Three years ago, my family and I left our apartment in the heart of bustling Cambridge, Mass., because my husband took a job teaching biology at McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
I had been born and bred in Pittsburgh, spent my early adulthood in and around Cambridge, and well into my 30s had only a glimmer of this thing called “the suburbs” where, it turns out, the vast majority of Americans live.
So when we turned onto Reisterstown Road from I-695 I didn’t even bother hiding my panic. “Where are we?” I asked. A Target the size of a city block whizzed by. It was followed by plasticy-looking condos, shopping malls with names like “Festival” and the well-tended lawns that were the stuff of legends. “That house has a lawn so big it could have horses!”
“Honey,” my husband said. “That is a horse barn.”
There were lots of buildings, lots of cars and all those lawns. But where were the people? Nobody was outside. I realized quickly there was no out to be in. You might think I’m a jerk, but I started to cry.
“The school is just a few miles from here!” my husband said brightly. Reisters-town to McDonogh Road and up the winding main road to campus. I whistled in appreciation and relief as I took in the cornfields and trees, the swale and the stream. McDonogh, founded in 1873 as a farm school, sits on nearly 800 acres. “This is pretty,” I said. “I bet there are deer and hedgehogs.”
“Hedgehogs are an English species,” my husband reminded me.
“I meant groundhogs,” I said. “Clearly the suburbs are already sucking the brain out of my ear.”
He didn’t laugh. Instead he said, “This is where we’re going to live. We’re lucky to be living on-campus. Lucky.”
Three years later, I have to agree. I am lucky. We are lucky. We’d been squeezing ourselves into a two-bedroom in Cambridge; for a nursery we used a closet. Now we have a four-bedroom apartment that’s the biggest place we’ve ever lived. The kids each have their own rooms, which I agonized over decorating, never having done it before. We have a patio. And two bathrooms. Two bathrooms! In Cambridge, that was like saying you believed in elves.
There are 18 apartments on campus and 16 single-family homes and a Fertile Crescent of children. The first day we arrived, before we’d even brought in luggage, a boy about my son’s age came over and said, “Let’s play Spider-Man!” And they were off.
Like hardy fish introduced into a new aquarium, our children, then 3 and 5, didn’t need to be in the quarantine bag very long. I, on the other hand, needed weeks and weeks. I paced the wall-to-wall carpeting like a cat. “Does it smell funny?” I asked. “I think this carpet is off-gassing.”
My children forced me out. They said, “Can we go over to so-and-so’s to play in the sprinkler?” “Mommy, up the street there is a trampoline!” And: “So-and-so’s mom wants to know if she can borrow an egg.”
To my grandmother this would have been no big deal, but for me, this was a major life event. It signified The Transition. When you live in a liberal city like Cambridge, “neighbors” and “community” are words thrown around a lot. But they’re bloodless. City living makes a person necessarily impersonal and private. I had “neighbors” in the sense that there were people who lived next door, upstairs and downstairs and across from us. But in the five years we lived in our apartment building no “neighbor” had ever asked to borrow anything. Ever.
I walked to my neighbor’s, upper school English teacher Beth Rheingold, Ph.D., with an egg. When I handed it to her, I heard myself say, “There’s more if you need them.”
In those first few months we were here, I’d tell my Cambridge friends the egg story, and after much eye rolling, they’d quiet down and get reverent. They were envious. And, frankly, they should be. As Dr. Rheingold (known to my children as Miss Beth) says, “Living on campus is a rare opportunity to live in a neighborhood community not unlike those of the 1950s, where kids played together, went to school together, and parents wandered into each other’s yards to chat, look out for one another’s children, bring over a pie or go on a walk or bike ride.”
My kids are in a bike posse of kids that trundle up and down the hill outside our apartment. In Cambridge, I’d fear for the seconds they were out of the sight of my maternal periscope. Now they’re older of course, and more capable, but there are 10 other Mother and Father Gooses also on the lookout. When I hear one of them reminding my son to wear his helmet, I smile. It takes a village to get kids to wear protective headgear.
I can use the school’s pool and gym, we go to plays and performances, swap baby-sitting, and if I wasn’t both allergic to and scared of horses, I could ride the school’s horses. I can watch excellent soccer from my kitchen window (McDonogh girls were the IAAM champions last year. Go Eagles!). I walk to school now that Nathaniel’s in kindergarten, and I have a plot in a garden that is just like the community garden I waited three years to get into in Cambridge.
And then there is what my husband and I call The Magic. McDonogh has five-day boarding, and on-campus faculty families are asked to dine “family style” with a group of boarders once a week. For us, once a week quickly turned to twice a week, then three times. Four days a week, if I don’t want to cook or do dishes, or my husband does not want to cook or do dishes, we eat in the dining hall, carefree. That’s The Magic.
The head chef cooks fried chicken that’ll make you cry it’s so delicious. On fried chicken night I bring Tupperware. Meals are boisterous affairs with high school students chatting and wolfing down food after practice, and faculty kids running around and their parents running after them. It reminds me of Thanksgiving.
At the dining hall they know how to celebrate. The staff puts on a white linen and live music holiday dinner around Christmas, with a visit from Santa and gifts for the kids. The kids stick to each other with the melted sugar from half-eaten candy canes. The dessert table groans. I lean back and survey the scene with satisfaction, like a fat uncle from Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
When I learned that a colleague of my husband’s, upper school environmental science and biology teacher Rob Smoot, was born on campus and lived here for 50 years, raising his three children here, I shook my head in wonderment. Fifty years! In this day and age, who has that kind of taproot for a life story? He knows every divot, and every tree on campus.
“My parents were McDonogh dorm parents, so growing up, I thought of the 800 acres of campus as my backyard,” says Smoot. “It was really country out here then. There were no encroaching developments, no I-795. It was all farmland and, just as there is now, there was a group of campus kids. We had the roam of the place.”
He stresses the importance, especially now in the increasingly virtual age, of letting kids explore the out-of-doors. Mud. Streams. Stars. And not just kids. Us, too. The adults. He asks, “When was the last time you walked on a path uninterrupted by a road?” I admit to him that, until I moved here, never.
These days, when a new faculty family moves onto campus, my kids bring the welcome wagon filled with banana bread and penguin stickers, since they are currently experts in the ecosystems of the South Pole. They have become links in a very old-fashioned chain of kindness, and community, the kind of community our grandmothers and great-grandmothers would have recognized.
This, I think, is what life should be like, no matter where you find yourself. Big city or suburb. On campus or off. I was not like this two years ago: warm, welcoming. Borrow an egg. Give an egg. But I am now.