Lately I’ve been thinking about the Neighborhood Association meetings my husband and I begrudgingly attended in the early 1970s, when we moved into the lily-white suburb of West Hartford, Conn.
I say “begrudgingly” because we were not exactly welcomed with open arms. It was kind of a fancy-smancy neighborhood. A clear, babbling brook ran alongside the length of our house, and a rushing waterfall was right outside my window.
The very first introduction to the neighbor who lived across the pond was a disaster. I had three girlfriends sitting by the pool topless, I’m afraid. (Knowing me now, the way I think you do, it could have been a lot worse.) But apparently she walked up the back steps to the deck, carrying welcome muffins, and as she made her way to the top, she must have seen what she felt were eight boobs too many. She actually threw the baked goods and ran down the stairs and onto the driveway and I could hear her muttering, “I’m sorry! I just wanted to … oh my … oh dear! I just …” and then I couldn’t hear anymore because the four of us were laughing so hard.
The next neighbor who “welcomed” us lived up the small road that led to three other houses tucked in the back. She arrived in late fall. She was carrying three huge plastic garbage bags. She looked around, frowned and thrust them at me, saying, “These are for your leaves. You can buy them at the A&P Garden Center.” Because my husband only raked after the last leaf had blown off the last tree, I knew she had been watching, and that this wasn’t a housewarming gift. After I got past the less-than-subtle slight, I wondered, What should I have said to this well-coiffed woman with the forced smile and garbage bags? How about, “Oh, I thought these were for packing away our summer things. Did you also bring the mothballs?” Instead, I thanked her profusely.
There were Fourth of July compulsory block parties, potlucks for Christmas (Chanukah not mentioned), and meetings, meetings, meetings. I never offered to host one at my house because my navy blue Dansk sofa had baby throwup stains on the arms.
One day in November, we got a call from the town that we had too many junk cars in our front yard. They weren’t junk cars.They were our cars.
At one of the potlucks I brought sashimi, and now they were convinced we were communists.
Those Neighborhood Association meetings, one in particular right before our kids’ winter vacation, remind me of our political dilemma now.
After small business and the treasurer’s report (Oh my God, how had we moved into a place where I was actually listening to a treasurer’s report?), they asked me to put signs up on my trees, explicitly saying NO ICE SKATING.
Kids from all neighborhoods used to park in our driveway (we welcomed them) or on the street (they were less welcomed), lace up their skates on the banks of the brook below, and skate away. My kids were always there first.
Standing in my studio looking out the sliding glass windows at bunches of children in colorful scarves and hats, it looked like the Norman Rockwell paintings of my fantasy childhood. And here they were, right in my backyard.
“Why,” I asked, “should we keep kids from skating on our pond?” I should have anticipated their answer, but in those days I never thought about lawsuits or insurance or anything so grown-up.
“Someone could drown,” they sang in unison. “They might sue us!” they barked.
I didn’t have a good response, but I knew I didn’t want to put up those signs. My house was the only one that actually was on the pond.
We were left with no choice, but my husband and I couldn’t stop talking about the real reasons behind the directive. Maybe the lawsuit stuff was real, but we figured it was more about riffraff (our parents’ generation’s word). After all, kids were coming from ALL parts of town, and maybe these folks had moved here to get away from those parts.
I handprinted the signs with magic markers, and one by one the neighbors came over to inspect my handiwork, and were satisfied. At the next meeting we were showered with compliments, and the pond was quiet. Even our kids stopped skating. How can you have a hockey game with three people?
Somewhere around January, one of the placards blew off, and I took it as a sign; the universe didn’t like the exclusivity of what was happening here. So in the darkness of night, we tore down the rest of them.
Like magic, kids reappeared, and since we weren’t scheduled to have a meeting until spring, joy resumed in Mudville.
With the March thaw, the ice melted, and surprisingly, so did some of the hearts in the body politic.
One of the members actually said, “I kind of missed the hustle and bustle of those hockey games, and I was glad when the kids started coming back.”
I wanted to say, “Aren’t we lucky that we have something to give our community? Or what a great way to express our gratitude that we have so much? Or isn’t it fun to look out and see kids having sheer happiness?”
Instead, what came out of my mouth startled even me. I said, “What if next year we put up signs that say ‘Skate at your own risk.’That way we’re covered legally, and we can feel good about being generous.”
I won’t say that everyone was enthusiastic, a few were even outright reluctant, but most were agreeable. At their core, these were good people. It was as if that’s who they really were all along. They just needed another way to look at things.
And it turns out, so did I.
These days so fraught with discord, we’re all asking how we can unite the country. How can we get people to listen to each other? How can we help each other see the world in another way, a way that makes sense to everyone?
Just like my neighbors who couldn’t have been more different from us, we, as a nation, need to find our way back to the goodness of who, I feel certain, we all really are.