My childhood, during the 1940s and 1950s, was spent living in close-knit communities. First, there was the Greek ghetto in Manchester, N.H., where I was surrounded by relatives and honorary relatives and traveled without fear from one four-story tenement to another.
Next, there was the mostly Irish boarding house in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. There, my family shared life with a colorful group of transients who always had stories to tell, a few long-term elderly residents who always had candy to share, and two other small families, each with a daughter exactly my age. Finally, there was the Boston city housing project in Roslindale, with 19 buildings, 57 front doorways, and 342 apartments filled with surrogate parents and willing playmates for me.
Demographically, we were poor, but my life was rich with the connections and experiences of living in such vibrant neighborhoods. It was a dream life for any child.
My neighbors in all three locations lived the phrase "It takes a village to raise a child." All the grown-ups took care of all the children. Children moved freely from household to household. There was always an extra plate at every meal. Everyone fed me, disciplined me, and loved me.
Everyone helped everyone. Food staples were shared regularly, as were clothes, skates, scooters, bikes, and even money. Those with cars drove those without. Those who could write well wrote letters for those who couldn't. Those who could read well interpreted documents for those who had trouble with English. Men without sons taught boys without fathers how to throw a ball and earn Cub Scout badges. Mothers without daughters taught girls without mothers about bras, shaving, and makeup.
We had picnics, talent shows, religious festivals, miniparades, and street dances. We were truly a community.
Today, I am not poor. I have all the perks that come with a college education and a white-collar career. I live in a lovely suburban house on a short street shaded with maples trees. There are only 15 houses, all well-kept single-family homes inhabited by childless first-time buyers or empty-nesters. It has always been a quiet neighborhood with a scarcity of children.
Consequently, my sons experienced a very different childhood from mine. Their socialization came from play dates and organized sports, rather than from impromptu kickball games in the street or secret club activities on vacant lots.
Their interactions with the neighborhood adults revolved around polite conversations about school, or selling raffle tickets and candy bars during fundraiser weeks, rather than scoldings for misdemeanors or hugs for accomplishments.
The neighborhood get-togethers they experienced were always by invitation, rather than a spontaneous gathering on someone's front stoop during a hot summer evening. Yet, they feel totally connected to this neighborhood. For years, they've told me never to sell this house.
I know that when they say those words, they aren't talking about "the house." They're referring to the entire experience of living here. They're saying they don't want to let go of their history or the storehouse of memories that they love going over with each other and anyone else who will listen. They're saying that they depend on this shared experience to comfort and support themselves as they make their individual journeys into adulthood.
Although I've often wished they could have experienced the same sense of intimacy and spontaneity that was so prominent in my childhood, I see now that my impression of what was missing in their lives doesn't matter at all. What matters is their perception of their experiences. And their perceptions are positive and happy. They felt no lack.
It's becoming clearer to me that the actual physical neighborhood where one grew up is simply a part of the package called "childhood." If the package contains enough love, nurturing, and security, the particulars of the neighborhood are inconsequential. Children who live with love will love where they live.