Country Mouse City Mouse 8-16-10
The Good Neighbor City is a designation, worn with pride, in my hometown in South Central Wisconsin. West of the capital, Middleton had a bowling alley, a Ben Franklin dime store, public pool, cocktail club, two elementary schools, one each of a middle and high school, soda fountain, diner counter, a library and one Catholic and one Lutheran church. This was over 30 years ago. The population was 10,000. It was a great place to grow up.
Every year, the last weekend of August, which also happened to be the last weekend of summer vacation, the Good Neighbor Festival got under way. The carnival and midway set up in Fireman’s Park, the scent of roasting barbecue and popcorn permeated the air and the parade marched down the main artery of the town. The festivities are still the same today.
On a recent trip back to Wisconsin, I took a drive with my youngest daughter to show her all the places that use to be. The bowling alley where I was on a Bantam League was much larger and spiffier, the Ben Franklin where I bought Christmas presents bit the dust a long time ago now, the library switched sides of the street and no one sits at a counter in a drug store with those little metal dishes of ice-cream anymore.
Having lived in different places around the U.S. in both city and country, I’ve experienced different definitions, you could say, on what it means to be a neighbor. Growing up we had wonderful grandparent-type neighbors who lived in an old pink house with a parrot, many cats and a greenhouse. My sister and I visited them a lot since there was never a shortage of interesting things. These pink-house neighbors had hobbies ranging from bottle cutting and rock tumbling to seashell collecting and gourmet cooking. They were always there for us.
In later years, moving to the country, we quickly learned that newcomers or “city folks” weren’t embraced with open arms. “City Folks should stay in the City!” was their mantra. Well, unless the city fire department was needed to put out a barn fire. Needless to say we were never greeted with a warm apple pie. The couple of covenant-controlled suburb experiences I had didn’t have the warm and fuzzies either. The only type of greeting you’d receive was the occasional letter from the Home Owner’s Association telling you that your trees weren’t the right trees, the flowerbeds could only have approved flowers and the grass was not cut with the right length of mower blade. Never was there a greeting or welcome from an actual neighbor let alone any help with moving furniture.
Years ago we had our landlord as neighbor. He would just walk in as if he still lived there and despite being a retired veterinarian, would not allow pets. I’m not sure if the mouse infestation counted. I always wanted to torment him by putting a fake cat in the window and playing a barking dog sound track.
There has always been this impression that country folks are the best neighbors or that only a small community can have a neighborly affectation. But, the best neighbors for me have been my big city neighbors. Moving into different houses in the city we’ve been greeted with dinners, baked goods, beer, and just nice hellos. We share garden produce, take care of each other’s pets, remind one another on street sweeping days, shovel snow, greet a newcomer and borrow sugar. We talk together on porches, on a walk, between fences or in our gardens. I have great neighbors also proven by the fact that they tolerate the chickens and Heff the rooster.
To have good neighbors you need to be a good neighbor. Whether I learned this from my hometown or not, I now teach neighborliness to my children. Neighborliness means the offer of help to someone else, remembering others around you, giving generously, just plain thoughtfulness or as simple as a warm smile or greeting. I don’t know how Middleton became the good neighbor city. I’d like to imagine that any place in the U.S. could be labeled that title. Neighborliness doesn’t mean city or country, town or suburb. Neighborliness exists where you create it.