By Eric Maring
We had a major house fire in 2005 caused by an electric surge. We were out, but after receiving the call from a neighbor, we rushed home in panic, and the scene of firefighters, neighbors, and us, the shocked homeowners, played out. Our next-door neighbor, Kay, took me aside that afternoon. “In a year, this will be ancient history,” she said. Hearing these words from my wise neighbor put me at ease. “My house is yours; no need to knock. Use the phone, bathroom, food — whatever you need.” Is this not the complete picture of what a perfect neighbor is? Kay Dunn is now in her 80s and has lived in the neighborhood since she was a 2-year-old little girl. I have been fortunate to call her my neighbor for 23 of those 80-plus years she has been here in Calvert Hills.
I’ve always loved Kay’s stories. She told me that when she was young, she played in a stream (long gone) that ran near our house. Her family used to have a horse. Her father owned a bowling alley in town that went on to become the (now closed) Milkboy Arthouse. She went with a group of many neighbors in the Calvert Hills neighborhood to ski in Vermont, calling themselves the College Park Ski Club. She remembers the dirt roads in our neighborhood, the streetcar, the downtown before there were walls and gates between the sidewalk and the road.
Kay is an icon in the neighborhood and is known by many for her legendary Halloween picture house since the early 1990s, Kay and her family have welcomed any trick-or-treating family into their home to have their picture taken. Kay has displayed these photos with each passing year, to everyone’s absolute delight. I know I’m not alone when I can’t believe the power in seeing my children when they were young, the costumes they were wearing, the friends they were with; the times we dressed as a family. We’ve looked forward to Kay’s pictures each year, and knowing that so many in the neighborhood do, as well, is unifying and deep. We need more of that old-timey media these days; pictures on posterboard find a place in our lives and are way more meaningful than some scroll of photos that disappears after you’ve seen them once.
For years every fall, the Dunn’s driveway and yard were covered with pumpkins, mums and pansies; it was the place to get flowers and also to visit Kay. From our house, we could see people heading to Kay’s simply for the chance to chat. Our out-of-town families even came to our house to get mums from Kay.
Did I mention Kay’s beautifully flowered backyard and pool, which she and her husband, Bob, have always generously kept open to the kids? This simple act has meant so much to my kids and has taught them generosity. Kay and Bob more than model what it means to be a good neighbor.
Talking with the Dunns, I learned about how Bob, a plumber, didn’t always feel welcome in a neighborhood of professors. I appreciated hearing his honesty and really admire Bob. He has always been a great teammate in Kay’s neighborhood passions and certainly doesn’t mind her getting the spotlight here.
Kay has had many joys, though she has had sorrows, too. I just learned yesterday that Kay had stage-4 cancer when she was helping us with the fire. “I’m sorry I couldn’t cook for you all at that time,” she said, thinking back to that time, and she means it — as I have a total double take, not even having registered that fact before this week I say to myself, “May this be a reminder that there is joy and strength in deciding to help others, even when you are suffering.”
Hearing Kay’s stories puts the years I’ve been here in a different perspective. I’ve gained so much insight on life in my 23 years here — the friends, the children, and yes, the house fire. Wow, if that’s 23 years, imagine the wisdom and experience Kay’s gained in her 80-plus years of living in this neighborhood we’re both lucky enough to call home.