About a week ago I was driving in a part of my town that is off the beaten path of my usual routines. As I drove around the area, I thought about a friend I’ll call M. who lived close by but I wasn’t sure where exactly. More than 50 years ago, she was my neighbor in Bayville and we spent several years through junior high and high school being friends. She attended a Catholic school and I attended a public school so our lives were very divergent, but we did occasionally spend time together. When we grew up and had families of our own, we both moved to Huntington where we would see each other occasionally in the supermarket and have a nice chat that always ended with “We’ll have to get together sometime…,” but we never did. So there I was, driving and thinking about her and our old neighborhood.
Yesterday I got a phone call from another friend from the same neighborhood. He and his wife had moved close to the same area where I now live. We run into each other every several years and chat about the old neighborhood in Bayville. He called to tell me that our mutual friend and neighbor, M., had passed away and to ask if I wanted to attend her wake with him. I was shocked and said of course I would go out of respect for our old friendship and her family. I thought it was amazing that I had been thinking so intently about her recently.
I didn’t really expect to know many people at the wake, but I did hope to encounter her older sister, her husband and her two daughters whom I’d never met. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted so warmly by her niece who was bubbling with enthusiasm about her childhood visits to her grandma, M.’s mother. She loved visiting her grandma because my mother, who lived next door, was so kind to her and her sister when they visited. She allowed them to climb her wooden rail fence and wander around our backyard. Then I met M.’s two daughters for the first time. They, too, were both very sweet and, amazingly, I learned that one of them now lives a few houses away from me and neither of us knew it! (I live on a busy road often used as a shortcut by drivers looking for a fast way home, so neighbors don’t tend to hang out much outside their houses.)
I then spoke with M.’s older sister and husband. We all knew each other as teenagers but she and her husband were part of the older crowd so they didn’t hang out with us at all. But we did have some shared memories of the old neighborhood and its residents. Finally I got a chance to talk with M.’s husband. Although I knew M. through her dating years, I never actually got to meet him. He explained to my companion and me what the medical condition was that brought her to such an untimely death; she was only 69. The odd thing about this event was that it seemed as though it was only yesterday since I had seen some of these people. I felt completely comfortable being with them, sharing memories and finding out where our lives had taken us since we left the old neighborhood.
My deceased friend’s daughter and I have now agreed to be in touch as we are practically neighbors! Back in the 50’s in the old neighborhood, we were all second-generation children of immigrants whose families had come to America to escape wars and seek a better life. My family was German; my companion and former neighbor’s family was Italian, and my deceased friend’s family was Irish. There was even a French family that lived next door to us. What we each remembered was that we lived in a real neighborhood, bordered by two beaches, where everybody came from a working class family that was striving toward a better life. We remembered an almost idyllic childhood surrounded by sun and sand where we could be with our friends without much supervision. There were long summer nights of kids of all ages playing street games together because there was not much else to do. And each of our families knew each other and looked out for each other in a way that families don’t anymore. We were a true neighborhood with all its flaws and eccentricities but we shared a common link: We were all in it together and our connections clearly were very deep. That America is sadly long gone and I really miss it.