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Sunday, November 17, 2019

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Living in My Small Community

I’m sitting in the corner breakfast room in the big house in the little community where I live. Out one window I can see Mr. Wilson’s house. Now retired, he was the high school principal for many years. His parents built the house where he now lives, the place he was born.

Next door to the Wilsons is Mrs. Lannan’s house. Well, it was her house until last year when she sold it to move into an apartment. Mrs. Lannan’s husband, now dead, was the son of the man who built my house. Although I’ve lived here for nearly 13 years it is always referred to in the community as the “old Lannan house.” The Lannans were the coal merchants in town in the early 1920s. They built the house as a one story structure then built upward as Mrs. Lannan quickly added eight children to the family.

“Mother,” says Mr. Wilson, “always said that you could tell when Mrs. Lannan was pregnant because they would add a dormer to the house.”

Soon after the birth of the eighth child Mr. Lannan died. Mrs. Lannan raised the eight kids and ran the business, and as the locals say, when she wasn’t raising kids she was raising Cain.

My house, or the Old Lannan house, is now for sale. Yesterday the real estate agent told me that one of the doctors in town told him that old Mrs. Lannan, who lived in this house until she was in her nineties, used to like to pretend she was dead in the middle of the night. She lived with a maiden aunt who would get alarmed when she played dead. The maiden aunt would call the daughter-in-law down the street who would rush over. When he old lady still didn’t move, the doctor would be called. Fed up with the middle-of-the night calls the doctor responded to a 4 a.m call with, “She damned well better be dead this time if you want me to come over.”

From my window I can see almost two blocks down this street to the public library. For several years I sat on the library board with Tom Lannan, my Mrs. Lannan’s grandson. He told me about the iris beds that used to surround the house. I dug around some of the tree roots, unearthed some iris bulbs and they now blossom into hundreds of flowers each year.

Across the street from the daughter-in-law Mrs. Lannan’s house is a small brick bungalow that used to be another Lannan house, another son of my Mrs. Lannan, this one named Joe. It is now owned by Joe’s son, Sean. I can see Joe’s house from the study window. Further in that direction is the Armstrong funeral home. Owned for years by Bruce Armstrong, the funeral home was sold by Bruce just a few months before he died in a car accident last winter. Last weekend his brother Bill came through my house during an open house. He lives in Mississauga but is thinking of moving back to the community to get out of the rat race and be closer to his aging parents.

So, I’m sitting here in my breakfast room, reading Brian Fawcett’s piece about living in small communities, “Reciprocity”. I agree that it is important to practice reciprocity, and I do it. I give Mr. Wilson corms when I separate the irises. I give my son’s outgrown soccer shoes to Joe’s youngest son. Joe borrows his brother’s backhoe to dig out my new flower garden. But these actions, I think, have more to do with successful living in a neighborhood than life in a small community.

It isn’t just that small communities hold generations of stories, of which you quickly become a part. In a small community there are no independent transactions. If the teller at the bank gives you poor service you might be inclined to complain, or tell her off if you are really annoyed. But in a small community this woman is not just the teller at the bank. She is also the mother of the kid from your son’s basketball team. She is married to the oldest brother of your daughter’s friend. You are going to run into her at the grocery store or the next school fundraiser, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you know her by name. In a small community your relationships with people are not based on one job description. You can’t isolate various aspects of your life. There is little option for anonymity. You think twice before you tell someone off.

While this interconnectedness can sometimes seem claustrophobic, it also breeds tolerance. Like with Jimmy. As a young man he was a star drummer. Even played the Carson show. But one tab of acid too many permanently fried his brain so he wanders town on his bike, often screaming. Because people know his history, they are patient. He’s got worse in the last year since his mother died. The manager of the grocery store gives him thirty bucks a week to stop by the parking lot a couple of times of day to bring in the carts. It makes Jimmy feel wanted and useful.

Or Chris. Horribly disfigured since birth with elephantiasis, the right side of his face has gotten much worse as he’s grown from a teen to a young man. But to everyone in this small community he is just Chris. Last year at the big fair at the museum I noticed someone from out of town staring at Chris and I realized how startling he appears. Even scary. Small communities can make disabilities disappear.

So I think it’s a little more complicated than Fawcett has it, this living in a small ommunity. And as for the Queen Charlottes not being vastly different than downtown Toronto, let me tell you my theory about living on an island…

970 w. March 17, 2004

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Jean Baird

Jean Baird

Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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