It was June of 2004, about six months after Andrew and I had moved to St. Marys. I had repainted the dingy metal flowerboxes on our secluded balcony. Bright white once more, I filled them with equally bright pink petunias.
The balcony, however, was not as secluded as we had believed. A few days later, Andrew returned home from errands, grinning as he reported that “the ladies across the street sure are happy you painted the flowerboxes — Peggy said they look much better now!”
I was equally bemused, if somewhat alarmed. Newly transplanted from Toronto, and having lived in a varied string of student housing prior to that, the notion that someone was noticing us was somewhat foreign. Other than the gentleman who would softly knock on our apartment door whenever we left our keys in the door of our last big city apartment, we never had neighbours.
Moving to St. Marys in the middle of winter made getting to know people challenging by circumstance (though Andrew’s morning snow-shovelling routine helped). My first few months in St. Marys were also tinged with culture shock: it took me longer to find my place in our new hometown.
But we bloomed as spring did. Which brings me back to Peggy. The night of the flowerbox compliment, I ran up to the balcony to investigate how Peggy could notice such an insignificant detail. A gap between the maples revealed three women sitting on the porch of the grey cinder-block home across the street. I waved; they waved back. Gulp.
Peggy Mitchell passed away last week; for our St. Marys history, it marks the end of an era. She is the last of those three women to leave us: Ione Lindsay died in 2013, and Muriel Moore in 2005. As it so commonly happens, we gradually lost our connection with each woman as she moved on to Kingsway or Wildwood: that Peggy was 98 only reinforces time’s unceasing march.
But let’s return to summer 2004. For a couple in their mid-20s, these three ladies may have seemed unlikely compatriots. But their knowledge of St. Marys and life experience was just what our young souls needed as we adjusted to our new life. The three of them would regularly sit on their porch, watching the world go by, listening to the Jays’ games on CJCS as Andrew and I hustled and bustled.
Mrs. Lindsay was the onetime owner of our home and business, and so a wellspring of information and encouragement. Peggy’s exuberance played off of Muriel’s reserve. The three of them were incredibly polite and just intrusive enough for us to know that they cared about those two crazy kids across the street.
Stopping for a chat on the way home from Foodland or popping over while doing yardwork became the norm in warmer months. Andrew and I still chuckle about the time he and a friend marched over with brooms and tennis racquets to dispose of a bat late one night. Christmas treats were exchanged. We choose where to live based on myriad factors, but we also choose our neighbours when doing so.
The proverb “good fences make good neighbours” reveals our cultural ambivalence about those we live next to. Standoffish neighbours are snobby; nosy neighbours are overbearing. Maybe instead of being divided by a fence, the best neighbours are united by a porch.
If you’re blessed with new neighbours, chocolate chip cookies are a sure bet to win them over. Here’s a fresh spin on the favourite.
Salted Chocolate Chunk Cookies
1/2 cup room temperature unsalted butter
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. turbinado sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. packed light or dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 tsp. baking soda
Heaped 1/4 tsp. fine sea or table salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 pound semi- or bittersweet chocolate, chopped into 1/2-inch chunks
Flaky sea salt, to finish
Heat oven to 360°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugars with an electric mixer until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add egg and vanilla, beating until incorporated, and scraping down the bowl as needed. Beat in fine sea salt or table salt and baking soda until combined, then the flour on a low speed until just mixed. The dough will look crumbly. With a spatula, fold/stir in the chocolate chunks.
Scoop cookies into 1 1/2 tablespoon mounds, spacing them apart on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle each with a few flakes of sea salt. Bake for 11 to 12 minutes, until golden on the outside but still very gooey and soft inside. Let rest on baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Makes 18 to 24 cookies.