-By Jeanne Langley
I bought my 1950 Chapel Hill home in 2002 in Morgan Creek when my son was 10 years old. It was a beautiful neighborhood and the house and yard are perfect for children; there was even a little playhouse in the backyard. It was also a lonely neighborhood for a child as it was filled with older people who had lived here 30, 40 and 50 years and there were no other children in the neighborhood besides my son. Sometimes, the quiet was painful. On Halloween, the houses were all dark and neighbors didn’t even bother to get candy or turn on lights for trick-or-treaters. No houses were decorated for Christmas. No flags flew for the Fourth of July. My son and I put up a basketball goal in the front driveway and brought friends from my son’s school and sports teams over to play. As for the playhouse, by the time my son had made friends, he was too old and too big for the playhouse, so we used it to store our outdoor games and toys.
One day, an older woman knocked at the door and said that she had lived in my house for more than 20 years and raised her children there. She wanted to know if she could have a cutting from some of the plants she had planted long ago to transplant to her home at Carolina Meadows. I invited her in and she introduced herself as Jane Rogers and told me many stories of the house. The neighborhood had been full of children in the ‘50s and ‘60s, she said. Jane would iron in the kitchen and, from time to time, count the children in the yard. She remembered once the number being as many as 17 at one time. The playhouse had been hers at her childhood home on Franklin Street. When she bought this house as a young woman in 1955, she had her playhouse moved from her parents’ home to her house so that her children could enjoy it.
I saw Jane Rogers several more times over the years when she stopped by to see what changes I had made in the house, and one day, she brought her grown children. They toured the house, told me more stories and were horrified to see that I had painted the daughter’s room – now my son’s – Duke colors. I would often see Jane at Carolina Meadows whenever I visited a woman from our church and she was always a lively, interesting woman.
By the time my son was finishing high school and after he left home for college, young people began buying homes in the neighborhood. I was delighted to hear the laughter of small children and see them in neighbors’ yards. Playsets and rope swings began appearing in yards and it felt like the neighborhood was returning to life. I began a friendship with one 4-year-old girl over books and, from time to time, Susanna would pop over with her dad so she and I could read together. I would see the two little girls across the street. Allie and Ava would chat as I was working in the yard and they were playing. A family moved next door with a little boy, Liam, and we would visit. When his parents built him a playset, he would call out to me from high in the playset and we would talk over the fence. The children grew and our friendships bloomed. When Allie and Ava’s mother achieved her Ph.D. from UNC, I gave her the gift of babysitting so that she and her husband children played in the yard as they waited their turn. We painted until dark on Friday night and the children appeared at 8 a.m. the next morning. We painted all that day until dark, while neighbors stopped by and took pictures of the children playing in the yard or brought snacks and food for the painters. On Sunday morning, we again started early and finished by 3 p.m. so we invited the parents for an unveiling party to see the interior. (I had also invited two of my friends from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Durham and Orange Counties could celebrate. That night, we watched old movies in my 1950s basement den and invited their friends, Susanna and her sister, Kate, to join us for dinner and a movie. “Movie night” was born and I began inviting more of the neighborhood children to join us about once every quarter to see my son’s old VCR movies. Soon there were 10 children, then 13, watching old movies in the basement den, all of us having a grand time.
Last September, I realized that the old playhouse had not been painted in the 15 years I had lived here. The paint had started to peel and I wanted to maintain it because it was, after all, a historic playhouse, being close to 70 years old. Jane Rogers had died, and it seemed important to me to keep it maintained for her memory. The interior was a very dirty-looking white with sponged purple trim painted by the previous owners perhaps 20 years ago. I decided that the children should paint the interior and divided the inside into about 16 sections, one for each child and myself, with a few to spare where tall games would be stored.
Each child drew a section out of a jar to paint. He or she could do anything he or she wanted with that section with whatever colors he or she wanted. Parents donated colors and on a Friday afternoon, the painting began. We had to paint in shifts because only two people could be in the playhouse at a time so the other children played in the yard as they waited their turn. We painted until dark on Friday night and the children appeared at 8 a.m. the next morning. We painted all that day until dark, while neighbors stopped by and took pictures of the children playing in the yard or brought snacks and food for the painters. On Sunday morning, we again started early and finished by 3 p.m. so we invited the parents for an unveiling party to see the interior. (I had also invited two of my friends from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Durham and Orange Counties where I tutor, but we couldn’t work out the arrangements. I saved the door for them, and they painted the next weekend, when they met and played with many of the neighborhood children.) At the unveiling party that Sunday afternoon, we dedicated the playhouse to Jane Rogers. The children’s paintings are spectacular. Each section is uniquely his or her own and each has his or her story to tell. Together, the art forms a picture of our friendship and of our transformed neighborhood, now vibrant, fun and caring.
In our neighborhood now, one family organizes a Halloween party at the end of our street every year. We all gather around a fire in costume after trick-or-treating and another family brilliantly performs a musical number in theme costume (and I need three large bags of candy to give out). We have a 5K “eggnog jog” on Christmas Eve morning, starting at the corner where a young couple lives with three children and has installed zip lines. We run, bike and scooter a 5K in holiday wear and end up with eggnog and treats. On New Year’s Eve, one neighbor hosts a performance party where many gather for performances by other neighbors, including, this year, a Morgan Creek version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Every year, the aging-in-place neighbors throw a party for the children in the neighborhood and when a new baby arrives, the meal train begins for the new parents.
The playhouse project cemented the friendship between the children and myself. Watching them paint, helping them with techniques, hearing their stories behind the painting, celebrating the joy of the finished project and dedicating it to Jane Rogers was a shared experience of joy, laughter, patience, effort, taking turns and excitement. We worked and played together for two-and-a-half days and created something to last another 50 years, I hope. Now, the children regularly stop by to check out what I’m doing on an afternoon, to play games, have a snack, tell me a story, bring me a gift (my refrigerator is covered in drawings) and they even threw me a surprise birthday party! Movie nights continue regularly and we are now up to 15 participants. “Pollyanna” will be our next showing. The playhouse is theirs now, filled with my toys and theirs, for them to play with as they wish, whenever they wish.
Photography by Briana Brough