Tag Archives: friendship

My missing sense of community

Growing up in a town where my parents, and some of their parents before them, had grown up, meant they had a huge group of friends and relatives in the area. These friends and relatives were the kind that stopped by without calling first. Many didn’t even knock or ring the doorbell and they always used the back door. The front door was for the other kind of company — the ones who did call first and for whom my mom would tidy the living room — and for salesmen and for the paperboy when he collected his weekly bill for the local paper.

building_garage
Friends helping build our garage
Weekends were full of comings and goings. People stopping by to say hello or to borrow power tools or dolleys or wheelbarrows. If they came before noon they were always offered a cup of coffee poured from the silver peculator sitting on the kitchen counter. They almost always said yes, then sat a while, usually smoking a cigarette while talking to my mom or dad. If they came after noon they were offered a beer or cocktail — there was always plenty of alcohol in the house, mostly for friends. Again, they usually said yes and sat, smoking and talking.

I fully expected to have the same sort of Grand Central Station weekends when I grew up. It was natural and that’s how life was. Full of friends who knew what the inside of your house looked like before you had a chance to tidy up. Friends who knew what you looked like without makeup. Friends who borrowed things and loaned you things and helped you with large projects and who drank coffee or a beer at your kitchen table. Friends who didn’t call first.

When Dean and I first moved to Pittsburgh we knew no one. We eventually made friends with people with whom he went to Carnegie Mellon and had some great times with them but it wasn’t the same. People didn’t come and go like at my parents’ house. We made PLANS. We set DATES. We CALLED each other before visiting.

Maybe, I thought in Pittsburgh, you needed to have a house first — not an apartment. Maybe after Dean’s out of grad school things will be like they were when I was a kid, living at home. Maybe a house will encourage people to stop by, use the back door and not call first.

Again, it took a while to get to know people in the DC area — longer than it took in Pittsburgh. We rented a house in Alexandria our first year and came the closest we’ve come to having the kinds of friends my folks had — at least I did. I became friends with the two elderly women on either side of our house and both of them would stop by without calling. Frances would use the back door (and encourage me to do the same at her house). Freda would use the front door. But neither called first.

When we moved to another house in Alexandria we made friends with Totty, our next door neighbor. We’d usually meet in the back yard — since we spent a great deal of time on the huge back screened porch. We didn’t make plans too often and didn’t call either, but we did spend a lot of time together. So I suppose we had a spontaneous kind of relationship with Totty. But that was all. No one else came and went. We didn’t have anyone to offer coffee or beer to on a regular basis. Everyone else made PLANS with us and CALLED first.

When I began working for Fairfax County Public Schools I met Rosanne and Dean and I became friends with her and her husband, Chuck. I remember thinking that, with Chuck and Rosanne, I’d finally met the kind of friends who would drop in on each other unannounced. I could feel it in my bones. It could have developed into that, but circumstances prevented our friendship becoming what it might have been. (long story for another time — or not)

When we moved to Bethesda I didn’t even bother to expect having the open door kind of friendship with anyone. I had not gotten over my longing for it, but I’d given up hoping. It took me a long time to like Bethesda. It took me a long time to make any friends here. I’m still working on making friends, but no longer the kinds that drops in. I’m not sure they exist — or perhaps I’m not the kind of person someone would drop in on and I’m not sure I’d like it anymore.

When I began working on a masters degree in 1998, I discovered instant messaging. I had long list of “buddies” and sometimes someone would pop in and say hi and we’d have a conversation. It was sort of like someone dropping in unannounced. I warmed to it immediately, but I don’t even do that anymore — maybe I’m getting old and don’t like interruptions in my solitude anymore.

Still, when I read blog posts about places that actually have a sense of community I can’t help but feel a little envy and remember the days in my parents’ house when friends would stop by for coffee and a chat.

Memories in the laundry room

Isn’t it funny how seeing (or smelling or tasting or hearing) certain things makes you always think about certain people, places or events in your life? I’m like that about the most mundane of objects – especially in the laundry room. Folding towels makes me think of my mom. Cleaning lint from the dryer makes me think of my friend Chris. A wooden clothes drying rack makes me think of my friend Marie.

I met Marie in the early 1980’s when her husband, Neal, and my boyfriend, Dean, shared an office at Carnegie Mellon University. She was a nursing student. She was also a birder before it was a popular or even accepted pastime. We did a lot of things with Neal and Marie in Pittsburgh until they moved back to Rhode Island. I was heartbroken. I’d not had a friendship like the one I had with Neal and Marie since — well, probably since forever.

We kept in touch and visited them a lot. We spent Easter with Marie’s boisterous Italian family and met Neil’s brother and his wife. I considered Marie one of my closest friends and asked her to be my matron-of-honor at my wedding. She and Neal flew to Illinois for the wedding and even accompanied us and our friend Paul to Wisconsin for our first honeymoon.

Over the years we’ve visited them probably once a year on average – perhaps a little less. They visited us a few times, but not as much as we did them. We rejoiced at the births of their children and they did the same for ours.

Marie and I had a few differences – I remember that we disagreed on whether or not a teacher who had no children could be as empathetic as those with children. As a child free teacher then, I thought I was as empathetic as one with kids. (Later– after my own daughter was born — I agreed with Marie and told her so.) We also had a bit of a falling out when I suggested she see a movie instead of a play of some play we’d just seen. I didn’t mean anything by it – knowing that their life was so busy with their children. It got her upset though.

The last time I saw Marie was at her Newport Beach beach house when we visited them for a few days. The room Dean and I shared had a collapsible wooden clothes-dryer and I remember Marie coming in the room one day, folding it up and putting it away. I remember thinking that one of those might be handy to have. The day we left I had a monstrous hangover from way too much wine at a party they had the night before.

We planned on visiting them again the next summer but about a month before we were to go Marie emailed us that she and Neal had separated and would probably divorce. She was shocked too, but doing ok. She said we could still visit, but it might be uncomfortable.

I was beyond shocked. I was devastated. It was like a dear friend had died. NealandMarie was dead. It was now Neal or Marie. Not that we needed to make a choice, but it felt like that. We couldn’t make a choice. So we’ve not seen either of them. We’ve both communicated with Marie through email and telephone conversations and I IMed Neal a couple of times. They both say they are friends and we should feel free to go visit — we could see both of them.

Perhaps it is the divorce, or perhaps it is just the busy life we have with two teenagers and aging parents, but New England is no longer somewhere we first think about visiting when we are thinking of vacation plans.

The last I heard from Marie, she said she was seeing someone and was doing well. I’m glad. She is still one of my all-time favorite people and always will be. I’ll always consider her one of my best friends, even if we never see each other again.

So, on days when I have a lot of clothes that cannot go in the dryer, I think about Marie and our friendship and sometimes I cry a little, but usually I smile remembering the good times we had.

Now why was I worried?

When I first met Maria, more than 17 years ago, I remember being nervous. Her husband had just been hired to the same branch office as Dean and they became immediate friends. Dean explained to me that Maria was totally blind, and had been since she was an adolescent. I’d not spent much time around anyone who was blind and even though, in my job as a special educator, I’d become accustomed to being around people with special needs, I was nervous about meeting Maria. I was not afraid of her or her condition, but I was worried that my verbal communication skills were not adequate to fully and comfortably communicate with someone who could not see my hand motions or body language. Now it seems silly, but at the time I was worried.

Maria put me at ease immediately. She may have sensed my discomfort and from the day we met we became good friends. We had kids around the same time and spent a fair amount of time in each others company. I’d take my two young children to visit with her and her children fairly often and we saw each other socially through our husbands.

When Maria asked me to help her learn her screen reading software about the time I was looking for work in the field of IT, I ended up learning more than I think I taught. I ended up putting that volunteer work on my resume and I think it was what ultimately got me hired for the accessibility specialist position at Caliber.

When Maria approached me to help her with a web page for her job seeker’s group I was happy to do so for a couple of reasons. First of all, I wanted to repay Maria for being a catalyst in getting me the job back in 2000. I also wanted to brush up on my accessibility skills, and what better way to do that than to work with the users of screen readers and other assistive devices? I was also interested in knowing how accessible WordPress.com could be – at least to readers. (I’ve already discovered it has some glitches when creating sites).

So yesterday I visited with a few members of the Unlimited Success group. Because of Maria I was not worried about the meeting in any way. I knew my stuff and I had no concerns about talking to a group of visually impaired adults. The folks I met were gracious, welcoming and opinionated – which is a good thing. They knew what they wanted and had opinions of what worked and what didn’t. I’m more excited about this volunteer opportunity than I have been about most others I’ve done.