Born in 1945 on the edge of Fremont, across a gravel road from Cook’s hatchery, my childhood had the character of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers.
There were challenges. Illness dogged our family. Money went to hospitals, not bikes or horses. I stayed up nights doling out meds. I also skipped school, ducked homework and broke all the rules because I needed to “take care of my dying dad.” Sometimes, it was the truth.
Winters brought sledding and hunting. Summers, we picked beans and cherries, hung cane poles off the back of a leaking row boat and built a three-story tree house. At 18, I packed up memories of a caring home, some painful experience with too-close dying, a near-perfect innocence of girls and headed for life unknown in other places.
I landed in community mental health when it was new. I can still smell “institutions” I helped close, still see “Down Syndrome Donnie” when he got a full-time job. Donnie, released from the place where I first found him shuffling down a dismal hallway wearing a straitjacket –ran through the streets hollering, “They chose me! They chose me! They chose me!” Donnie had won a spot in the community.
Except he hadn’t. The house we wanted to buy to create a group home for Donnie and five others was suddenly unavailable. The next house I picked disappeared in two days; a third was gone an hour after I’d visited. I was learning how communities practice exclusion. I learned NIMBY: “Not In My Back Yard.”
What brought me to the land where we now live, deep in the forest 30 miles north of Fremont, was this contradiction: I wanted isolation and, just beyond my isolation, I wanted community. The Bitely Tavern, with its world-class olive burger and falling-down back wall, is a start. But I came for more: the bonding of neighbors who have differences, but share a common need for one another.
The forest has made good on its promise. We have serenity. But this “community” thing has proven elusive. I’ve wondered if there’s any such thing; it feels like snipe hunting.
I remembered my father, nearing death, telling me that a black family had wanted to move into the city. The home they’d planned to buy was jerked off the market. If community is in any sense “intentional inclusiveness,” this isn’t it. No wonder Donnie’s experience had a familiar feeling.
The poster child for a degenerate life in 1950s Fremont was Hap (short for “Happy”), the town drunk. Local legend held that Hap had been a professional whistler in Hollywood, suffered a broken heart, took to drink and got off the freight train one night when it brought a load of jars to Gerber’s. When Hap needed to slack his thirst, he’d swap a tune for a quarter. I heard him once, outside Reber’s Men’s Wear, whistling “Amazing Grace” with a sweetness that brought Baptists to tears and won him a six-pack of comfort.
I now see that Hap was no threat to Fremont’s sense of community. He may, in fact, have been the only one in town who genuinely induced community. Our collective delight in keeping him drunk and whistling was our shame, not his.
But my most enduring lesson on community arrived the first weekend of heavy snow last November. I was in our post office waiting for the unshaven, elderly man – smallish, tired, wearing worn coveralls – to finish emptying his P.O. box. Irritated by his slowness, I reached over him as I heard him sigh. He’d fumbled open a bill of some kind.
“How am I going to explain this to her?” He was speaking as much to himself as to me. “I couldn’t pay it last month either, what with her hospital bills. But … now what …?”
I muttered something about hard times and “sometimes things work out” and fled. A mile toward home I ran into the guilt. Why hadn’t I lifted the bill from his trembling hand and just paid it? Because I was too busy, and too self-important. I couldn’t be bothered with a stranger whose wounds begged for a passing Samaritan.
What I learned that morning in the Bitely Post Office wasn’t guilt; I’ve known guilt forever. What I learned, shockingly, is that I’m not going to stumble into community someday. I’m not going to inherit community, like a legacy created by others for my comfort. If I want community, I need to build it, one couple’s unpaid bill at a time.
If I want it, I need to stop blaming others and create some.