Even though I have lived in the same house for 19 years, I'm a newcomer here. In this small New England town, it's not years that matter but generations. Like countless towns, it has changed from being a community of farmers to a bedroom community of people who work elsewhere.
My friends in town are other newcomers, many of whom I know from the world outside the town. I don't know many of the "old-timers," people who grew up here and still live on the land that their great-grandparents farmed.
One place where the differences between old and new stand out is at our town meetings. Over the past few years we have wrangled with divisive issues such as increased development versus preserving open space, and this rift between new and old has grown wider.
Last spring, several other newcomers and I lamented the split in the community and wondered how to build bridges between the different factions in town. Recognizing that many of the old-timers were already doing "community building" things, we realized we needed to encourage other newcomers to join in.
Someone brought up the traditional Fourth of July parade. The parade consists of the police car, fire engine, ambulance, a bunch of kids on decorated bikes, and several antique cars. It lasts exactly five minutes, the time it takes to drive very slowly along Main Street from the post office to the library. Afterward, everyone sings patriotic songs on the library steps for about 15 minutes and then goes home.
Someone said, "Let's organize a picnic after the songs. I have a map of the old neighborhoods in town based on where the old schools were. Maybe we could post the map and have name tags so people could meet their neighbors."
By the end of the conversation, we'd planned a picnic with the neighborhood map and a watermelon-seed-spitting contest.
The Fourth of July was hot and sunny, the parade lasted five minutes, and we sang on the library steps. We set up the map, name tags, and watermelon in a shady area next to the library. The map was a great hit. People connected over shared history they didn't know they had.
But it was the watermelon that made the day. Everyone from the oldest grandmother to the littlest kid ate watermelon, and more than 30 people competed in the seed-spitting contest. It didn't matter whether you were a newcomer or an old-timer, it just mattered how far you could spit a seed. The woman who won spat her seed an impressive 30 feet. She laughed and said growing up with older brothers sure helped.
After most people had left, a little group sat talking about this small success and what we could do next year. I smiled as I looked around. Some of us had lived in town for a few years, and some were 13th generation residents.
Our plan had worked.
The rift didn't feel as wide, and I could see the beginnings of a bridge - a bridge built partly with watermelon seeds.