University City

Father’s Day in a University City village

The African proverb famously tells us that it takes a village to raise a child. It says nothing about suburban housing tracts.

Take Autumnwood, where we live. It is a pleasant suburban neighborhood of respectable but unpretentious houses near UNC Charlotte. We have no sidewalks, no parks, no playgrounds and no center where the community can gather.

There’s no shopping or library within walking distance; to get anywhere, you have to get in the car and drive. It’s been this way for more than 20 years.

Our naturally integrated and highly diverse university neighborhood has lost a sense of having neighborhood schools that tie families together.

As a father, I suppose I have the right to be annoyed by all that. But after celebrating 20 Father’s Days here, I see Autumnwood a bit differently.

In fact, I hereby move to grant Autumnwood the status of “village,” though you need to look past sidewalks and the school board to understand why.

In spite of the shortcomings, Autumnwood has provided a nurturing environment for both our kids. Ben, our youngest, graduated from high school last week, and his sister, Anna, is now studying at UNC Asheville.

Autumnwood is blessed with natural infrastructure. Our kids have grown up exploring Toby Creek, a beautiful tributary to the Rocky River. The creek winds its way behind our house and stitches our neighborhood together. There are big hickory and oak trees to climb and swing on, waterfalls glistening over natural outcroppings, and lots of wildlife – from big hoot owls to a family of foxes.

True believers in “the grid” criticize cul-de-sacs, but matching Autumnwood’s road layout to our existing streams and keeping channeling and culverts to a minimum has advantages from an environmental perspective. Plus, it offers far more interesting places for kids to play that aren’t near the street.

Autumnwood is also blessed with good neighbors and lots of children.

Both our kids have grown up with other youngsters from the neighborhood. Ben was born after we moved here, and he grew up amid a pack of friends. Gaining and losing members from time to time, they have moved from house to house in a perpetual sleepover/play date that started when they were toddlers.

Now that they are strapping young men; a single visit can fill all available furniture and completely empty the refrigerator (at particular risk: gallons of milk). Over the years, these young people have gained more than a half-dozen auxiliary mothers and fathers in the parents of their friends.

Now that they are grown and headed to college, it certainly is going to be quiet around here. And our milk bill should drop substantially.

But that leaves Autumnwood haunted with ghosts a father or mother can see, especially at dusk when Nan and I walk our dog, Homer.

There, behind that tree, a bunch of little boys play tag. Anna flies down the hill on her bike. First-graders eat birthday cake and wear funny hats on our back porch. The four of us pile on the couch to read the new Harry Potter book aloud in the living room. We watch frogs come and go from our pond in the front yard.

Countless times, we hurry to catch the school bus. Walking in the snow, we see the fox beside Toby Creek, free and wild – a vividly red shape against the white.

New families and kids have moved into Autumnwood; all of them dance differently to the music of life. It is like watching a time-traveling movie of our own lives. Before we arrived, other families raised their kids here, too.

The village parallel breaks down at bit at this point since there is no continuity. There is no one to keep and tell Autumnwood’s saga over the years. Maybe churches, our “faith villages,” fill this continuity role more than our geographical neighborhoods do.

This year, I’ve been going to California a lot to see my father. I’m fixing up the suburban tract house where my brother and I grew up. Like Autumnwood, it is filled with memories and ghosts. There, though, I see them not as a father, but through the eyes of the child I once was.

In many ways, my life growing up wasn’t terribly different from how my children’s lives have been. I wonder whether Anna and Ben will come back one day to our house in Autumnwood and feel some of the same sense of wonder and regret, gratitude and sadness.

In theory, I wish we could have added various things to Autumnwood while the kids were growing up. But what really happened is far more significant than what might have been.

Our home in Autumnwood, our village, holds a sacred trove of memories. On Father’s Day, all this father wants is to say, “Thanks.”