Ralph Gardner Jr: Our Good Neighbors

Feb 10, 2018

Sheldon Evans and Martha McMaster

If you’re lucky enough to live in the country there are probably a bunch of factors that contribute to your sense of well-being. These include, in no particular order – open skies, sunsets, trees, gardens, streams and wildlife. At least wildlife that keeps a safe distance from your vegetables, shrubs, attic, etc.

Put them all together, and even with a minimal amount of introspection, you realize that you’re part of something frequently beautiful and definitely much bigger than yourself.

But there’s another important variable and one to which I hadn’t given all that much thought until recently. Good neighbors.

It feels as if we have two borders at our house. There’s the literal property lines. And then there’s a psychological boundary that extends out to include the homes and towns of our friends and neighbors. Together they conspire to create a cocoon-like effect, a safety net.

There are probably several reasons why I’ve failed to contemplate the intangible, and occasionally tangible, benefit our neighbors provide.

For starters, we and most of them are happily surrounded by enough land that we don’t have to see each other unless we want to. What’s that Robert Frost line? “Good fences make good neighbors.”

There’s also the fact that I grew up in the city where people are stacked one on top of another. So the best neighbors are those with whom you have the least contact.

They don’t blast loud music. Bounce balls against the walls and floors (my brothers and I were guilty of that but my father’s temper had a way of staunching the practice before the neighbors could complain.) Or forget to turn off their bathtubs and flood your apartment.

In other words, the ideal neighbor is one who’s away most of the time.

These neighbor-related associations were sparked by an event we attended last Saturday night – the Winter Blast benefiting Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, NY. And also by a dog, a well-kept Golden Retriever I believe it was, who was standing in the middle of the road on the way to the party, and we feared was lost.

When we slowed down he barked and ran away, hopefully back home, and we kept going.

The encounter caused my wife to remember the way her own dogs roamed the “Leave It To Beaver” neighborhood where she grew up on Long Island. She made it sound as if they equal members of the community; friends and neighbors reporting they’d spotted the animals trotting along the street as if they were runners going for their morning jog.

I doubted their roaming ways were as safe as my wife made out: what about speeding cars?

But she painted an idyllic picture of Fifties and Sixties suburbia where people obeyed the lethargic speed limits and everybody knew and respected everybody else, including their pets.

Columbia Memorial’s Winter Blast honored our neighbors Sheldon Evans and Martha McMaster, active – one might almost say – overactive members of the local and regional community. They’ve bestowed their energy and largesse, singularly and together, on organizations such as the Olana Partnership, the Columbia Land Conservancy, the Shaker Museum/Mount Lebanon and the Hudson Children’s Book Festival Literacy Fund.

Actually, that’s just Martha.

Sheldon’s community activism includes Time and Space Limited, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, and the Columbia County Historical Society. He also established Vote Columbia, a non-partisan initiative to get second-home owners to vote in their local towns. He even authored a book on walks around protected lands in Columbia County.

And, of course, both of them are important supporters of the hospital.

I admire their spirit. But being reasonably selfish and self-centered what I admire most of all is that they make excellent neighbors. They’re over the next ridge, about half a mile as the crow flies. And there’s no fear that come hunting season they’ll mistake our dog for a deer. Or dump toxic waste in the local aquifer.

While I haven’t checked, I have absolutely no doubt that they separate their recyclables and probably compost their food scraps. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if they use biodegradable tissue in low-flow toilets.

We’ve frankly never gotten into that level of detail. But I can tell you that their 18th Century farmhouse has been so sensitively restored that it’s been featured on tours of Hudson Valley vernacular architecture.

They’re the kind of folks who make you feel guilty that you’re not a better person yourself. That you sometimes let the recycling slide.

Except they’re not. They wouldn’t be human, or just plain sentient, if they weren’t slightly judgmental. But I haven’t seen it.

And they’re just two among several valuable neighbors. Those include a couple of college professors, a publisher, a neighbor who makes excellent outdoor furniture from cedar he finds in the woods, and celebrated architects who put at least as much effort and thought into their landscaping as they do their prize-winning architectural commissions.

But perhaps best of all, they invite you to their homes, serve you drinks and make you dinner. And all you have to do in return is to be minimally charming. And invite them back on occasion.

But sometimes not even that. For the likes of Martha and Sheldon it’s enough that you share their respect for nature and humanity and eventually quiet your dog when she’s chased a squirrel up a tree.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.