FEATURED COLUMN by John McDonald: Let’s hear it for small towns

By John McDonald

We’ve all heard the complaints from folks — mostly those from away– about life in small towns. These people go on as if someone cared about how they could never live in a small Maine town because small town people are too nosy and these people wouldn’t feel comfortable knowing that everyone in town — even people they didn’t know — knew everything they were up to. Makes you wonder what they ARE up to.

It’s true people in small towns are curious about the things people around them are doing. Some small-town folks want to know everything about everybody in their small town. That’s why when some folks in small towns drive by a neighbor’s place they’ll risk going off the road when they slow down to check out a strange vehicle in the dooryard. If it’s a new vehicle, is it someone visiting or is it a new car? If it’s a new car, what did they do with their old one? If it’s a visitor, who is it and why are they there? What’s the story? Who can they ask for details?
Those of us who’ve lived in small towns have all heard the questions and experienced these friendly “drive-bys.” While standing around a local store chewing the fat and drinking bad coffee, who hasn’t heard someone pipe up and ask something like “Anyone know anything about the strange car in the dooryard at the Merrill’s?’ or “Anyone know about the family that’s just moved into the Nelson place?”
That’s when a friendly competition can begin. Who can reveal the most about what’s going on at the Merrill or Nelson place? Someone might start with “I hear the car at the Merrill place belongs to a relative from New Jersey on their way to the Maritimes. They had some time before they had to get the Cat in Bar Harbor so they stopped for a short visit. Don’t know much more than that.”
Next will come information about the Nelson place. “I don’t know their names, but I heard the people who bought the Nelson place are from Connecticut somewhere and he was just hired up to the university to teach sociology or some such thing.”
Following these openers someone else might add “Marge down at the post office said the new people at the Nelson place couldn’t be nicer. Their name’s Hagopian. Armenian. He just got his doctorate down there to Yale and this is his first teaching job. They say his wife is hoping to get a job teaching history at the high school.”
Now the folks in the store are warmed up. Before long the assembled know how many kids the Hagopians have and their ages, because someone said Thelma was asked if her daughter Becky would be available to babysit. They also know how much they paid for the Nelson place, where they got their mortgage, what renovations they’re planning and who’s been hired to do them.
Living in small towns I never felt too uncomfortable knowing that my neighbors knew stuff about me. Besides, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it one way or another except maybe move to the city. So I did what everyone else in a small town does. I lived with it.
I was thinking about small town “nosiness” the other day remembering how towns across Maine had to clean up from the wild Patriots Day nor’easter. It’s a known fact that when a nasty nor’easter hits, there’s no better place to be than a small Maine town. The same nosiness that has no apparent use when it’s being passed around a general store during normal times can sure come in some useful during a storm or another emergency.
Because small town people know just about everything there is to know about their neighbors, they know who can take care of themselves and who’s likely to need some help. Rather than standing around wondering what to do during or after a storm, or waiting for the latest information from some television station, small town neighbors go out and get it done.

John McDonald has a program of Maine stories for your company’s next banquet, conference, convention or special event. Call 207-240-8324 or email maineauthorjohn.mcdonald@yahoo.com.