Seen from the air, the Florida development where my sister used to live reveals a pattern of houses that seem to pose like a group of ladies in white flanked by rectangles of turquoise: the in-ground pools that accessorize them like bright costume jewelry.
These homes have small windows in the street-facing walls meant to ensure privacy and keep out heat. Access to them is gained chiefly through attached garages, which yawn open on command, admit a car, and then shut again, tighter than a bulldog’s jaws.
The development has fancy stone gates out front and a Homeowners Association that pays visits to any families not conforming to the association’s ‘aesthetics’. One family, newly arrived from the other side of the globe, thought it would be okay to hang their laundry inside their open garage. It wasn’t, as they were quickly advised.
I couldn’t live in a place like that for a week.
When I was just starting out in adult life I lived in a series of cramped and shuddery walk-ups in Boston and Cambridge. Then after marrying, my husband and I moved to the city of Somerville, back when Somerville was just a regular town and not the trendy burg it has since become.
There we lived happily and unselfconsciously – until the day a friend told us what she had just said in the car on the way to our place: “Lock your doors, kids. This is Somerville.”
For years I seethed over that remark and when we bought our own house farther out from these cities, I vowed I would never be like that. I took comfort in the fact that we were just five miles away from the close-packed streets we had known. Here, we live less than 200 yards from the commuter rail, less than a third of a mile from the public beach of a little lake to which people from Cambridge and Somerville and even Boston come to swim, and grill, and enjoy their kids.
On fine days, people from half a dozen other suburban towns pass outside our windows and sometimes even pick a few blooms from our hydrangea trees. I can hear their every conversation and I am glad I can. I like to feel the press of people and sense the larger community of which I am a part. And I pray I will never cringe from people I do not know, or choose not to open the door to some hardworking person with a clipboard or a Bible.
Late last summer, an out-of-town friend came by and, after having a nice visit with us, set out to look around our Town Center. Confused, she went right instead of left at the end of our street.
“I knew I’d made a mistake when I came to the beach with all the Mexicans,” she said upon returning.
“Mexicans?!” I wanted to say. “The people you saw there are from Cambodia and China, Sri Lanka and Portugal!”
I felt such indignation.
But then not a week later, our oldest daughter blew by for a quick visit and reported how she had just pulled over at that same beach and delightedly waded in its waters.
“Why didn’t we ever go there?” she wanted to know.
Well, why on earth didn’t we? It was a reminder to me: either keep reaching out or risk turning inward toward a stifling homogeneity.
I’m thinking I might put up a clothesline myself now that summer’s here and hang me out some laundry. But for sure I am going to that beach.