Life at the Center: How Far Can We Stretch? Vol. 89, November 2020

How far can we stretch… to include each other?

My dear mom, Nancy Auker, has been writing some of her memoirs for us lately. What emerges is a typical, close-knit, middle-America community during WWII. Her vignettes of life in a tiny town in Ohio could well have been captured by a series of Norman Rockwell paintings. 

Many of us don’t live in places like that anymore. Her description of community inspires me to especially wonder: How can we create community today – in a non-homogenous, sometimes rancorous, largely virtual world – that can still provide people with that sense of support and nurture? 

Introducing Attica

by Nancy Auker

“Attica, my home town, was quite like other rural Ohio villages in the 1930’s…men worked, mothers stayed home, kids learned and played, hens laid eggs, everyone had a vegetable garden, farmers and their families came into town two nights a week and to church on Sunday. Great place to grow up, a town where no one locked their doors, but also confining, where everyone knew everyone else’s business through the town’s shared telephone lines!

Community Life

“They say, ‘It Takes a Village to Raise a Child’. We lived that in Attica; people took care of one another. At around five years old, we were allowed to run around the neighborhood, an area about two blocks long between the highway filled with semi trucks and the railroad tracks where trains ran frequently. There were no fences between the neighbors’ yards, and we were free to play on anyone’s property. We had lots of opportunities to find danger in the old barns, tool sheds, and abandoned outhouses, except that women were mostly homebound and they all took responsibility for us.

“One summer day, our elderly neighbor Ira asked Mom to come over to help him take down his kitchen stove pipe which needed yearly cleaning. It let go suddenly; of course, I had my nose in there, so Mom and I were covered with greasy black soot. But Ira’s stovepipe was clean by the time we left.

“ ‘Hobos’ – as they were called when I was a child –  always had a camp in the small woods next to the railroad tracks. We kids visited them, talked and watched them warm cans of beans over an open fire. It was during the Big Depression and these men were jobless, homeless, and non-threatening; they rode the rails from town to town seeking work. Mom always cooked extra food expecting a hobo or two to stop by. They sat on the low stone wall outside our back door, would offer to do some work, might ask for cardboard to put inside their shoes or newspaper to put inside their sleeves and pant legs during cold weather. 

Playtime

“We kids mostly played outside. On sunny days, we often took turns roller skating on the cracked, heaved flagstone sidewalks. A skate key, a necessity for the clamp-on skates, signaled, “If you’re nice to me, you can borrow my skates.” I had the only tricycle among my friends and we all shared one wagon when I was little.  

Attica at War

“My dad hated gardening, but he doubled the size of our family garden to create a Victory Garden during the war. I helped by planting onions and potatoes, pulling weeds, and picking off horrible tomato worms. One summer, 6th and 7th graders were bussed to local farms to pick strawberries. We were paid 5 cents a quart, and felt happy and patriotic.

Mom and I regularly went with Legion Auxiliary ladies to a neighboring town through which troop trains passed. We served hot coffee and donuts to servicemen aboard.

Memorial Day

“A story of mid-twentieth century Attica would be incomplete without telling about Memorial Day celebrations, the most significant yearly event during my young life. The Weaver Funeral Home put several large, galvanized tubs of water on their front porch awaiting wagon loads of peonies, gladiolas, forsythia, etc. We kids hurried about town, pulling our wagons, gathering flowers from the town folk to fill the tubs. On Sunday afternoon, folks assembled in the village square. The mayor and veterans led the parade. Recent veterans might still fit into their military uniforms; older ones who would pop their buttons wore only military hats. Uniformed school band members proudly played their hearts out. Legion Auxiliary ladies and others brought up the rear of the parade to the cemetery. During the speechifying, we kids scurried about, placing colorful bouquets on each veteran’s grave. To conclude the ceremony, our veteran bugler played Taps…women cried, men had lumps in their throats. 

Death in Attica

“When the funeral home hung up a wreath, the town quickly found out who had died. Nearly all the neighbors visited the bereaved, bearing food items to help the family through their difficult time. I remember my grandpa’s open casket in their living room. Folks would look and say things like, “Oh, he looks so natural” Everyone had seen lots of dead bodies—you live, you die. We saw each other through our entire life cycle.”

After reading my mom’s memoir, I called my three little nieces, ages 10, 10, and 12 who live just a mile away from their Nana. The girls, of course, never got to visit the Attica my mom grew up in, and she wrote the piece with them in mind. I asked my nieces, as I ask you, my readers: hearing about what a close little village Nana grew up in, how can we in today’s world reach out to include more people in our circle of care and concern? I love my nieces’ spirited answers for connecting with people outside their immediate family.

My nieces’ first suggestion was to bake cookies to take to new neighbors – how sweet is that? They take frequent walks through their neighborhood and parks of Oakland, California, and give a friendly greeting to each person they meet along the way. 

They told me how their long-time martial arts practice of Poekoelan introduces them to people of many backgrounds and ethnicities around the San Francisco Bay Area, especially now that they are meeting outdoors in a park.  Attending Junior Life Guard camp and acting in children’s theater events also includes them in a wide circle of kids. Not Jewish themselves, the sisters have nevertheless attended friends’ bat mitzvahs. 

Genuinely friendly little souls, the girls make a point of meeting EVERYONE in school, with the start of each school year as an opportunity to make friends with newcomers. They know that one friend holds a different political viewpoint from theirs, but it seems ridiculous to them to hold that against her, when she’s only representing what her parents have taught her.

The girls enthused to me about a safe, online platform called “Among Us” as a good place to chat and even work together in a game context with people whom they have never met. Without sharing personal information, my nieces nevertheless feel connected to a larger world in this virtual context.

On the other hand, when Dan, his wife Debbie, and their outgoing gaggle of girls have gone on vacation around the country, they’ve always received a warm welcome. True to our grandfather Pop’s tradition, Dan likes guns. Pop was a master gunsmith and marksman in Attica. Dan told me over the phone, “Now, I know you’re not going to like this, Renée, but when we vacationed in Idaho, we took the girls to a gun range. They were really nice to our family there. The owner pulled out a short, pink .22 rifle that he had cut down to size for his granddaughter and showed our girls how to use it. I imagine he and I don’t share many of the same political views, but we didn’t talk about that.”  Friendly people meet friends wherever they go.

Dan then made an important observation that I think we would do well to heed: “I’ve always heard we should avoid three topics in civil conversation: religion, politics and money.” 

You know, especially at this particular juncture in our history, Dan may be onto something. Maybe that precaution in talking to others was one of the keys to community harmony in Attica. Much as I like deeply meaningful, spirited, relevant conversation, we may be living in a time when we need to FIRST search for what we have in common with each other, especially when meeting new people. Perhaps it’s time to talk about places in nature that we love, nostalgic childhood memories, music and movies we appreciate and favorite recipes! Telling anecdotes of our family members and pets can remind us of our shared humanity. 

DOING things together with other people establishes community. We do a LOT of that at Still & Moving Center. Our annual Diwali festival of light celebration – happening THIS SATURDAY, November 14, at 4 pm!!!! – always comes to life through a huge outpouring of support and love. 

This last week a number of us met at our house to film the Ramayana “battle scene” in our courtyard. We had so much fun creating and laughing together! Krista Hiser (Nia teacher) played all the “good guys” on the hero Ram’s side, while Dayl Workman (Tribal Belly Dancer) played the demon King Ravana and all his hordes, throwing punches and kicks, falling to dramatic deaths, and achieving noble victories. Our cinematographer friend Greg Hatton took great shots as our afternoon light faded into night, and battle raged on. Our operations manager Neela Vadivel was applying makeup as well as narrating the skirmishes. During costume changes, Greg transitioned the backyard to film Marnita Billups (Afro-Fusion dance teacher) dancing to the song “Strength, Courage and Wisdom” to cheer on Prince Ram. Our creative collaboration brought us together in good spirits with a common purpose.

And what about you? Are you straddling a divide with some of your friends, families and co-workers on the other side?  HOW ARE YOU REACHING ACROSS THE GAP? 

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