In large cities, keeping a community intact most often means the absence of crime. In small towns, what makes a community is the presence of neighbors. Such is the difference these days in the expectation levels of beleaguered city dwellers as compared with residents of small towns and villages.
I am reminded of this distinction whenever I remember the good neighborliness of George Bender in Winsted, Connecticut where I grew up. In his neighborhood, Mr. Bender, as he was always called, was the personification of generosity. He gave his neighbors the fruits and vegetables fresh from his famous garden behind his house. He gave fatherly advice and consolation to the neighborhood’s children. He helped people fix things in their home or told them where they could go to receive good service or spare parts.
At times of family mourning, Mr. Bender was the first to arrive to help. No one could be as sincere in mourning for a friend than Mr. Bender. He would remember heartfelt episodes and traits of the deceased’s life and personality. He would be one with the next of kin. And he would cry as if he were kin.
Never a wealthy man in dollars, he was super wealthy in spirit. From his modest earnings as a supervisor in a local factory, he would give money to friends in need for their children or loan a deserving person trying to get started in a little business. When there was an emergency or a family was away, Mr. Bender would be there to look out for them.
Even when he suffered reverses in health or in loss of members of his own family, he would always bounce back. His nature was to be cheerful as a way of life, while never forgetting his loved ones. One of the few provocations that would upset him was when he would hear of some husband physically mistreating his wife. Places in hell were reserved for wife-beaters, in Mr. Bender’s judgment.
Mr. Bender, a widower, is now 97 years of age and a great grandfather. The garden is not cultivated now, except for the old apple and pear trees and a grapevine. But nearby his son, George Jr. and his wife, Nellie, carry on the tradition with their garden and their cheerful neighborliness. Few fathers have ever had a more supportive son and daughter-in-law, daily and hourly.
Nowadays, the television and newspapers describe the state of our society through its crime, violence, addiction and high level corruption and greed. They describe our economy in the specious precision of gross national product indices. But who describes the neighborly generosity and help of the Mr. Benders in communities throughout the country. How does anyone price that quality of life?
Any society which ignores such attributes of life, that cannot be measured in dollars, will become inattentive to those unsung but critical human qualities that keep it together both in easy and hard times.
If we wish the younger generation to inherit such appreciations and emulate them, would it not be a good idea for all of us once in a while to exalt such behavior?
There are standards of living that can be purchased with money and there are other standards of living that cannot be bought at any price. They can only be given. Without them, we would understand only too well the ancient adage that “man does not live by bread alone.”