When I turned teenager, my family moved from a house surrounded by farmland to a small community in central Pennsylvania. Oakland Mills sits on both sides of one of the two main roads that run the length of Juniata County. Its population included about 17 households and less than 50 people. We were a village, not being large enough for town status. Neighbors rested on the front porch after a day’s work, waiting for someone to walk by and begin a conversation. When we had too many leftovers, we carried them to a neighbor’s home, knowing that someday, they would have leftovers for us. I’d been inside almost every house in the area, selling school fundraising items or returning an empty baking dish.
Every summer, my mother and a few other members of the village organized a picnic at the community building that rested beside a small creek, an old red brick one-story with noisy wooden floors, an attached outhouse, and a primitive kitchen area. Each family brought enough casseroles, pies, and vegetable dishes to feed all 17 households. After the meal, a brief business meeting took place, with minutes recorded, officers elected, the occasional discussion regarding the upkeep of the building, and introductions to new community members. Sometimes songs or games followed the meal, but mostly we talked. To each other. I’d watch my parents move from one long row of tables to another, taking a new seat every few minutes, chatting with neighbors even though they’d probably talked to them only a few days earlier. In this way, I learned to know every member of my small community. I was acquainted with the names of all the children, the health of grandparents, and the whereabouts of cousins, aunts, and uncles. We didn’t even have Facebook accounts.
Today I live in a small community, with probably the same number of households as my former village, but we don’t know each other. When I knock on the door, few are willing to open, even when I’m offering food. I’ve seen the inside of only three houses in my village. A small handful of neighbors wave when I ride by on my purple bicycle. Two or three neighborhood kids knock on my door carrying candy bags at Halloween. I live beside strangers. I wave at them when we’re outside pulling weeds or mowing yards, but I don’t even know where they go to work or what they do for a living. I don’t know what they do for recreation or what burdens they carry. The front yards are decorated with beautifully landscaped seasonal flowers and shrubs and have “Welcome” flags along the walkway. The front porches hold homey, antique rockers, but the porches are empty. I’ve never seen conversations taking place there. Except for the UPS or FedEx carrier, I’ve never seen people there. Friendships are now made via electronic devices.
I miss sitting on a green porch swing, greeting the farmer as he walks by my porch, trick or treaters whose eyes I can recognize under the masks, and seeing the snow plow pull into every driveway that needs to be cleared. I miss waving to the kids hanging out the back of their horse and buggy vehicles, laughing with the neighbor trying to get the dog leash untangled from her legs, and meeting the new neighbors at summer picnics. I miss knowing the people who live around me, being known by my community, being able to share condolences in person, and having someone ask how the cataract surgery went, or deliver a gift for my new grandchild.
Recently, a new neighbor moved in. When no one at her house answered the door, I left a small gift on her doorstep. Last evening, she walked over to say, Thank you,” and we sat on the porch deck and talked. It was a good beginning.
Tell me about your neighbors. How do you connect to the people outside your front door?