We speak often these days about the loss of community and neighborliness in America.
What with divisive politics and networks taking the place of neighborhoods, what with globalization and harried lives and little time to get to know, there is no easy commonality, no slapping screen door automatically inviting casual drop-ins, no guarantee of a cup of coffee sipped over a common fence.
I feel this loss, maybe most acutely because of how I grew up, in a small Southern town with my mother’s large side of the family down the road in one direction and my father’s in another. My childhood was defined by an effusive and brazen hospitality and the assumption of an always open door.
Blame it on the times or the place or the impossibility of recreating childhood myth. But here, in these modern times, in the small Midwestern college town where I have lived with my family for 20 years, I’ve not often found the same.
And then the other day, the friend of a friend I barely knew connected with the picture of a jasmine plant I posted on social media and dared to make a bodacious request.
Now mind you, tropically oriented jasmine is not a plant that grows readily in northeast Ohio, 115 miles from the Canadian border.
But being as I am from the South, being as my mother grew a tangle of jasmine on her wrought-iron gate in New Orleans, being as the pungent scent of jasmine links me with all that I was and am and miss, every season I try to keep a jasmine plant alive.
Every spring, as soon as the sun is routinely warming the kale seedlings in my raised beds, I sit a potted plant from the local nursery on the deck railing beside my back door.
I watch and wait, on high alert for the vision of tiny white blooms.
More than anything, I wait for the scent.
No matter how small or tall the plant manages to grow, no matter how few or many the blooms, there is that sweet, seductive fragrance poets write about, and when the back door is open and the breeze blowing a certain way, I am transported to the headiness of a Southern spring, and memories.
This year, I happened to post a photo of the season’s small fledgling with its 15 tiny white flowers, just as this friend of a friend, Linda, was needing her own whiff of jasmine.
Her daughter, a recent high-school graduate, had relocated South the year before, to New Orleans, to pursue music. Linda could only imagine the Southern spring her daughter spoke of when they talked, in particular the jasmine that she said grows profuse, that smells like rich perfume as she walks along the city’s residential streets. Seeing my photo, longing to experience what her only daughter was experiencing, the mother of four I hardly knew braved to message me: “Can my boys and I come smell your jasmine?”
It was an out-of-the-ordinary request, one some other stranger might not have made and another might have rebuked, a request she later half-apologized for, that I later hugged her for.
“You can’t know how I long for this kind of spontaneous connection,” I said, tears forming behind my eyes.
“I somehow think I figured that about you,” she said, her own tears brimming. “I do, too.”
The simplest of acts it was, this mother walking with her three young sons on a warm, late spring morning to my house, which was just around the corner from hers as it turns out, carrying a gift of flowers from her husband’s late grandmother’s garden in a Mason jar.
We chatted briefly at the door and then, leading the little troupe to the back deck, I watched with mutual appreciation as each of them closed their eyes and put their noses to the simple, fragrant petals.
We sat for a few more minutes, surrounded by the commonality of a jasmine plant, but more, the common understanding of what can happen when people are courageous in community.
“I love that you asked me,” I said.
“I love that you said yes,” she said.
We’ve made it out to be so hard, the idea of forging community with one another in fragmented times. And yet, there it was, as simple as that, and suddenly, I have a new friend with a slapping screen door.
“We’re just around the corner,” she said as she stepped off the porch with her boys to home. “Come knock on my door any time.”
Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at www.debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her column’s Facebook discussion group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.