Good Fences make Good Neighbours

I was born at the tail end of the baby boom, and there were scads of children on my street. We played massive games of British bulldog, red rover, tag, and hide and seek. Our neighbourhood was our well used playground, and thus we knew it like the backs of our hands. We had a crab apple tree in our front yard, and my brother Michael and his friends would regularly set themselves up behind our front hedge and chuck crab apples at passing cars. Every so often an irate driver would stop, and the boys would escape through the gap in our back fence which led them safely to the next street. All of us kids were aware of that opening in the fence because we used it when playing hide and seek. 

We knew the names of almost every family in the neighbourhood, and would use their houses as boundaries for our games. Our field for tag would be the grassy boulevards between our house and the Taggarts’, or the prescribed area for a game of hide and seek would be from the Romanuks’ to the Shaws’. My mother set strict limits when I first ventured out on my tricycle alone – I could go as far as the Albrechts’ house, but that was it. I was expected to turn around in their large double driveway and head back home. Mrs. Albrecht often came out and waved to me as I completed laps between her house and my own. All the moms knew the kids, at least by sight, and we knew them as well. This made our neighbourhood extremely safe because we could confidently go to any house if there was an emergency, and any potentially dangerous strangers would stand out like a sore thumb.

Most of our neighbours were very nice – working class people raising their families as best they could in a spacious environment full of new homes and well appointed yards. My neighbourhood was overwhelmingly white, as I imagine most Canadian suburbs were at the time. We had only two black families on our long street, the Steeds and the Blackwoods, and one Japanese family, the Imais. I regularly played with Shirley Blackwood, and my brother was friends with Jay Steed. I don’t remember hearing any derogatory remarks about these kids or seeing any racist acts against them, but I’m sure they quietly suffered their fair share of such indignities.

Our house was one over from a cross street, and the people who lived next to us on the corner were the Cestnicks. Mr. and Mrs. Cestnick (Otto and Alice) had immigrated to Canada from Yugoslavia after WWII. Otto constantly complained about how crappy Canada was in comparison to his homeland, and I remember my dad one time impatiently saying to him that if that was the case, then perhaps he should go back. Mr. Cestnick decided that was a good idea. He was an evangelical Christian, and one summer he packed up and went home, determined to spread the good word back in the old country. His plan was to send for his family once he became established. Otto lasted for just a few months in Yugoslavia before they kicked him out and he was forced to return to the house next to us with his tail between his legs. It turns out Tito and his bunch had no interest in bible thumpers. This humiliating incident marked the end of Mr. Cestnick’s Canada bashing, much to my father’s glee.

There were four Cestnick children, all of whom unsurprisingly had biblical names. From eldest to youngest there was Grace, Paul, Ruth, and Esther. Grace and Paul had already moved out when I was a girl, leaving Ruth and Esther. Ruth was the same age as my eldest sister Lisa so I didn’t know her at all, but I got the definite impression from the times I fleetingly saw her that she was a rather shy and awkward teenager. Esther, on the other, could not have been more outgoing. She regularly spread out on a lawn chair in their front yard to sunbathe, holding one of those trifold metal reflectors on her chest to reflect maximum rays to her face, and wearing the skimpiest bikini imaginable. This behaviour drove Otto crazy, which I think was the whole point for Esther. Good fundamental Christian girls simply did not behave this way, and I heard the two of them arguing every time she had a tanning session. I don’t know what eventually became of Esther, but I would take odds that she never took up her father’s evangelical mantle.

Mr. Cestnick was that neighbour who would adamantly refuse to return stray balls or frisbees that landed on his property. One time my brothers were out front throwing around a football when it accidentally went over the fence into Otto’s front yard. He gleefully pounced on it and smugly announced to my brothers that it was now his. They had only been arguing with him for a minute or two when our dad came storming out of the house. I don’t know if he saw what had happened through our front window, or perhaps heard my brothers’ raised voices, but whatever the impetus he was hopping mad as he drew up on the edge of our driveway a few feet from where Mr. Cestnick stood. Dad placed himself squarely in front of the fence, held out his hand, and staring straight into Otto’s face said in a low and menacing voice, “Give me the fucking ball.” Otto, coward that he was, immediately crumpled and silently handed the ball over. He then slunk into his house as my father, without comment, returned the ball to David. Neither my brothers nor I said a word, but we all watched with admiring eyes as our hero made his way back into our house. 

Otto’s refusal to return lost items made him infamous and hated amongst kids in my neighbourhood and beyond. The incident between him and my dad became common knowledge as well, so now the local toughs knew that he was not only an ass, but also spineless. One gang of teenage boys consequently began a campaign against Mr. Cestnick. They would stand on the sidewalk or boulevard outside his house and loudly insult him, then run away when he finally came out to confront them. He didn’t seem to understand that they were getting exactly what they wanted every time he allowed himself to be drawn out by their taunts. If he had simply stayed in the house, they would have eventually become bored with the game and left to find someone else to torture. Otto called the police, but there was nothing they could do because the boys always stood on public property. Finally he hit upon the bright idea of taking their pictures. I guess he thought that the threat of having their bullying recorded would for some reason force his tormentors to stop. Unfortunately for Otto, however, his plan had the complete opposite effect. The boys not only continued to goad him from the sidewalk, but now they would strike ridiculous poses while singing out in silly falsetto voices, “You hoo, Otto. Take my picture!” He was such an easy target, and his persistently dickish behaviour meant that everyone in the neighbourhood was on the side of the bullies. No adults openly condoned their behaviour, but none of them tried to stop it either.

The neighbours on the other side of us were much nicer and more normal. Marg and John Chapman were typical of the couples in my neighbourhood. Marg stayed home to manage the house and raise their three kids, Lyn, Susan, and Brian, while John financially supported the family as a mailman. Lyn was much older than me and had a boyfriend named Larry whom she eventually married. Susan was friends with my sister Lisa, and Brian was my friend. My first memory of Brian occurred on the day the Chapmans moved in. My mother and I were out on the driveway watching the moving truck unload – me seated on my tricycle, and my mum leaning on the trunk of the car having a smoke. Just then a little boy on a trike zoomed around the front hedge and, seemingly unaware of how to stop, slammed directly into my mother. Mum doubled over in pain, clasping her lower leg and making that hissing sound we all make after barking our shins. Meanwhile the boy, seemingly oblivious to the damage he’d caused, hopped off his trike and said his name was Brian. It turns out that this introduction summed Brian up perfectly – he was friendly and well-meaning, but he wasn’t very bright.

Brian was one grade ahead of me until I accelerated and we landed in the same grade 6 class. Our teacher was Miss Bonk, an old-style disciplinarian who delighted in hitting and humiliating her slower students. Unfortunately for Brian, he was the slowest in the class. I vividly remember Miss Bonk hitting him over the head with a ruler, a blackboard eraser, and, on one particularly brutal occasion, a large, hardcover dictionary. I grew to hate Miss Bonk through the course of that school year, partly because her repeated assertions that I was the smartest kid in the class despite having skipped grade 5 made the other kids hate me, and partly because of the way she treated Brian. Over time I began to push back against her cruelty by adopting a sarcastic and dismissive tone. I became a real smart-ass and undermined her authority whenever possible. My subversive behaviour gained me respect amongst my peers, but more importantly provided Brian with the satisfaction of seeing his tormentor thwarted.

Three doors up from us were the Taggarts. I was friends with Jackie Taggart and loved going to her house because her parents were both from Scotland and I found their accents charming and hilarious. Mr. Taggart was a policeman and stayed in shape for his job by jogging. He was the first adult I remember seeing run for health reasons. There was a family much further up the street that owned a large German shepherd which they walked twice a day. Somehow the Taggart’s lawn became this dog’s favourite place to do his business. There were no poop and scoop laws at the time, and one often found dog crap in the yard. We all just cleaned it up and moved on when it happened. Somehow Mr. Taggart got it into his head that the people who owned the German shepherd were encouraging it to crap on his lawn in particular. He thought that perhaps they didn’t like cops. One day Jackie and I were playing on her driveway when Mr. Taggart came home from his jog only to see the German shepherd and its owners a little way up the street and a fresh, steaming turd on his lawn. He angrily grabbed a shovel from the carport, picked up the poop, and began following the couple up the street with the loaded shovel in hand. This was new and exciting behaviour, so Jackie and I fell in behind him to see what would happen. The dog owners eventually turned into a driveway, and Mr. Taggart picked up speed. He got to the edge of their yard just as they were about to go inside, and after getting their attention with a shrill whistle, he dumped the contents of the shovel on their grass saying, “This is where your dog’s shit belongs. Don’t let me find it on my lawn again.” And he never did.

One of my best friends Andrea lived just around the corner, and across the street from her were the van der Vechts. Mr. and Mrs. van der Vecht were from Holland, and they and their children were all fair skinned and blonde. There were three girls in the family – Ingrid, the eldest, was beautiful and reminded me of Julie Barns from The Mod Squad; Linda, the middle daughter, was tough and outspoken; and Joanne, the youngest, was rather unremarkable. She had a very round and freckled face, and I sometimes played with her when no one else was available. It wasn’t that she was dislikable in any way, she was just boring and uninspired. 

One summer Joanne’s maternal grandfather came over from the Netherlands for a visit. He didn’t speak any English, so I hung around their house a lot that summer just to hear the family conversing in Dutch. What really struck me about Joanne’s grandpa were his culinary habits. He had oily, stinky little fish on toast every day for breakfast (probably sardines), and most interestingly of all, he ate everything with a knife and fork. Joanne breathlessly told me this one day after witnessing him eat a sandwich with cutlery. I felt sure that there must be some things he would eat with his hands – chocolate bars, for example. We doubted it was even possible to eat a chocolate bar with a knife and fork. Wouldn’t it just fall apart as soon as you cut into it, and wasn’t its surface too hard to be pierced by a fork? So Joanne and I decided to conduct an experiment. We went up to Ozzie’s, our local convenience store, and bought a Coffee Crisp. We then brought it back to her place and presented it to her grandpa as a gift. He said thank you as he fully unwrapped it, placed it on a sandwich plate, and then proceeded to eat it with a knife and fork. First he cut it into sections, and then used the knife to maneuvered each piece onto the top of the fork, thereby entirely sidestepping the need to use the tines. I have since wondered if perhaps the old fellow had a touch of OCD which precluded him from touching anything that went into his mouth, but at the time no explanation was necessary. His amazing dexterity with cutlery was sufficiently fascinating in and of itself.

The Reynolds family lived across the street from the Cestnicks. My sister Lisa was friends with Marnie Reynolds, and her little sister Linda was widely known for her penchant for screaming. Linda was a couple of years younger than me, but my friends and I allowed her to join in when we played on the street. My dad was a guitar player who worked enough that he was rarely at home. He generally went from doing studio work or teaching during the day directly to a show of some kind in the evening. Occasionally he had enough time between jobs to come home in the afternoon to, as he put it, “shit, shower and shave” and put on his “monkey suit” – the black suit and tie band members were required to wear at most evening gigs. Linda was over on one of those rare afternoons when my dad was home. We were playing in the front yard when she sent up a shriek which so jarred my father that he cut himself while shaving. He came bursting out the front door in a rage, and it was understood from then on that Linda was not welcome at the house if Dad was home. For years I thought my father was over-reacting, and then I became an elementary school teacher and began to encounter screamers on the yard. It is hard to put into words how shrill and annoying a child’s scream can be, but experiencing it as an adult has allowed me to better understand my dad’s position.

I recently had another flash of insight into the brain of an adult I knew as a child. The Bennetts lived in the house directly behind ours. To me they seemed really old, although they may well have been close to the age I am now, and their children were grown and long gone. I only saw flashes of Mrs. Bennett, but Mr. Bennett was often outside putzing around in his carport or mowing the lawn. My brother David was learning to drum, and his bedroom was downstairs at the back of the house, a mere stone’s throw from Mr. Bennett’s side windows. David needed to practice daily, and while he sometimes used his full kit, he mostly used his practice pads to keep the noise down in deference to our neighbours, Mr. Bennett in particular. I often played in the backyard while David practiced, and I can remember several such occasions when Mr. Bennett hollered at me over the fence about the “infernal racket.” My brother’s drumming didn’t bother me, and I felt that Mr. Bennett was being unreasonable and needlessly unpleasant. David needed to practice, and he was trying to make as little noise as possible, so what was the point in constantly complaining? Lately a similar situation has arisen in my life, only this time I’m the adult being annoyed. Last summer a family on the street behind me set up a basketball net in their driveway. When I’m in my backyard the whap, whap, whap of the ball bouncing on the pavement really disturbs my peace, and drives me into the house every time. Now I understand why David’s practicing so bothered Mr. Bennett all those years ago. 

My husband Douglas and I were living in downtown Toronto when I became pregnant with our first child. We knew the names of the neighbours on either side of us and said hello when we saw them, but otherwise we didn’t know a single person on our street or in our larger community. There were also often used condoms and syringes in the alleyway behind our house which made us wary about how secure our neighbourhood was for children. Both of us had grown up in the relative safety of Scarborough in the 1960s, where parents could comfortably let their kids roam free and kids could enjoy big swaths of time without adult supervision. We wanted that for our children and thus moved to the small village of Millbrook. It was like stepping back in time. The kids enjoyed hours of unstructured play, and we knew where all of their friends lived as well as who their parents were. My experiences as a child and then as a parent confirm the old adage “It takes a village.”

5 thoughts on “Good Fences make Good Neighbours

  1. Yet another wonderful piece of writing. It reminded me is my early childhood years spent in Belleville. My mother also had rules of travel. I was permitted to ride my tricycle to the eastern end of our block and the western end. I named them Eastern Ho and Western Ho!
    We fortunately did not have a Mr. Cestnick. We did, however, have a Mr. Cantney who I would chat with as he sat on his veranda. He had the gift of being able to attract small birds to land on his hand and eat bird seed from it!
    Stay both healthy and safe!

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    1. I believe that you are correct that those with open and gentle hearts have the gift of being able to charm animals. My neighbour was certainly that type of person!

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  2. Lovely piece Margaret. Your memories inspire recollections of my own. This time, of neighbourhood
    games and special people and places.

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  3. We are lucky to have been born at such a prosperous and care-free time. Our parents had lots of hardships in their lives, and unfortunately our kids are facing some as well.

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