It was just a clerical job, mostly filing, but at 15 I felt very grown up taking the Market-Frankford El to 15th Street each morning with all the other ladies in their crisp, summer dresses and high heels. They were the secretaries to middle-aged businessmen in Brooks Brothers suits who smelled of tobacco and Bay Rum.
My town wasn’t all that small, but it felt small. It was an interlocking system of neighborhoods, some no larger than a few streets, in which everyone knew everyone and everyone else’s business. I walked to school, to church, to piano lessons and to ballet class. The doctor, the dentist and the pharmacist were around the corner. People stopped to talk to each other, exchanged news and gossip and we kids ran in and out of each other’s houses until it was time for dinner.
And then one day the little boys who ran in and out of my house were ringing my doorbell to take me out to dinner; one of them gave me my first kiss. I learned a lot about life and small town values in that neighborhood.
Mme Mère never fit in with the other women. They didn’t quite know what to make of her. Almost all our friends were opera singers and musicians from Philadelphia or New York, and no evening get-together was complete without someone sitting down at the piano and accompanying my Mother in a favorite aria and my Grandmother in a favorite Victor Herbert tune.
Robert Baddeley as Moses in The School for Scandal c1781, by Johann Zoffany
And if we were lucky, my Grandmother would recite some of her favorite lines from The School for Scandal, a comedy of manners by Richard Brinsley Sheridan that debuted at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1777. More than a century later she would tour America in the lead role of Lady Teasel, but she always said that it was Lady Sneerwell who had the best lines. Marie Anastasia knew a good line when she heard it and how to deliver it.
I always assumed I would end up living in a Big City. My opera-singer brother Paul did.
After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia and getting his Masters at what is now University of the Arts, finishing up in the opera program at the Curtis Institute of Music and then singing nationally and internationally, he ended up living and performing in the Big Apple.
But what’s a girl to do who has small town values and big city taste? Well, she ends up living in a small town near a big city – the “best of all possible worlds,” as Professor Pangloss would say (Candide, ou l’Optimisme by Voltaire, published in 1759).
And so, I ended up living in the beautiful little town of Haddonfield, New Jersey, established in 1713, a 20-minute train ride from Philadelphia and a 90-minute car ride from Manhattan.
It’s a lovely town with a main street filled with quaint little shops and small restaurants and even more little shops tucked away in the side streets.
|Photo by my neighbor Dorothy Daly|
And after a wonderful opera weekend in New York, it’s lovely to open the blinds of my bedroom window to this view. It’s the perfect life for this girl with small town values and big city taste.
Lately, American Express has been touting the values of “shopping small” and supporting local merchants, which I not only espouse but practice. Of course, there is a certain irony about a huge global conglomerate urging us to patronize mom-and-pop merchants who often do not accept American Express credit cards due to the high merchant fees. Still, I think American Express has tapped into something important here.
So many of us are on anti-depressants for reasons other than the chemical imbalances these drugs were originally meant to correct. I keep reading articles about people medicating themselves to cope with loneliness and isolation, and our young people seem to be especially hard hit. Many of them have no family nearby and few or no close friends.
I am convinced that this sense of isolation and loneliness has given rise to the current ancestry research industry. Where did I come from? Who do I look like? Who am I? These are questions I never had to ask myself or anybody else. I am surrounded by the portraits of family members going back almost 400 years, and I grew up hearing all the stories of who they were and what they did.
And as for the question “Who do I look like?” Well, I need only look at the portrait of my 14-year-old great-grandmother Isabella in my bedroom to answer that. But not everyone is lucky enough to have all that information, particularly in a time when daddy might have been an anonymous sperm donor.
It all comes down to the search for a connection. If I can’t connect with anyone in my present, maybe I can connect with someone in my past.
The Hallmark Channel has been showing its usual collection of romantic, heart-warming Christmas movies since mid-summer as they’ve done for several years now. It’s a formula that works well for them and for those of us who would rather spend 90 minutes in sweet anticipation of that “kiss” at the end than watch two people rip each other’s clothes off five minutes after they’ve met.
Maybe it’s been there all along and I’ve just not noticed, but the current crop of Christmas romance movies not only have that lonely, big-city guy/gal finding love not in a big city but in a small town as they slowly connect (or reconnect) with those small-town values – home, family, children, friends and traditions.
The reality is, however, that moving to a small town isn’t always a cure for big city depression. After 16 years of living in Haddonfield, I still sometimes feel like an outsider. I wasn’t raised here and I didn’t raise children here, and Haddonfield is definitely a family-oriented town, which is wonderful. So I have found other ways of connecting by doing what I do best.
I was elected to the Board of Directors of my Community as the Communications Director. The President of the Board created that position for me taking advantage of one of my strengths. I am the Board member residents contact when they have issues (what we used to call “problems”) and I do my best to get their issue resolved with a lot of help from my fellow Board members.
In addition, I started the practice of sending Community Bulletin Board memos to keep people up-to-date. I also created a Newsletter which I’ve been sending out quarterly for the last six years. This is probably the most popular thing I do. I love doing it and the residents love reading it; many have requested to remain on the distribution list after they’ve moved away, just to stay connected.
So you see, it’s all about connections – how I established connections to my Community and how I help those in my Community connect with each other.
After creating man, God observed that it was not good for him to be alone. I often get angry and frustrated with Him at the way He set things up, but I have to hand it to Him on this one. This one He got right. How we make that connection, or not, is all up to us.