Moving to New England from California in 2011 was a sort of homecoming for me. Although I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, my parents are born-and-bred New Englanders, “the ones who moved away.” My mother’s Anglo-Saxon ancestors arrived in New England in the 1600s, where they settled and farmed in New Hampshire. My father’s Italian grandparents immigrated to Lawrence, Massachusetts in the early 20th century and worked in the leather mills.
So, I come from tough stock: pioneers, settlers, farmers, and factory workers – all of them “the ones who moved away.” Their toughness lives on in my family: Last year, when my father fell from a 15-foot extension ladder while cutting down a birch tree in our yard he broke four ribs and two vertebrae, but he got up and finished cutting up the tree. We forced him to go to the hospital three days later.
In short, I wasn’t raised to accept help from anybody.
In past columns, I’ve alluded to the stereotypical view of Vermonters as reserved, “frosty,” maybe even a little…unfriendly. I was prepared for a chilly reception to the state, having grown up hearing about the legendary New England reserve.
Here was our reality: Nobody rolled out the welcome wagon when we moved in. No neighbors knocked on our door with plates of cookies. In fact, the neighbors mostly left us alone for the first few months – behavior that initially confirmed my stereotype, but which I now see as a form of respect: they were letting us get settled in.
But once they saw that we were settled in, that we planned to settle, to raise our children, to tend to our house and our yard, to participate in the life of the town, things started happening. This past year we’ve been the recipients of more neighborly grace than in any other place we’ve lived. (I use the term “neighbor” loosely here, to refer not just to our physical neighbors but also to our neighbors in the broader community around us).
There’s the woman across the street who stopped by one day to say, “I’ll be coming over to check on you from time to time. I remember what it’s like to be home with kids all day.” And she does.
There’s our next-door neighbor, who quietly included our front yard in his weekend mowing during our first summer here. This fall, when two dogs broke into our chicken coop and killed the entire flock, the same neighbor’s wife insisted on disposing of the bodies for me, on the grounds that “you shouldn’t have to do that with little ones in the house.” These neighbors have all but adopted our dog, even taking her in for baths during mud season.
There’s the friend who came to drop off his daughter for a playdate, noticed my husband stacking two cords of wood, and stayed for an hour to help finish the job.
We’ve been given bags of children’s clothes and shoes from families whose daughters have outgrown them. (Knowing that we have three girls to wear hand-me-downs is apparently a big bang for your buck!). We’ve been given jams and soups and meals for very small reasons – or for no reason at all. When our entire family came down with the dreaded stomach bug this winter, two separate friends took various children off of our hands when I couldn’t get out of bed.
Last year, this paper reported on the tragic death of George Demarais, a Middlebury man who was shot by police in an armed standoff. Although this story is highly unusual in Vermont, Mr. Demarais is an all-too-familiar figure in the news these days: a loner who’s fallen on difficult times and stockpiles weapons as part of a destructive plan.
Everywhere else I’ve lived, news coverage of this event would have featured interviews with neighbors saying, “He kept to himself. We didn’t know him at all.” But what struck me about Mr. Demarais’s case is that his Vermont neighbors DID know him – or at least, they tried to. They said that they knew that he was having financial difficulty, and they’d tried to help him.
I know that people care for their neighbors this way all over the world; I’ve just been surprised to find so much of it in Vermont. As to why I’ve yet to encounter a truly frosty Vermonter, it could be that I’ve just met the wrong people.
But I have my own little theory. It may be idealistic, but here goes: I think Vermont, with its small towns and small farms and small mountains, is something special. There’s the sense of things still existing here that are being lost elsewhere in the country – things that are worth preserving. If it takes an unfriendly reputation to protect Vermont from becoming a land of golf courses and housing developments and strip malls, then I’m all for it. You can’t get there from here.
In the meantime, I’m learning to accept help. My Puritan work ethic makes me worry that accepting help is a sign of weakness, and I feel guilty that people are wasting their time on our family rather than helping those REALLY in need. But these days, when neighbors offer food or clothes or a hand, I’m learning to swallow my own reserve – my inner New Englander– and just say, “Yes.” My Vermont neighbors are teaching me that part of being a neighbor is having faith that, at some point, I’ll have plenty of chances to return the favor.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, three young daughters (with another on the way), one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.