Making a Human Community

My wife Sidney and I spend our summers on a small island off the coast of Maine, Little Cranberry, well down east. The island has many charms, but I am most impressed by the wonderful integration of all age groups in the life of the island, from babies and young children to those in their 80s and 90s. Most impressive is that it includes teenagers, not an easy group to corral for adult activities, much less for hanging out with 4-year-olds and 85-year-olds.

The island is my model of what a community ought to be. It has about 60 winter residents, lobstermen mainly, a school with two teachers and 12 students, a small library and a neighborhood house for meetings and entertainments. There are some 300 summer visitors, many of whom like us have been coming for many years. As with most small towns, our house is locally identified by the name of its previous owner, the “Moran house,” where a lady weaver lived.

Most remarkably, the local people and the summer people get along wonderfully, with a number of intermarriages over the years, as well as some children of summer folks who turned native and became lobstermen. By now we know just about everyone who lives there year-round, many of whom have an island ancestry going back to the 18th century. The oldest parts of the local cemeteries have tombstones for babies, young mothers, and young adult men who drowned at sea; and a scattering of some very old folks as well, even in their late 80s and early 90s. All age groups are almost equally represented. The newer parts of the cemetery have few such generational mixes, mainly older people.

In recent years there has been a decline of trucks and cars, replaced by bicycles and golf carts, and by walking. Much of the time our street has no autos at all in sight, something that can not be said about most American streets. Our food is delivered to the island by a boat that drops the boxes of it at the end of a pier. For many years–before we sheepishly gave in to the exigencies of age and bought a golf cart–we used a hand cart to take the boxes home. A tourist once asked me, “Where is the mall?” I pointed her up the street to the one-room combined store and post office.

When we bought our house we chose not to have TV, and thought how different and revelatory that would be for our grandchildren. We overlooked the fact that all the year-round people have a satellite dish on their roof tops, and it hardly took them more than a day to make friends with children in those houses. That was not the first or last time they outwitted us.

Would I want to live all year on the island, as lovely, charming, and friendly as it is? No. I like small towns, but not this small.  But it surely is nice to come to an island that has the unspoken rule that everyone is required to greet or wave to everyone else, friend or stranger, and to stop and chat with for a spell with every one you do know. How else are you supposed to get the local news and gossip?

Daniel Callahan, 83, is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center.





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