Ginny and Vic bought the farm next to Sap Bush Hollow and moved up from Long Island about fifteen years ago, and quickly became a part of our daily life, teaming up with haying, sharing barn space, co-grazing our livestock together. When their daughter, Heather, decided to leave the rat race of her own Long Island life and come to these hills to be with her parents, both families were certain we would be friends. Heather and I were both in our mid-twenties, and if all went well, we’d have each other for the rest of our West Fulton days.
Both families arranged to have dinner at a local restaurant, where we could meet. Heather had a thick Long Island accent, was freshly made-up, wore designer boots, and would periodically get up from the table to have a cigarette. My hair was in the same braid I’d slept in for the past two nights but I was relatively dressed up too, in my opinion, since I’d worn my cleanest Carhartts.
Heather and I were like oil and water. We made polite conversation but couldn’t find a single thing in common. At the end of the dinner, to be polite, I invited her out to a contra dance that was taking place in our local grange hall that evening.
“It’s a social dance, with a caller and a band.”
“Like, square dancing shit?”
We became experts at exchanging neighborly pleasantries without coming into contact.
“Kind of, but with more people.”
“If I go to that, I’m likely to punch someone in the face.”
I didn’t push the issue. But, to her credit, she tried to reciprocate my hospitality with an alternative social option.
“Let’s go down to Cobleskill and do a trifecta.”
“Three bars. We go drink in all three of them.”
“I think I’d rather put a pointy stick in my eye.”
We’d found one thing we had in common: we were equally blunt.
Time wore on, and out of mutual courtesy, we generally avoided each other’s company. Recognizing our clash, our families didn’t push it. But one day, while helping her dad make hay, she met my long-time bachelor neighbor, Frank. They fell in love. They had a baby boy, Frank John.
I knitted him a pair of booties, bagged up some of my salves and soaps and hung them on the door of their house when no one was home. They reciprocated with a bottle of wine at Christmas, dropped off when we weren’t there. We became experts at exchanging neighborly pleasantries without coming into contact.
But raising kids in a mountain town that has been steadily losing population for the last 40 years is a lonely business. There are only a few families with children up here. Folks from the villages in the valley don’t want to bring their kids up the mountain. Birthday party invitations get ignored. Play dates are few and far between, and require major scheduling efforts if village families are to agree to them. For the valley families, us mountain folks simply aren’t convenient.
Slowly, I began to pay more attention to the comings and goings of Heather and Frank. I wondered how they were faring with the baby. I knew that raising an infant isn’t too bad up here, as long as you’ve got family support, which they did. But I began to wonder how they’d cope as their son grew older and needed to play with other kids.
Sometimes the kindred spirit votes differently, dresses differently, eats differently.
I screwed up my courage one early summer day last year and made a phone call, inviting them over for drinks. They drove from next door. We sat outside, because Bob was afraid to show them our dirty house (even though we’d frantically cleaned for almost an hour before they came).
And, believe it or not, we sat and talked. And talked. I watched Heather with Frank John. She was the kind of mom I liked—one who didn’t panic if his hands got dirty or if he took a spill. She didn’t blindly follow doctor’s orders, took the time to cook a good meal for her family each night, and insisted on “please” and “thank you” from the get-go.
Another four weeks went by. Heather made another move. She called and asked if Saoirse and Ula would help her around the house by playing with Frank John, so she could catch up on laundry and dishwashing.
From there, a friendship slowly began to grow, to the point where the girls and I now meander over to her house one afternoon each week. It would seem that none of the ordinary friendship conditions of common interests are in place. She wears high heels to work every day; I go barefoot. She collects designer handbags; I collect dust bunnies. She watches TiVo; I prefer to knit. She drinks vodka. I usually bring my own herbal tea.
But underneath, there are fundamental commonalities that steer our friendship. She may like high heels and lipstick, but she honors her parent’s love of farming, and she helps them make it happen. She is here for her family. She is committed to this place, with all its imperfections. She doesn’t abandon ship and move away because she doesn’t like the school, or because there aren’t enough activities, or because the region lacks sophistication. She watches the sun come up over the mountain ridge each morning and snaps a photo. Like me, she wants the soil to remain fertile, the air to stay fresh, the water to stay clean.
In my writing and speaking about sustainable living, I often hear stories of migration: people seeking to leave behind families and imperfect friendships for the sake of finding the model neighborhood with the proper balance of cultural diversity, the quintessential Waldorf school, progressive politics, ethnic restaurants to expand their children’s culinary horizons, ample enrichment opportunities for young minds, and a bountiful crop of intelligent parents and sophisticated children living just around the block from which to pluck one’s friends.
We don’t all get to have that. Sometimes we just have to pick a place and stay put. We can usually make it better for our being there, but maybe not in all the ways we’d like.
And when it comes to making friendships, we can’t always spend our time with like-minded individuals. Sometimes the kindred spirit votes differently, dresses differently, eats differently. But they live next door, and they are as committed to that gritty, imperfect place as you are.
Maybe it will take fifteen years for a friendship to grow out of those conditions. But if both parties are committed to staying put, there’s plenty of time to make it happen.