Thursday, July 13, 2017

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

“You know everybody, Aunt Meghan,” my niece told me soon after my brother’s family arrived in town early this month, traveling from Californian suburbia to the relative wilds of northern New England.

I certainly don’t know everyone around here, but small town living generally includes a considerable awareness of who your neighbors are – and where they are and what they are doing and with whom. If you’re looking for anonymity, this is probably not the place for you. But small towns are pretty good at taking care of their own.

As I drove around with a car full of California and New Hampshire kids, my own children and I remarked that so-and-so’s car was at the post office, we waved to friends, we stopped along backroads near home to greet a neighbor now and then. For the California kids, who live in a place with a steady stream of strangers flowing past, I guess that aspect of small town-ness seemed quaintly odd.

I have lived most of my adult life where everybody – or a relatively large percentage of folks I come into contact with, anyway – knows my name, or at least my face. In Crested Butte I moved within various social and work and skiing circles, but there were large areas of overlap among these. Even if everybody didn’t really know everybody else, a general sense of familiarity permeated the scene in this small ski town.

In the village where I lived for a summer on an Irish peninsula, I was known by several names: “the Yank” who worked for the Diamonds, the “horsey woman” (because I was a horse-trekking guide), the American girl who played soccer with the Connemara Coasters. While everybody there didn’t know my name, they all seemed to know who I was and what I was doing. It is hard to hide a newcomer in a small village where people are intricately related, especially a newcomer with a strange accent.

When I first moved back east, I found it disconcerting when strangers would stop me at the grocery store or in the ski lift line or during some social event and remark excitedly that they had known me when I was THIS HIGH. Not having been paying close attention at the age of 6 or 7 and having traversed two decades since then, I would smile politely, usually having no idea who my friendly accoster was.

I’ve been here long enough now that I am rarely approached by unknown, long-ago acquaintances. These people have long since become familiar. But it is still nearly impossible to navigate local errands without some delay from bumping into someone who wants a word – or several.

A quick run into the post office to check the mail can take half an hour. Stopping at the store for a carton of milk on the way home might consume just as long. I’ve even been waylaid on early morning jogs when I run into neighbors and slow down to chat briefly, while trying to catch my breath. You simply learn to expect delays – and how to politely run away when you don’t have the time to be distracted.

The last afternoon the California crew was here, I took the kids down to the river for a pre-dinner swim. I ran into a friend there, the only other person we saw, and had a chat while the kids and dogs were splashing and exploring and looking for interesting rocks.

On the way home, there was what constitutes a traffic jam on the narrow backroad: three cars traveling in close procession toward us, plus a couple of pedestrians and a dog in the road. I yelled a greeting out the window to the first car, which contained summer friends we hadn’t seen yet this season. A bit further along, I greeted neighbors who were out walking the dog. I noted another neighbor outside doing yardwork.

“Yep, you know everyone,” my niece confirmed from the passenger seat, no longer surprised by this phenomenon.

Later that evening, one of those neighbors sent me a text. She’d found a camera on the bridge by the swimming hole and determined from the photos on it that it belonged to one of us. It did, although we hadn’t yet noticed it missing. Personal item returned practically before it’s even lost? That’s just a benefit to living where everybody knows your name.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 14, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

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