Suicide rates are up, especially among women between ages 45 and 65. (Honestly, that’s startling to write, not just because of the depressing statistic, but because I can’t believe I’m in that age group.) There are lots of reasons for this, according to the New York Times. Increased drug and alcohol use/income inequality/depression/job cutbacks/financial insecurity and isolation are a few culprits. I bet you can come up with your own theories.
Anyway, in response to the Times article on this depressing phenomenon, last week I posted a comment that got a lot of response in the comments section and also in private emails. This tells me that, at least in concept, we humans ache for the support of living in close-knit communities, whether those are small towns or simply loving neighborhoods.
Not all agreed. One commenter said he liked being alone and another spoke of what a relief it was to finally flee the fishbowl of small-town life where you were judged based upon your Daddy’s profession and model of car. Perhaps, but this has not been my experience in Middlesex, Vermont (pop. 1800), where I am town clerk. One of our most esteemed families – whose form of noblesse oblige includes donating Dumpsters for Green-Up Day – runs a very profitable junk yard.
Here’s a story that I think perfectly illustrates why a close community can be nothing short of life saving. Consider “Doris,” a sixty-ish woman in our town who lost everything in a pair of Biblical misfortunes. First, her beloved husband died suddenly, leaving her with simply a log cabin and his handmade furniture, not even a car. Then, just when she was beginning to dig out from her grief, a bolt of lightning set fire to the garage, razing all her worldly possessions to a heap of ash within minutes.
This kind of stress would be enough to send even the strongest person over the edge and, frankly, when I saw Doris the day after the fire, I was pretty worried about her mental health. Yes, she had SOME insurance, but there was so much else to do. And she was by herself. She had no idea how to go about cleaning up the rubble, getting a zoning permit, replacing the septic, much less build a new house. It was overwhelming.
Enter Steve and John, two neighbors who came to her rescue. Steve is a farmer down the road who’d recently lost his own wife and knew something about heartache. John is a contractor. Together, the two members of our Planning Commission quietly set to work. Steve used his heavy equipment to clear the rubble; John helped with the rebuild. They got Doris her zoning permit, poured a slab, and installed a nice modular home, all without fanfare. I’m not sure many people know about the sacrifices they made of their own time and materials to help this neighbor. But because of their generosity, Doris moved into a new home that is also large enough to accommodate her daughter and grandson. So she’s no longer alone.
And this isn’t the only story of unsung heroes. As clerk, I’ve become privy to several secret salvations, from the anonymous deliveries of firewood to mysterious cash donations and deposits of clean, high-quality of winter clothing. These gifts will not be itemized on any 1040. No one will win a medal. But I have no doubt that they have saved lives if only because their receivers know they are valued members of our community.
Like Red Green used to say, “I’m pulling for you; we’re all in this together.”
PS. If you have a story about small-town heroes saving you or someone you know, I’d love to hear it.