Soon after Kelli and Mark Kolar moved into their two-story home on Hughes Place 18 years ago, The Bench became part of a purposeful plan: to make a gathering place.
“Everybody was always outside,” Kelli remembers, “and it was a place where you could sit and relax and watch the kids and catch up with your neighbors.”
They bought a bench made of teak, a sturdy but beautiful wood known for its ability to endure all kinds of weather. At the front of the yard, to the right of the driveway and next to the sidewalk, Mark attached it to cinder blocks buried in the ground, so pranksters couldn't run away with it some night. They planted a pine tree behind it and bushes on each side.
“One of the intentions of The Bench,” Kelli says, “was that anyone could go and use it.”
And we did.
For years, the children would play in the cul-de-sac and we parents would huddle around The Bench. And talk. And laugh. And share the kinds of stories that forged neighbors into friends and a street into a community.
Then the children grew and lives became busier and divergent interests pulled us in different directions. The street became quieter. And so did camaraderie at The Bench.
Over the years, several of the original families moved, including the Kolars. New families — some with younger children — replaced them. They became friends, chatting outside as their kids played.
But the magical draw of The Bench faded with the teak.
In 2010, Rachel and Matt Keillor became the third family to live in the Kolar house. California transplants originally from the Midwest, they came with their daughter, Natalie, then 3, and their 2½-month-old son, Andrew.
And then, as so often happens, an ordinary life event occurs that somehow starts a chain reaction that leads to something special. In this case: Andrew turned 2 and began to scooter. Natalie, now 6, wanted to ride her bike all the time.
Rachel, a stay-at-home mom, knowing she'd be spending much of her time outside this past summer, looked to The Bench. She and Matt decided to refinish it.
One weekend in May, Matt tried to move The Bench to the garage to sand it down and repaint it. That's when he discovered the cinder blocks. And that's when the neighbors rediscovered The Bench.
Matt: “That weekend that we refinished it …”
Rachel: “Every neighbor came over and talked to us.”
“Oh, we used to sit out here all the time.”
And shared such learned wisdom as: “Seize the day. Time goes by so quickly. Enjoy the moments with your kids; soon they'll be going off to Boulder.”
And a host of tips and tricks on landscaping and weeding.
And the history of the street.
“It did help us to get to know the stories of our neighbors,” Rachel says, smiling, “and the people who lived in our house.”
When The Bench had its new coat, Rachel added two burnt orange cushions she'd bought for a couple of dollars at a garage sale.
Adrienne Miner, who moved into the cul-de-sac with her family 10 years ago, was glad to see the fresh look. She'd often wondered about The Bench.
“I've looked at it and contemplated it over the years,” says Adrienne, who has two young sons. “I was happy to see when Rachel and Matt painted it and put some pillows on it and made it look more inviting and not so lonely and desolate. … It made it look as important as it probably is.”
Any afternoon or evening this summer, more often than not, would find Rachel — or Rachel and Matt — on The Bench watching Natalie and Andrew play. Little by little, as other children would filter into the cul-de-sac, their parents and some of us old-timers, too, would come, gravitating toward The Bench, sitting on the sidewalk or standing nearby.
“When it has one person out there,” Adrienne says of The Bench, “it tends to collect other people.”
The conversations are busy — about the children and their challenges and successes. School. Home improvements. Work. Life. “Just catching up,” Adrienne says, “and connecting.”
Even the children have bonded with The Bench. The neighborhood girls, lately into trading rocks, store their favorites in the nook under the seat. It's become their trading post.
Kelli recently drove down the old street and happily noticed the rejuvenated bench.
“It's kind of like handing down a favorite piece of furniture,” she says. “You never know what's going to happen. But 18 years later, it's still being used for what we put it out there for … It's great.”
Already, the hint of cooler weather is slowing down life at The Bench. Soon, Rachel will take in the pillows so they look good for next year. And I will glance out the window to see who's there, to find it, sadly, empty.
But this time, it will only be for a little while.
The Bench and its magic, I think, will be back next year.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.