We very intentionally moved to our current home after a series of not-quite-right trials elsewhere in the country. The thing to know about our particular city is that people find a house and claim it for good. At any time, there could be fewer than a dozen properties for sale, and when we were searching there were fewer than five. Despite this reality, we happened to find the perfect house on Craigslist. We called the owner; he offered to show it the next morning, and we bought it.
It stretched our finances, but we loved it. It had a family history. Children had grown up, and been loved, here. There was a secret hiding spot under the stairs where we found a message for future inhabitants written in a seven-year-old’s scrawl: “Dont ever change this spot. My sister and I lik to play hear.” So did my son, and his brother. In the basement, there was a beam where kids had been measured each year, and we happily continued the tradition in the same spot.
Across from the house was a common wooded land which all nine houses on the block partially owned and shared. It had a pond for skating and fishing, and a ramshackle warming house which my husband dreamed of restoring someday. It connected to miles of snowshoeing and hiking paths.
In such a site, we saw our lives unfolding with love, adventure, and fresh air. And then, we lived in the home for a year, and realized things were not the way they had first seemed. The less pleasant characteristics of our neighborhood began to creep in, and their severity ranged from small to glaring.
Stray dogs, shady neighbors, and illegal activities
It only took a week to realize our yard did not belong to us. Cryptic comments from the previous owners about the “occasional dog” in no way prepared us for the daily five-to-ten canine visitors who regularly used our property for their bathroom, evaded all attempts to catch them, and trotted off home only to return again later that afternoon. Besides the mess, most of the animals towered far taller than my children. The friendly ones knocked them over; the mean ones barked and growled.
We made daily visits to our dog-owning neighbors near and far to plead our case. More often than not, the response was hostile. Sometimes, it was frightfully so. We started putting up a fence, and then learned that our city doesn’t allow them without consent from the neighbors. They were not inclined to consent with us.
We had also realized that while the neighborhood had many signs of children having had lived there at one time, no children but ours currently inhabited it. (Maybe they were all eaten by dogs?)
But the neighborhood dog pack turned out to be the least of our troubles. At a tag sale, I browsed through my neighbor’s rickrack and happened to notice a woman next-door peeking out behind the kitchen curtains. I waved, and she disappeared, Boo-Radley style. “I haven’t met her yet,” I commented to the neighbor whose driveway I stood in.
“Yes,” she replied uncomfortably, “Well, since you’ve noticed her, I should let you know…” and subsequently informed me that the woman’s son, who lived with her, was a registered child sex offender, recently released from his prison term.
Like responsible parents, we had looked up the state sex offender registry before purchasing our house, expecting to find a scatter plot map of where the offenders resided. Instead, we realized our state provided a name and photo of all thirteen sex offenders, but did not provide their local addresses. “Strange,” we thought. “But what are the chances of living next door to one?” Well, pretty good, in our case.
I stood in my yard and looked around. From the swing set where my children played, there was a direct line of sight to the porch window of the sex offender. From the giant boulder where my children went sledding, there was a direct line of sight to the kitchen window of the sex offender. From the playhouse, from the blueberry bushes, the woodlot, on and on — all within sight of that man.
We called the man’s social worker, who gave us nothing but worse news: Yes, he had committed crimes against multiple children. Yes, he had lived at that house for twenty years, and she expected he would continue to live there indefinitely. Yes, he had access to the common land across the street and no current restrictions upon him.
We hiked through the common land again, which had been one of the greatest draws of the property, as we envisioned our sons as young Tom Sawyers using it for their explorations. Now, we saw it through another lens. We saw all the places a person could hide in wait for his prey. We looked at the old dilapidated warming house, with its crumbling walls and broken windows, and we shuddered.
And then, while walking those greatly esteemed snowshoeing paths through the woods, we saw a strange sight: a makeshift stove in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by an odd assortment of bottles and canisters. A few pots were suspended above torches on strings. Besides the menu of assorted chemicals, the mysterious chef of the woods had left behind a sizable quantity of half smashed beer cans scattered over the forest floor. Ominous, indeed.
Is it better to live in a cardboard box, if it’s safe, than in a nice house in a dangerous place?
How do you give your family a safe and happy home? That was a question that stood out above all now.
But it’s not a simple thing to move again. As I mentioned, the number of homes for sale in our area was slim, and there was honestly no way to prevent the same situation from occurring again, unless we canvassed the potential neighborhood. “Excuse me, we are thinking about moving in. Can you tell me if you have any pedophiles present? Is anyone manufacturing methamphetamines in the woods back there? Oh, and are you planning to let your large dogs roam unchecked around my yard?” That conversation wasn’t likely to happen.
And what about all the children who can’t avoid living in dangerous places around the world? What about all the other parents — the ones who can’t afford to be picky, or the ones who don’t want the hour-long commute? What about the oft-generalized inner-city kids growing up above the drug lords and brothels? What is their walk to school like each day? And more to my immediate needs, how do their parents cope with their reality? How do I cope with mine, and do the best that I can in a bad situation?
Change what we can, and let go of the rest
That’s not to say that I decided to throw up my hands and leave my children to the winds. Our motto is “Change what we can, and let go of the rest,” with specific emphasis on the change part. It turns out, there’s a lot that can be changed. For now, I can change the way we use our space. It’s not always convenient, and it’s not always my first choice of how to do things, but I can do it.
Now, we rent a plot in a community garden site rather than garden in our yard in company of the sex offender and meth maker, and at the mercy of the dogs. Now, I am reasonably polite to inconsiderate neighbors but no longer bend over backward hoping to make friends. For now, my children and I hike together in the common land with pepper spray in tow, and a cell phone.
I am learning to take back some control. I have learned that if you can’t create a safe landscape, you can create safe pockets of that landscape. And you can always work harder on the “happy” part of that “safe and happy” vision.
Creating a happy childhood in an unsafe environment
Part of creating that happiness for my kids is to try to equip them with the coping skills to deal with a less-than-ideal, or unsafe, environment. So in my house, we do a lot of art. We tell many stories of bravery, responsibility, and overcoming misfortune. We play music. We build things, large and small, every day. We go on different kinds of adventures than the ones I once envisioned: car trips, hikes through state parks, visits to friends, museums, libraries. We aim to fill our children’s days with laughter and light, but we also try to teach them ways to heal themselves when their cup is less full.
Not on my children’s radar, other projects abound. There are hedges planted. Kids’ artwork are hung strategically in windows to block out certain views. There are extra locks installed on doors. We play in different parts of the house during different times of the day, and there are some times when we avoid going outside. There is pepper spray and a telephone within reach of every room.
Sometimes “safe” is a frame of mind
It is certainly not foolproof against outside threats, but it is something we can do. And, until we can more drastically change our circumstances, it helps. It particularly helps still my mind, and helps me be a better, less distracted and anxious, mother to my children. Which will, in turn, I hope, make my children grow up to be more happy and grounded persons who can cope better with whatever situation they find themselves in.
I suppose what I am doing is trying to cultivate a safe and happy place in our minds. And I tell myself that for anyone, anywhere, in whatever bad situation that feels powerless – this is one thing over which they have some control. Sometimes a safe and happy home has to be a frame of mind.