With the national elections looming, those of us in the Washington region have been seeing stories about our "neighbors" in Ohio or Florida or Iowa. In Pennsylvania recently, the president told those in his audience to tell their friends and neighbors to go to the polls. I wondered if that charge would work in the Washington area. Around here, when campaign signs appear in yards, which party our neighbors support can be the most I know about them.

When I was growing up in the Maryland suburbs, one of my mother's frequent admonitions to my father's habit of cursing was, "Bill, the neighbors!" The neighbors knew us so well they had a nickname for my brother, "David, G-damn-it."

Often today, when a major crime story breaks in the papers, neighbors are astonished. "They did keep to themselves," they might say about the victims or the perpetrators.

My husband and I bought a three-bedroom house in Arlington in the 1980s. It was originally home to a family of seven, including four girls and one boy. The "KIRK" etched in the basement wall looked like a call for help from an outnumbered boy.

The brick houses in our neighborhood were built in the 1940s. In our 15 years in the neighborhood, original owners died or moved to nursing homes, and babies graduated from strollers to two-wheelers to cars. Break dancing on a big piece of cardboard at the corner came and went and came back again. Most young families eventually migrated from Arlington to bigger houses in Fairfax. Some came back. And with every change, the neighborhood shifted a little.

When we moved into our house, most of our neighbors were the original property owners. Directly behind us, a small woman with blue-tinted hair enjoyed giving her shrubs a daily shave with an electric trimmer. Her spindly, white-haired husband couldn't resist climbing out onto his porch roof during snowstorms to sweep out his gutters.

In warm weather, the couple would bring their TV trays out to their flagstone patio and eat lunch as Vivaldi was broadcast from the radio on the kitchen windowsill, the volume set high because they were both hard of hearing.

We thought they were quaint. They never once complained about our big, black Labrador retriever; then, again, they were hard of hearing.

On many summer evenings, we'd see five or six of the original neighborhood ladies congregate at a house for a marathon card game. We'd hear them laughing and calling to one another as they climbed into their cars well after midnight, and we'd chuckle at the glad sounds of friendship.

We heard one story about these women driving to Louisiana in a big yellow Cadillac and being pulled over by a state trooper for going more than 100 mph. The trooper was so astonished to see a car full of white-haired, little old ladies, the story went, that he let them off with a warning.

The spirit of the neighborhood then was defined by laughter, children calling, dogs barking hellos to other dogs and so many birds that my sister visiting from New York said for a minute that she thought she was in the jungle.

The school bus stop throbbed with life. The little kids played tag as they waited to go to school; the high schoolers parked their books on the hood of our truck while they waited for the bus. In good weather, a parade of strollers headed down our street to Bon Air Park.

Some years later I noticed that the sound of skateboards tooling down the hill or basketballs bouncing on the way to the court -- the neighborhood noise -- had been replaced by the roar of power mowers and other lawn equipment. I grew nostalgic about the way I thought the neighborhood used to be.

"The neighborhood doesn't seem as friendly," I said to one of the few original property owners left.

"This neighborhood? Friendly?" she snorted. "When we moved here with our three children, my neighbors informed me that their yards were not set up for children, and it was two years before a couple from down the street dropped by.

" 'We were waiting to introduce ourselves until we could see what kind of people you were,' they told me."

So, we all see things differently, and sometimes we imagine things. One day I was talking with the man across the street, and he told me that when he and his wife moved in they had envisioned potluck dinners with the neighbors.

"Oh, this isn't that kind of neighborhood," I said. "I think they do that in Alexandria." No sooner had I said this then I remembered that a few weekends before a small troop of neighbors had been sighted straggling down the street with covered dishes.

Once I went door to door collecting for the March of Dimes. Now I don't even want to put letters in the mail to my neighbors. I may know whom they are voting for because they choose to display a sign in their yard, but I don't know if they're still employed or if they've recently had a death in the family. In fact, I don't know anything personal about them.

Neighborhoods just aren't what they used to be. Maybe they never were.

-- Sally Pfoutz