Sunday, December 1, 2019

Small Town; Big City

I grew up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  It wasn’t geographically part of the city, but it was so close that I could walk to the road that divided us and to the transit system that would have me in center city in ten minutes.  My first “official” summer job was in center city Philadelphia. 

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 1777More 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.  


  1. I liked all of this blog. But I always do, when you write it. Yours is a bright spot in my reading; and when I get notification, I am always here with a smile on. I can relate to much of what you are sayin. I would write a blog myself here in comments in my eagerness to respond. However I will leave it at... you have engaged with me all unknowingly.

    1. Dear Katie Isabella,

      I always enjoy your comments so much and if I can make a little bright spot in your reading, I am thrilled. Am also glad I was able to connect w/you through my blog post. It's all about connections in life.

      Cheers, M-T

  2. Bonjour Marie-Thèrese - I always read your site with much interest. As an ex-pat in Paris and in Maine et Loire I live very happily in beautiful surroundings and can indulge in the many exhibitions in Paris and in the music concerts both classical and jazz. Meanwhile I continue to study the French language since arriving 12 years ago as a retiree with my husband. Along with this, as an ex-dancer, I was able to spend a winter learning how to give Pilates classes and I started giving my own classes, in French, almost immediately after the course. All good going, n'est pas and yes I am loving it ?! However, there has to be a "however" I find it really difficult to make friends with people here, especially in Paris. I have one wonderful friend who likes doing the same things as I do ie museums, cinema, concerts and she also lives near me in the country as well as in Paris. She is also very patient with my halting French speech. As for the other friends I have made along the way, I find that they will quite easily drop you without explanation ? I have tried various ways of finding out how this mechanism works as I have always been under the impression that true friends who share their problems are probably there to stay as a level of trust has been building. Perhaps you have a special understanding of French Womens' psyché which might help me to get along better. I see myself as a lighthearted, sometimes amusing and mostly attentive friend, but obviously I am missing something. I am also into counting my blessings every day for the good fortune I am enjoying now, which is probably as a result of much hard work in the past, although I don't talk about this. Apologies for asking an impossible question, but there may be someone in your circle of friends or readers that have some inklings, if not yourself ! You, Marie Thèrese are someone to be admired for your courage in finding the good things in your life of health challenges. Congratulations on your blog site too.
    Bonne semaine à vous,

    1. Bonjour ma chère, I am so delighted by your comment, which is worthy of a blog post all by itself. It's always easier to create strong friendships w/French expats living here, probably because they are more open to connecting, particularly w/someone such as myself who shares their culture and their language, but can answer their questions about how to navigate the American cultural codes, which are actually more complex than we think.

      That said, the first thing to keep in mind for the American living in France is that the French are automatically suspicious of foreigners. It's a reflex. The word "étranger" means foreigner and stranger, which should give you some idea of their mindset. French women are particularly difficult to get to know. Of course, when we are in France, we are generally w/my family and friends, so it's never really an issue; however I could tell you stories........................etc. The young French person is more open to making new friendships, but that openness closes down quite a bit as they age. At that point, family and old friends are really the focus of their lives. Still, it can be done. Keep in mind, too, that the French woman, no matter her age, sees other women (especially attractive, accomplished foreigners such as yourself) as rivals. They won't admit it, but it's true.

      Anyway, the best advice I can give you is not to act too eager to be a friend and to give it time.

      I am so intrigued by your question that I will indeed do a little digging for you among my French friends to get their take on the subject and get back to you if I have anything useful.

      Gros bisous, M-T

  3. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    Exactly and yes, pure old-fashioned and very valuable connection is not related at all to the size of town you live in.
    My guess is that a small community always will outperform in that aspect as people know each other more easily and keep a certain level of care and respect.
    Happy for you for your contribution to engage people in your Community.
    My Pieter has been involved for several years in the Community Concerts and at that time he managed to merge the Fine Arts Association with the Community Concerts as both were so very similar. That was a big win but it never happened because of deeply rooted rivalry. But since Pieter had no roots here, he could do it and it got accepted and has thrived ever since.
    Sending you hugs,

    1. Ma chère Mariette,

      You are the perfect person to comment on this blog post as you have lived practically all over the world and been involved with and continue to be involved with many different Communities.

      Pieter is quite an amazing man. I could learn a great deal from both of you on how to "connect."

      Warm hugs, M-T

  4. Seems similar to my old neighborhood (without the opera singers). I must say, however, we only knew what our neighbors wanted us to know, not the nitty-gritty of their lives, which might be because I grow up in a medium-sized city (as opposed to a small town), but which also was a collection of friendly neighborhoods and people you knew for years and liked. When I first arrived in Manhattan, I thought it was striking that so many people made no time for friendships, yet paid to talk to a psychiatrist. I remember thinking if they only valued having friends ... it would solve many of their anxieties. Manhattan (and Los Angeles) will always be a different kind of place compared to the rest of America, and one gets used to meeting lots of lovely people who will never put the time in to become your friends. I remember thinking I get the ambition of working long hours, but c'mon leave the office at 5:00 pm on Fridays! You may love your job, but it will never love you back.

    Had I grown up in Manhattan, I may not have had the experience of having best friends. You do tend to have more acquaintances here than friends, which I bet your brother found too. That's what makes the story of his looking after the little boy whose mother neglected him so endearing. The child could easily fall through the cracks in Manhattan.

    Very happy I grew up elsewhere with best friends and moved here as an adult.

    I love Philadelphia. To me it feels like the best of big city life and down to earth, neighborly values, as well as, American history. When I was a Congressional intern in Washington, DC, we'd take day trips on weekends to various parts of PA and I grew to love the state!

  5. I love your story, Debra. You appear to have kept your childhood connections, which is so important. When my brother passed away, he still had many friends from childhood that he kept in touch with regularly. The opera world is surprisingly small, and young artists struggling together form a close bond no matter where they end up in the world. At my brother's funeral, singers came from all over the country to pay their respects to him. I was so touched.

    I am so delighted you remember that story about "The Little Boy on the Landing," which I think I published around Thanksgiving last year. Yes, my brother Paul was special. He basically lived from hand to mouth as an opera singer in NY, but he still found time to give back. Having lost our father when we were quite young, he always felt the loss of a father figure in his life and belonged to Big Brothers where he mentored and encouraged young boys, often just by hanging out w/them. I got the loveliest letters from some of his "little brothers" when he passed.

    So glad you like Philadelphia. It does have a small-town feel to it that surprises most visitors. Paul loved living there and never missed an opportunity to return to it from his apartment in NY for weekend visits. This is the time of year when I miss him so very much.

    Your comments are always so thoughtful and beautifully expressed. Thank you so much for taking the time.

    Cheers, M-T

    1. Marie-Thérèse, I wanted to pop on here today, on this 3rd day of Christmas to wish you a merry holiday! Hope you are enjoying a festive week leading up to the New Year! xoxo, Debbie

    2. Better late than never, Debra. Thank you for your Merry Holiday wishes. Much appreciated.

      Cheers, M-T

  6. Thank you for taking me back in time. A post I enjoyed.

  7. So glad you enjoyed it. I often find comfort from visiting the past, if only in my mind and for a short time. Sort of recharges my batteries.

    Cheers, M-T


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