. Your frustration, resentment and anguish are all understandable. You are trying to find a way to help, without sacrificing your right to determine who is welcome in your house, and your life. Without having to pick up the pieces and take responsibility for children about whom the parents have a lamentable lack of awareness. Without obliging your children to be continually and actively charitable to kids to whom they do not feel attached and for whom they have no particular affection.
    Sorry for the cliche, but what a hell of a teachable moment this is!!

    I’m glad you pointed the way here – yes, I had missed this post. I’m going to subscribe by email so that I don’t miss any more, even if I drop out of blogging. And as always happens when I read you, I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from seeing things from your totally unique Jocelyn-point of view, and have to say that you have a gift for writing that turns even the most ordinary event into a breathless page-turner of a blockbuster novel.

  16. Robin Avatar


    Just catching-up on your blog. I think the issue with the Black Hats has been well-covered by others, though there is part of me that can’t reach judgment without seeing it for myself, even though I have no reason at all to doubt the reporting. I think I must not want to believe it could all be true.

    Aside from all of that, my main comment is that you are one hell of a writer, blogger and general contemplator and I love it. And your humor — even in a crabby blog, perhaps mostly in a crabby blog- — is precisely the kind I enjoy. Please do continue, as I know you will.

  17. magpie Avatar

    Wow. What a tale you tell, oh so well.

    (I peed in Madeleine Albright’s swimming pool when I was small and she wasn’t the Secretary of State. True story.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *