I’ve been thinking a lot about Community lately. It’s a word I hear thrown around like a panacea, as in churches that refer to themselves as “a Catholic community,” or housing developments referred to as “senior communities” (under 55 not allowed!). Such usages annoy me because they imply that if you become a resident (loosely defined) of that particular “community,” you will find the kinds of friendships that exist in real communities. You rarely do.
It’s on my mind particularly at this time of year because it’s around this time of year that I had my first real brush with “community” in its best sense. When my step-grandmother was a new wife, she lived in the Bronx. As in, the “garden-spot” Bronx, not too far from what is now Yankee Stadium, which is pretty much a burned-out slum. And 95 years ago, it was a slum, too. All nationalities lives there, but what they had in common was poverty, and a hope in the New World. So the Poles kept their distance from the Puerto Ricans and Italians who lived in the neighborhood, but they all shook down together.
Over time, Grandma and her family were able to save up enough to buy a house in what was then farm country: the Brooklyn-Queens border. They moved when my stepfather was thirteen, and that house is still in the family. But Grandma never lost her ties to the Bronx, or her old Polish friends who lived there, and one Sunday, she asked Dad to take her over to the Bronx for a christening party.
In those days, boys could change into their play clothes as soon as they got home from church, but girls were expected to stay nice-looking “in case company dropped by.” Sunday dinner was done, and I had a long, long afternoon stretching ahead of me with nothing to do but sit around Looking Nice, so I asked if I could tag along to this christening party. My mother was reluctant, but finally gave in, on condition that I stay quiet.
And I did. Frankly, when I got there, there was nobody I knew; these were all Grandma’s friends. The neighborhood consisted of three-story apartment buildings with narrow corridors between them that led into courtyards at the back of the building; one apartment block looked just like another, and I was terrified of getting lost (at that time, I had no idea that the place was also a slum!), so I wasn’t going anywhere. All the old ladies talked to one another in Polish. All the young men were celebrating by getting drunk, and all the young women were cooking and handing out food. It was its own controlled chaos, but it was a chaos I was used to, from the many family parties I had attended at home, so that didn’t bother me.
But what strikes me from this distance of time is the memory of all those old ladies–at this stage of my life, I’m probably older than many of them were then!–sitting around under the shade of the trees that grew around the courtyard, balancing plates of food on their laps and sipping beer from glasses that sat on the ground beside their chairs, all talking Polish at one another. In our house, we didn’t speak Polish, so I had no idea what they were saying; but I remember watching them, fascinated by their connection with one another and with their home culture, as Polish music filled the courtyard from a radio station that played its Polka Hour on Sunday afternoons. I didn’t know it then, but somehow sensed that it was a genuine slice of Polish life: Sitting around on a Sunday afternoon, chatting with the neighbors about this and that, celebrating the latest addition to that particular community.
I never went back to that neighborhood again. I found out some time later that the day after the christening, the baby’s father died of a drug overdose; even then there were junkies, and evidently he was one. That wasn’t a wake that my grandmother attended, but I can see it now, that the same old ladies who had come to celebrate the christening of Jim and Barbara’s baby, flocked back to the house with pots and pots of food to see her through those first awful weeks of life without her baby’s father.
That’s Community. When you come together to celebrate Life at its beginning and at its end. When the way you grew up is a shared experience that you take with you into a strange and unknown world, and that shared experience sees you through all the ups and downs that Life throws at you.
All you Developments that call yourselves Communities–eat your hearts out.