“Anything you need, you need to just take that phone and ring my number!” Ariya said, smiling, as she waved at the middle-aged woman in front of her.
“You’re always so kind, you know,” Tami commented, her eyes twinkling as she shut the door after Ariya. “No one ever bothers to wave anymore.”
Ariya nodded wistfully. “It’s sad, isn’t it?”
Ariya turned and breathed in the sweet January air. It was a cold, sunny day. Sunlight tiptoed in between the limbs of the trees behind the quadruplexes and tumbled out onto the street. It was what Ariya was used to calling the “cabin fever antidote” because it was the one warm period that lasted a week before the real ice and snow collapsed on Missouri.
It was so quiet, this neighborhood. Strolling down the road at a leisurely pace, Ariya noticed an open curtain in the window of one neighbor. They were busily typing on their home network. Remote worker, obviously.
Ariya’s glance shifted to a group of kids who had just come home from school. Two bent over the shoulder of one who was crouched, playing a game on their school-issued ipad.
It was a week when kids from John Zimmer school were home-bound because three teachers had tested positive for the virus.
“Hey, kids!” Ariya waved.
The three didn’t stir. Must be some game to keep their attention like that. Most likely didn’t have much to do with at-home assignments.
Ariya sighed and closed her eyes, letting her other senses tell her where she was walking. A robin trilled out a single staff of notes. Stray leaves from last November scuttled down the driveway nearby on a sweet-stinging breeze.
It took her back to when she was a little girl back in the late 1980’s. Neighbors knew each other by name then. Ariya remembered her best friend Suzanne who was the next door neighbor. They had played for hours using imaginary names for far-off places, going on safaris and cruises, pretending to be or do something they hoped someday they could be or do. They made their hopes and dreams out of leaves and dirt and old plastic bowls.
Nowadays, to pretend to be somewhere else, you could just click on some random program for a virtual reality video of Italy or Australia, and your craving was instantly satisfied. You could do that alone.
If you needed a person to chat with, you could log into Facemag and pick a random person in your interest group.
“You don’t need neighbors anymore,” Ariya commented to herself. You need a cup of sugar, you just go and get it yourself. It’s just a click of a button away now. No need to ask your neighbor.
And yet, there is so much that can be missed for the simpler times. Times people knew the value of the other people’s voices were so much more than convenience.
Ariya remembered the spark of warmth in Tami’s eyes. She was wheelchair bound, and didn’t get out very much but she knew the meaning of friendship. She was always there when you wanted to chat or laugh or sometimes borrow a cup of sugar.
No technology can replace friendship. No matter how many things are invented, the invisible person-to-person simplicity of being a good neighbor cannot be truly replaced. No one will ever put it in a museum as a classic piece of art or a monumental invention. But those who grow up not knowing what being a real neighbor is, have missed an entire piece in their maturity.
It’s not about personal space. It’s about unrelated members of a family. It’s about being there for another person. It’s about giving and receiving. How could a metal chip replace a life?
As Ariya turned onto her home sidewalk, she noticed a little girl about 5 years old looking confused and afraid. There was no coat on her thin arms, no baby fat on her cheeks. Ariya was very concerned. Where were her parents?
“Are you alright, honey?” she asked.
The little girl jumped and looked at her, eyes almost spilling over with tears. “I - I don’t know where my mom went. She said she was gonna pick me up from ‘school’, but my sister did instead. Then my sister went to her friend’s house and I wanted to find my mom. Do you know where my mom is?”
Ariya gently took the girl’s hand. “Not yet, but we will see if we can find her. What’s your name darling?”
“Zarla,” she whispered.
“Well, Zarla, my house is down there. Let’s go wait there and I’ll see if I can get someone to find your mom.”
Zarla walked quietly beside Ariya looking at the sidewalk. She was very hungry. She tore into the graham crackers Ariya offered as if she hadn’t eaten in days. After eating, Zarla allowed Ariya to wash her face and bundle her up in a blanket. She giggled as Ariya read stories from one of the children’s books that used to be her own when she was small.
When the social worker came to Ariya’s door, she explained the situation.
The social worker shook her head. “I’ve seen this before. Mother too taken up in her own nonsense to look after the children properly. Thanks for calling us. We will be in touch. I’m going to take this little one to a safer place until we can figure out where her parents are.”
“Where do you plan to take her?” Ariya asked.
“Oh, she’ll be ok. Police station for now, then if her parents don’t come right away we’ll look into a foster situation. Hopefully we can locate a relative,” the worker explained.
“I’ll be glad to let her stay with me for a little while,” Ariya offered.
“Thank you! We’ll consider that if there are no other options.”
As Zarla followed the social worker, she glanced shyly back at Ariya and smiled. Ariya waved. Just being a good neighbor can mean so much in the life of a child. Or for anyone.