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When  Gill was young, I bought her a book called The Casual Observer. It was delightful– with  drawings of a wee girl in pinafore and Holly Hobbie bonnet who went around noticing things. Birds, butterflies, small animals, flowers…little escaped her gaze.

I used to think of Gill as our family’s Casual Observer. She remains so to this day. I may be guilty for having encouraged this behavior in her since I do the same thing in the neighborhood. She may be living elsewhere now, but she keeps tabs on the people, animals, houses, boats, and nature in her area of Bristol. In my case, I notice birds, dogs, people, houses, gardens, colored leaves in fall, the first spring bulbs and am acutely aware when the first robin or red-winged blackbird takes up residence here in the local woods after the  winter snows have melted.

Gill has, in recent years, turned her powers of observation into much more. It is possible I have created a monster. She now puts names to the people she watches and makes up stories to go with them, turning herself from a Casual Observer to a dedicated Gawker. She’s also something of a, dare I say, Stalker. And since living in the UK, she has added an international dimension to her proclivities. She knows way too much about her fellow residents — even though she doesn’t have any communication with them. What she doesn’t know as fact she embellishes until, lo and behold, they could be characters in her next novel. It’s almost as though they are research projects for her. A snoop by any other name…but I suppose writers ‘doing research’ are given a certain latitude that run-of-the-mill snoops are not.

The criticism of small towns is that everyone knows everyone else’s business. I think the same thing can be said of the burbs. But it can be a positive thing. I like to think that by observing our neighbors, getting to know their comings and goings, their habits, their dogs, we are attuned when anything goes amiss. Who needs security alarms when you have nosy neighbors? I don’t mean the little old ladies hiding behind the sheer curtains, judging the behavior of other people. I mean the caring, respectful neighbor who might spot a daytime burglary or be worried when a person doesn’t appear on time for their daily constitutional. They could be grateful for your attention and your 911 call that saves their life after a fall down the stairs. You never know.

Being of the same mind, Gill and I often go for strolls when she comes home. As we converse, it’s almost like we’re on our own planet.

The simple phrase, “Would you like to go for a walk in the woods?” becomes: “Should we go and visit Fritz?”  (‘Fritz’ is not an actual person but a particular spot in the woods where Gill always used to walk Poochie after dinner.) I have no idea why she named the spot for a German man…but I’m sure she has invented an entire story around him. Perhaps, in her imagination, Fritz is an old Resistance fighter from WWII who is in hiding, fearful that the Nazis will discover his resting place in the woods. Perhaps we are the family who’s been hiding him in the top of our barn and we’re coming to deliver food to him before he begins his trek to blow up the railroad track with the shipment of explosives.) Imagine! This all began because she took Poochie for her after dinner poop and was looking for a secluded spot so she wouldn’t have to scoop up the deed.It is now a ‘destination’ stop.

“Okay, but we should go by way of Molly’s house and check to see if her leash is still attached to the tree.” ‘Molly’ is a sweet, cancer-ridden, old, three-legged dog. She is on borrowed time but if the leash is still wrapped around the tree, we can safely assume she’s still alive. I don’t do well with the death of dogs, so rather than having to ask her family and burst into tears in front of them, I surreptitiously check the leash daily.

“And since we’re going that way, we can stop and visit the Outlaw Gang at the soccer field.”

“The Outlaw Gang? What’s that, Ma?”

“Oh, a group of dog owners who gather to let their dogs run off leash in the soccer field. The bylaw officer tried to cite them a few times but they have managed to outsmart him so far. He had no idea who he was dealing with. Dog owners can be sneaky and, if they figure it’s in the best interest of their dogs, they are not above bending the law.  I think they sometimes post a lookout to spot intruders who might mean trouble. It’s okay…they know me.”

“I’m sure they do, Ma. ..as the neighborhood Crazy Lady.”

“Well, it’s good to keep an eye on the neighborhood,” I say in my defense. “For instance, I bet you didn’t know that this bush is the local ‘bulletin board’ for the dogs in the area. They pee on it, leaving vital info for all the other dogs who pass…just like the Post Office of olden days. And the spot we just passed in the woods…that’s where the local teens hang out to drink and party.”

“You’re a regular font of information, Ma. Have you ever considered working for the FBI?”

“You laugh, but it’s a good thing someone is watching.”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” retorted Gill.