When we borrowed money and stretched our finances for a down payment on one half of a two-family house, we were warned to be careful. “You have to make sure that your neighbors are normal,” my sister-in-law cautioned, having just spent the better part of a decade dealing with a weirdo in her condo building until she finally moved in frustration.
“You’re not going to be able to keep your children out of their house, so they have to have similar standards to yours,” said my sister Leah, who’d had an unfortunate experience with a neighbor whose computer wasn’t filtered properly.
“And they should be mentchlich, people who keep things clean so you won’t have to pick up their garbage from the front lawn,” added my cousin sagaciously. “I could tell you stories that would make your sheitel stand on end!”
In many ways, I soon learned, buying a house with another family was like a shidduch, except a shidduch was for a lifetime whereas a house was only for however long the two of you could peacefully coexist.
I smiled and accepted my family’s well-meaning advice, but really, there was nothing to worry about. We knew the family that was buying the other half of the house very well. The Reichs were wonderful people: My husband had learned in yeshivah with Ushy Reich some 13 years ago, and his wife, Shaindy, was a sweet, soft-spoken woman. She was a full-time mother, devoted to her children and her home, the type of person you’d feel comfortable asking to babysit in a pinch or to borrow a cup of sugar when you were short.
The Reichs felt the same way about us (we’d heard through the grapevine that they were thrilled), and we both signed on the dotted line.
We moved into our brand-new home a couple of months later, reveling in the freedom of having enough room to breathe. With four bedrooms, a spacious kitchen/dining area and a huge playroom, it was a far cry from the dingy two-bedroom rental we’d just vacated. Our toddler even had a tiny bedroom of his own so that his midnight kvetching wouldn’t wake the other kids.
The first few years were blissful. Since Shaindy and I were both stay-at-home moms, each with two little ones home all day, we depended on each other for companionship. Every Wednesday, after we waved goodbye to the kindergartners on their school bus, we’d strap the little ones into our double strollers and walk to the giant supermarket to stock up our pantries.
Sometimes we’d linger, stopping at the coffee shop for a caffeine fix or for some pizza, which we’d share with our now-hungry toddlers. Although Shaindy and I had different personalities, we got along famously. Shaindy was an excellent mother and a balebusta par excellence. She made sure that her children put their toys away, threw wrappers into the garbage can, and said “please” and “thank you.” I rarely heard loud voices coming from their half of the house, and I certainly hoped that she could say the same.
“I can’t believe how nicely it worked out,” said the sister-in-law who’d originally warned me about sharing a home. “It’s like the two of you were meant to live together.”
“Yeah, Shaindy is a real gem. We babysit for each other all the time, shop together, and spend hours waiting for our kids’ school buses. I probably spend more time with her than my own sisters!”
“Most neighbors don’t get along so well,” she continued. “It’s been how long—three years now?”
“Almost four since we signed our contract, and I couldn’t hope for a better neighbor,” I replied.
In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t wise to gush so much, even though I don’t believe in ayin haras. The changes were subtle at first, too innocuous to draw my attention. Shaindy had always been determined to stay home with her little ones and not to farm them out to a babysitter so she could pursue a career. As she often stressed, “I’d rather eat bread and butter and never go on vacation than leave my babies with someone else.” I felt the same way and lived a frugal lifestyle, keeping my children home until they were old enough for school.
That’s why I was stunned when Shaindy surprised me at the bus stop one day with shocking news.