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Rediscovering home: It’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood

Sandra Symons' courtyard jungle, where frogs find themselves at home. Photo: Sandra Symons

Opinion by SANDRA SYMONS

It is a lovely evening in the inner city. It is the violet hour. 

Wayward frangipani blooms still litter the pavement, murraya crowds the iron fence railings, leptospermum lends the air a soft suggestion of lemons. 

But stop. Listen. Blot out the sounds of passing cars and passers-by, the sounds of people preparing dinner, the sounds of the television and conversation drifting out of open living room windows.

Tune into ground level. And there you have it. A melodious piping, a lovely high song from a myriad tiny frogs. They don’t live in water, they live in the damp undergrowth. 

I have been listening to this lovely song for years. It is part of my domestic domain. I live in a 120-year-old Victorian terrace with a courtyard jungle. The frogs are part of that lush jungle. And I am just hearing their song for the first time in a long time.

Five years ago I left my job to live with and look after my mother, then well into her 90s and a widow.  

My mother’s house is in a garden suburb north of the harbour. There the gardens are fairly large, the streets lined with wide grassy verges with many trees and shrubs.  It is bordered by a national park. I got used to hearing magpies, butcher birds, kookaburras, cockatoos, lorikeets, channel-billed cuckoos during the day, possums, flying foxes, powerful owls, boobooks, tawny frogmouths at night. 

Some of them I do hear in my inner city neighbourhood, being that it is close to a large park. But in all the time I lived with my mother, I never heard the piping song of the little frogs.

Now, living back in my terrace house, I am acutely aware of the concentrated sounds and smells of home. 

But what is home? Neighbourhood? Community? As I look around my house, I recognise that ‘home’ is a repository of my memories, an  accumulation of objects and furniture, chosen and bestowed over time, a place of conception and birth, of children walking, talking, going to school, of fights and fears, love and longing. All marked in the fabric of the place.

What is so important about my rediscovery of my home is that it is allowing me to re-organise and re-establish my life in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a sanctuary. Acclaimed architect Leonidas Trampoukis, of LOT design, sums it up  – the meaning of  ‘home’ is about belonging somewhere not only in physical terms but also in terms of being comfortable, of enjoying small things that offer inspiration and peace.

To me, neighbourhood is defined by physical boundaries and place marks. 

I see again the robinias outside the café and pub I used to frequent with my partner and children, the golden green leaves rippling in the breeze directly off the harbour. 

I walk past the playing fields in the park that still echo with sounds of my children’s hockey and softball, football and cricket games.  I hear the calls of the coots, wood ducks, swamp hens, swans and geese on the ponds, the whistling cry of the yellow-tailed black cockatoos in the radiata pine thickets.

Each day now I drift past the heritage sandstone walls of imposing government buildings, their self-important lines softened by lines of jacarandas. I love the wandering lanes that reveal backyard secrets of the expansive terraces with their Juliet balconies and crows nest attics. And always there are, and have always been, the art galleries, design studios, antique shops, fashion boutiques, hair salons, patisseries, cafes and delis and little pubs, all jostling elbows for attention.

This neighbourhood is once again providing me with the robust skeleton of my home turf. I know a neighbourhood may have fuzzy boundaries and I notice the subtle differences between one side of the street and the other. 

In fact, the border between two suburbs in my municipality runs down the middle of my street. On one side, grand mid-19th century sandstone villas with stable blocks at the back and spacious gardens, on the other side two storey Victorian terraces with front verandah and balcony on the street and small yard at the back.  

The grand villas stand on a high ridge surrounded by various incarnations of the two, three and four storey terraces, tiny single storey cottages, modest bald-faced terraces of apparent neglect that make up the diverse interests and lifestyles in the neighbourhood’s different zones. Such a mix is not obvious in my mother’s more homogenous neighbourhood.  

Community is another component of home. It is composed of residents, more importantly one’s neighbours, and those in the shops, cafes and markets. 

Although I had been away for years, the owner of my corner café greeted me with “Oh hello, have you been on holidays?” as he got on with my order. I had slipped back into the community so easily. It may be profoundly familiar but the nice thing is that I am noticing its special features as much as I would an unfamiliar place.  

This all reminds me of the Canadian-US children’s television show ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’, that aired 1968 to 2001, and if you are not familiar with the show, you will know about Tom Hanks playing the role of Mister Roberts in the film released last year, ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’. Mister Rogers sings the opening song that goes like this,

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Could you be mine?
Would you be mine?
“I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you
I have always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
“Let’s make the most of this beautiful day
Since we are together, might as well say
Would you be my, could you be my
Won’t you be my neighbor?”

And the answer, Mister Rogers, is yes!

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