Last Sunday I made a visit to some new neighbors down the block. No specific purpose in mind, just an opportunity to touch base, sit at the kitchen table, have some tea, and chat. As I did so, it occurred to me how rare the Sunday visit has become.
When I was a kid in the New Jersey of the 1960s, Sunday visits were routine. Most stores were closed, almost nobody worked, and the highways, as a result, were not the desperate steeplechases they have become today. My family normally traveled eight city blocks to the home of my grandmother – the same house my father was raised in – where the adults would sit on the front porch in lawn chairs while we children played stickball or hide-and-seek. Every so often I'd take a breather on the stoop, where I'd pick up fragments of adult palaver and articles of wisdom.
Everything under the sun was fodder for conversation. The weather, taxes, the state of the world, the weather, food prices, the wild nature of the current crop of children, the weather. But there was also the esoteric, like the time my great-uncle Stanley, remarking upon the legacy of John F. Kennedy, noted that President McKinley's funeral had also been sad. McKinley! That one sent me scurrying to the Encyclopædia Britannica.
There were other destinations for our Sunday visits. My great-aunt Hattie, who lived in an apartment above a fruit-and-vegetable store and had a dancing parakeet named Peetie; our relatives just over the border in Pennsylvania, a clan that included 12 – count 'em, 12 – cousins; my great-grandparents who lived in a tenement near the Jersey City waterfront and spoke only Polish; and last, the holy grail of Sunday visits – my uncle Gene, the only member of our extended family who had managed to accumulate significant material wealth. He had a palatial home on a New Jersey lake – the antithesis of our small brick house scrunched in between two other small brick houses on our densely packed Jersey City street. Sunday visits to Uncle Gene meant unlimited swimming, fishing, and toad-hunting – nirvana for a city kid.
The Sunday visit was something to aspire to. It was the encore to church, our reward for an hour of piety, an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that Dad was not at work, we were not in school, and there were no chores or errands that couldn't wait until Monday. Sunday was, indeed, different from all the other days of the week, because everyone seemed to be on the same schedule, which means that there was one day when everyone seemed to have time for everybody else.
Sunday as a day of rest is, or was, so deeply rooted in the culture that it's astounding to consider that, in a short span of time, it has almost entirely lost this association. In my childhood, it was assumed that everyone would either be home or visiting someone else's home on Sunday. But now the operative question is, "What do you plan to DO this Sunday?" The answer can range from going to the mall to participating in a road race to jetting to Montreal for lunch. If one were to respond, "I'm making a Sunday visit to family," such an answer would feel sepia-toned, an echo from another era.
I suppose I should be grateful to live in Maine, a state of small towns, abundant land, and tight relationships. Even though folks work as hard here as they do anywhere else, the state's powerfully rural cast still harbors at least remnants of the ethic of yesterday's America, where people had to depend on one another in the face of economic vagaries and a challenging environment.
How important is the Sunday visit here in Maine? Let me illustrate by way of example. A while back a few of us adults with our children traveled to the small-town home of an elderly woman – the mother of one of the parents in our group – who had lived in that house her whole life. We had tea and cupcakes while the kids did somersaults in the front yard. Our hostess seemed genuinely thrilled to have us. So thrilled, in fact, that it made the morning paper, under COMMUNITY COMMENTS: "M__ had Bangor guests for a Sunday visit. They had tea and cupcakes, and chatted."
I clipped that little statement, but have since lost it. But I know how to get another one. I just have to wait until Sunday to make my move.