Home: refuge or prison?

At the time, I was young and saw, but didn’t really feel, the tragedy. Today, I see a tragic pattern, understand and feel too well why my neighbor left us.

Envision, if you will, a young suburb. In the days before we coined the term ex-urb, freshly paved streets and newly minted split levels spilled onto too-small century-old roads. General stores and local suppliers doing better than ever because the new retail infrastructure that would bankrupt them is still in the future. Schools still smelling of fresh paint and floor wax. All the new residents with jobs, families and loyalties somewhere else. Neighbors were nice to have, nice to talk about, but there really wasn‘t a lot of unscheduled time for another unaffiliated loyalty to evolve.

Anna and Arne were young, bright, former residents of a university neighborhood. They arrived with three preschoolers and one more on the way. Every morning the renowned, published PhD mathematician would mount his bike and peddle the hour-plus or so back to campus. His neighborhood compatriots drove to their daily city lives, taking as long in their cars as he did on his bike. Every morning she’d gather up the kids, laundry and assorted pets to play mom. All day. Alone. Her neighborhood peers had older kids and busied themselves in parent-teacher groups and assorted school and church auxiliaries. Their extended families visited for “a day in the country”.

Her extended family? None that we ever knew of until the new baby came. Then a woman we were told was her mother-in-law came to keep house – and keep us neighborhood kids quiet – for a few weeks. After that, nothing changed. At least for us.

Occasionally our play would take us through her yard – chases, races, lost balls and so forth. It was the only unfenced, un-hedged yard on the street. She was always smiling and laughing, always helpful. Every now and then she’d invite us in for cookies or lemonade. Later that evening our parents would grill us about the house they’d never been to – the color of the walls, the design of the furniture – raising their eyebrows when [at their prompting] we reported on dishes in the sink, pans on the stove and clothes hung on doors, chairs, unused vacuum cleaner and floors. “And they don’t have a television? No wonder she’s so tired all the time. She’s spending her life cooking and reading stories and helping kids make all those ‘things’ that she can’t even keep the house and yard looking presentable.” They raised their eyes and gossiped even more on the rare occasions when Anna and Arne had guests. Guests who’d sit in circles, talking, singing, playing instruments. And building an open fire in a hole in the ground, rather than using a charcoal grill and electric starter.Blue Flame 1-2

You know the rest of the story. It’s been the subject of countless books, movies, academic and pseudo-academic studies. But her suicide was real. And alone. As was the rest of her short life as my neighbor.

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