Tending a town's roots

My husband, sons, and I joined the legions of families who relocate far from their roots. Now hundreds of miles and a new world away, I miss the old neighborhood. I miss knowing all my neighbors' names, their relatives, their history.

While getting acquainted with road names, finding a grocery, and trying to recognize the lady next door, I eagerly wait for Mom's reports and tales of home: Lafayette, Ohio.

Her words remind me of my childhood in the 1950s. She and I greeted community residents who turned onto our sidewalk, crossed the porch, and yoo-hooed their way into our living room to pay for phone service. The telephone company had shut its Lafayette office and contracted with Mom to collect payments until customers adjusted to the new concept of paying by mail.

By my fifth birthday, I knew every resident by sight, name, and family history. Don Williams, with sparse hair and spare tire, presided over the volunteer fire department. Mr. Crumrine, the postmaster, sneaked me new stamps for the collection he insisted I should have. And his assistant, Carolyn McCague, taught me how to sew.

Mom and I stamped phone bills "paid," accepted the money, and sent monthly reports to the main office in Ada. They sent Mom a check based on the amount she collected.

Yet, collecting payments was but a cover for Mom's real service. She held an honorary master's degree in listening. People came, clutching phone bills and money, but it was conversation they sought. Few hurried out the door; instead, they waited for Mom to inquire about loved ones, special events, or their health.

With a sincere, "How are you today, Mr. Westphal?" Mom opened the steel jaws of that silent curmudgeon. Stumbling over his heavy German accent, he rushed to tell the news of his grandchildren, accompanied by pictures. Whatever he had to say, we listened, smiling and nodding, oohing and ahhing. Then abruptly, with a wave of his hand, he'd open the door and gruffly offer, "Haf a goot day."

Our house was perfectly situated for walk-in business in downtown Lafayette. One block away from the post office, we nestled between the town hall and Bob's Garage. Across the paved street, Don's Barber Shop and Stump's Home Appliance conducted business. We had a unique view of the village commerce, and we resided on the main grapevine that carried stories of Lafayette's history, heroes, and family secrets.

Mrs. Walters, a lonely, sad woman, walked several miles to our house. She talked about whatever came to mind. When conversation turned to husbands, babies, and love, Mom shooed me outside for a breath of fresh air.

Mom rarely spoke of what she heard. She taught me to keep information entrusted to us. Her counsel was simple, "They just needed to share that. We don't."

Our dusty little farm town was home to strong people who weathered life's tests. They all came to our house. Don the barber trimmed farmers' hair, greeting each customer with his well-worn, "Need your ears lowered?"

He laughed, joked, and good-naturedly combed out wheat stubble and leaf hoppers before clipping. He ended each session with a splash of good- smelling tonic - on heads that would be hidden under sweat-stained farm caps (sporting DeKalb or John Deere logos) before their owners closed the door. Don, alone at 35, devoted himself to his work and his little daughter.

Miss Ursula, a wizened gnomelike woman, walked spryly into town each week from her little sheep farm. Before buying groceries and returning home, she visited the Farmer's Co-op, post office, library, and our house. Gazing at her face, wrinkled like a dehydrated apple, I couldn't see the flawless image that had won a beauty contest when she was a teenager. I saw a stooped woman who peered out of the hood of her car coat, winter or summer, and talked of roses and sheep as if they were her babies.

Mom talked to me about everyone who came to our door - no gossip, just history. She told of Mr. Anspach, who retired from the railroad; Mr. Knoble, who made a fortune in the stock market, wrote a book, and returned to his hometown to retire; and of Karen Joseph, who could play the piano when she was 2 years old. "No lessons; she played by ear," Mom said with awe.

Mrs. Kline, who never left her house, was an exception. We visited her each month to collect her payment and admire her meticulously pieced quilt patches. Mom made sure I always remembered the rules, a list that began with "Be courteous!"

Mr. Reed, a rule unto himself, usually paid his bill late. Mom assured him she wasn't required to charge the late fee. She told me that he had been hurt on the job and couldn't work anymore. We both knew that uncollected fines came out of Mom's paycheck, and I learned the unspoken rule that all good neighbors follow.

Now I wait for Mom's letters and phone calls. My husband quickly gave up trying to decipher her letters. She and I communicate in a shorthand developed during those days of collecting phone payments. I know what she means when she writes, "As wrinkled as Miss Ursula" or "as sweet as Don's tonic."

I shared her happiness for Don the barber when she phoned to tell me, "He's in love! Almost cut off Mr. Anspach's ear when he talked about his lady friend, waving his scissors like a madman." I knew the whole story when she said "Mr. Westphal's great-grandson just graduated from college" and "Mrs. Walters smiled today."

Mom's shorthand brings my childhood flooding back, pushing the homesickness away. I savor each word. She gave me my place in the community before I knew how to write, and she filled in generations of history before I knew what history meant. Now she keeps me connected to those roots, until I can grow some new ones.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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