Alexandra Frean is The Times’ bureau chief in Washington. She is British.
When her husband died suddenly, one of my first thoughts was: “We’re all alone in a strange place.” But I was wrong. We were not alone.
News of our plight spread around our neighbourhood within hours because the woman next door, unaware of our tragedy, had come round to apologise for smashing her car into mine soon after we got back, shellshocked, from the hospital. She came back the next day with two big bags containing three roast chickens and some salads. “Here take this. I’m so sorry for your loss,” she said as she thrust the bags towards my startled son at the front door.
There followed in the next days a steady stream of groceries and prepared meals from the houses immediately surrounding ours. One woman, knowing we were from England, managed to procure some Cadbury’s chocolate fingers, a small gesture of kindness that moved me to tears.
Food parcels also arrived from friends in New York and California. One evening, returning hungry and tired from a school athletics meet with my sons, knowing there was no food in the house, I found a steaming hot dish of macaroni cheese on the doorstep. Friends in New York had called a local restaurant and asked them to drop it round with a note: “There’s a reason it’s called comfort food.”
It wasn’t just food. I came home one day to find the son of an elderly woman on our street elbow-deep in grease on our driveway with all his tools out repairing my sons’ bikes. After our garage door got stuck for days, Bob, who lives across the street came over. “Right, let’s fix that garage door now,” was all he said.
This community spirit is still to be found, I believe, in remote rural areas the world over, where, deprived of the community services (libraries, drop-in centres, post offices, GP surgeries, tradesmen) that many of us take for granted, people learn to be self-sufficient and to trade favours. They become unpaid taxi drivers, meals-on-wheels providers, care-givers and even self-taught mechanics, roofers or plumbers, simply because there is no alternative.
But I am not in the back of beyond. I live in one of the most sophisticated urban areas anywhere. What drove my neighbours — lawyers, writers, teachers, administrators — to make a place for me in their busy lives?
I put the question to Brook, an American and the wife of a colleague. Shortly after Jeff’s death, she arrived at my home with bulging shopping bags, walked into my kitchen and started cooking. How is it, I asked, that in this country that prizes self-reliance so highly, where “welfare” is a dirty word and citizens campaign against a social safety nets and universal healthcare, that people I have never even met should show me such generosity?
Of course people are bringing you food, Brook said. It’s what Americans do. This is your safety net. It’s the pioneer spirit — the idea that if the people in the next wagon don’t rally round to help, nobody will. It doesn’t matter what they do or where they live, they know that when the time comes, you will do the same for them.
There’s another explanation, I think. Brought up in a “we can fix this” culture, it’s natural for Americans, seeing trouble, tragedy or disaster, to rush towards it, rather than away. It’s not that there is no safety net; more that there is no safety net mentality.
As the branches round my front door prepare to shed their leaves, I have removed the big blue cooler box from my front step. I have finally met and thanked most of the women who cooked for us. I have no doubt that, if we had been living in England when Jeff died, our friends and neighbours there would have rallied round. I wonder, however, how many of them — my former self included — would have been so generous over so many months to a complete stranger.
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