by Lela Casey
This blog originally appeared at Kveller.com.
Yesterday was the first day of summer vacation. That meant that, instead of the solo walk I take down my driveway to the mailbox every afternoon, I was joined by my kids—my beautiful, happy kids, who are just bursting with summer excitement. They sorted through the mail with me, carefully inspecting each letter to see if it was a gift from Grandma, or a late birthday card. They watched as I opened up a letter with no return address, saw the easy summer smile on my face harden to anger, and then melt with tears.
Here’s the letter:
There are words that I would like to say to the person who wrote this letter, words that have grown and changed as the last 24 hours have gone by. But, since it is unlikely that I will ever know who the sender was, I’ll write them here, to you, and then let them go:
Dear VERY CLOSE NEIGHBORS,
It will be six years now that we have lived in this town. Six years of friendly interactions and smiling neighbors. But, I’ll tell you a secret… since we’re so “close.” I never trusted those smiles, never felt completely at ease with those interactions.
I grew up outside of a small town in northeast Pennsylvania. Not only were we the only Jewish family for miles around, but my siblings and I were also the only first generation kids that I knew of (my mom is Israeli). During my childhood, I was teased and bullied, slandered and harassed. Kids accused me of killing Jesus, threw pennies at me, and even burned my hair with a lighter. When I got off the bus, I would run up the driveway to my country home, so grateful to have a place to escape the cruelty.
I wasn’t the only one who was bullied, of course. But I was one of the few who lived in a place where mean kids couldn’t walk or bike to my house after school to continue the harassment. As rough as my situation was, “town living” seemed to be the worst possible fate of all.
I carried this fear of living in town throughout my life. Each time we moved to a new place, I made sure it was either in a tightly packed apartment building with plenty of anonymity, or way out in the country with no chance of getting close to my neighbors.
Unfortunate family circumstances brought me back to Pennsylvania after 11 years away. Now married with three kids, my priority was to find a place with good schools and a safe environment. This town seemed to be the best fit. So I swallowed my reservations and looked for a house with as much space around it as we could afford.
We’ve had a pleasant six years here. We’ve been invited to lots of backyard BBQs and even hosted several of our own. I’ve made many friendly acquaintances, and precious few close friends. But, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve continued to keep a big wall around myself. This “outsider badge” is one that I’ve worn for far too long to cast aside for a few neighborly interactions. The truth is, even after all this time, this town has really never felt like home.
Thanks to you and your letter, which I shared on Facebook in my hurt and anger, I have received hundreds of kind messages, invitations to parties, offers to help both improve my house and “hillbilly” it up. I have heard from local business people and parents at my kids’ school who have never spoken a word to me. You have helped me see that, while there are negative forces in the suburbs (just like anywhere else), there is also boundless positivity and love. For the first time, I really do believe that most people here are looking out for each other’s best interests. I know that, even if I don’t have a lot of close friends, I do have plenty of allies.
I won’t lie. When I walked through town this morning, I did take an extra look at the houses that were a little too manicured, the neighbors who were a little too smiley. But, that distrust is something that has always been with me. What’s new is the genuine feeling of love and acceptance that I have gained.
Thank you for that.
Your very close neighbor
Lela Casey is a jkidphilly mom who lives in Bucks County. Being raised by a fiery Israeli mother and a gentle farmer in the middle of nowhere lent her a unique perspective on Judaism. She holds degrees from both Penn State University and Rhode Island College. Besides contributing to Kveller, she has written several children’s books and young adult novels.