Beautiful Neighbors

We lived in a white stucco French Norman style cottage in Boise, complete with a turret, red trim and mullioned windows. It was built in 1926 and it was my dream home. We moved in when the Baby was almost 5. The yard was big and deep, and bounded by flowering shrubs on 3 sides, with a multitude of trees scattered throughout the yard – scarlet hawthorn, linden, maple, apple, pear, peach, and dogwood. We moved in the spring, so it was at its most gorgeous. Three kinds of lilac, viburnums, forsythia, flowering quince, Oregon grape holly, mock orange, hellebores, violets and spring bulbs were in bloom. A huge bed of iris was budding. Blue flax and pyracantha had started to show color. It was heaven. I spent as much time in the yard as I could. The neighbors to one side lived in an almost identical house with an irrigation ditch cutting through the edge of our properties, crossing into their back yard.

I loved their yard too. They had landscaped the irrigation ditch with rocks and flowering alpines, billowy ferns and tiny mosses. One day I saw a black and white tuxedo cat sitting on a large flat stone, under a purple Siberian iris watching the water flow by. It was a timeless scene, like a Japanese print. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Eventually we met the neighbors, Genevra and Charles. She was British and he was Hungarian. They were artists. Well, obviously, if their yard was anything to go by. They were an older couple, and they really liked the Baby. They encouraged her to come into their yard any time, to play on the swing set they kept there for their grandchildren. Genevra’s mother lived a few blocks away in one direction, and their daughter Francesca lived a few blocks in the other direction, with her children Caitlin and Cristo. They were an intensely close knit family. And they welcomed us into it. For the Baby, who had never lived near any relatives the whole thing was a revelation. Genevra played a British game called “Happy Families” with her, and invited her to tea parties and easter egg hunts. They did art projects. Caitlin, a tiny, fey child and the Baby got along great too. They often vanished into the shrubs, building clubhouses, miniature kingdoms, and talking about whatever girls who are kindred spirits talk about.

One Halloween Francesca had us over to her house to make masks. This whole family was artistic, down to their fingertips. It must have been in their DNA. We cast Caitlin and the Baby’s faces with surgical gauze, first smearing them from hairline to neck with a thick coat of vaseline, then dipping strips of gauze in water and building up a life mask. The Baby wanted to be a fairy princess that year, so we fashioned pointed ears on her mask. After it dried, she painted it and I sewed her a magical blue dress to go with it. I don’t remember what Caitlin was that year, but Francesca and Cristo cast his legs and arms to make a set of jointed armor so he could be a knight. This family attacked life with a gusto and totality that I found fascinating.

As time went by, I found out more about their history. Charles and Genevra married in 1940 and lived on his estate in Hungary. He was some sort of nobility – I don’t know if I ever knew exactly what he was – maybe a baron. With their children and Genevra’s mother and sisters, they survived the Nazi occupation, and Genevra eventually smuggled baby Francesca out of Hungary to Switzerland. In a valise, under some clothing. The family reunited in California in 1948, and eventually made their way to Boise. Genevra’s mother Theresa de Kerpely was an author, and had written about their experiences during the war, in the fictional “A Crown for Ashes”, and the biography, “Of Love and Wars”. She was an aristocratic, white haired lady I had absolutely no problem addressing as Madame de Kerpely. Everyone treated her with the deepest respect. In 1993 she was honored by the Yad Vashem Memorial Institute of Israel, a tribute for righteous gentiles who aided Jewish people at great personal risk to themselves during WWII.

Genevra’s father, brother and son, had all committed suicide. She never talked about that, or about what happened when the Nazis moved into their home. But the entire family worried about Cristo, who did not know about this, and was going through a bad patch, due to his parent’s divorce and problems at school. He tended to pick on Caitlin and the Baby, and Mr. GG reprimanded him a couple of times for teasing them. Shortly after that, we began to get anonymous calls threatening the Baby’s life. It wasn’t too hard to figure out from where they originated, but it was an agonizing situation. I loved these people, but I knew the son had some severe problems. I called the police. With that one call I undid an important friendship, and caused both our families a lot of pain. I regret it to this day, and wish I had found another way to handle things. I was the mother of a young daughter and I was scared, and I have to say, given the same situation, I would probably do it all over again. Some things you just have to live with, and maybe you have to answer for them down the road. If so, I am certain my beautiful, beautiful neighbors will come up at my final reckoning. That’s okay, because I still miss them.


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