I stretched my mouth around the corner of my BLT and bit down hard. The over-toasted slice of bread splintered on contact, sending a jagged chunk of crust down my throat. I winced as it carved its way into my gut. It felt like a punishment—for the crappy sandwich, for the chronic lateness of dinner, maybe even for the constant back and forth between my kids at the dining table. I was here, eating burnt toast on a Thursday night in September with my bickering kids, when I could be swapping stories with the neighborhood women next door. It was my choice.
The moms in my neighborhood have been gathering every third Thursday of the month for a year or so. In pre-COVID times, they would meet over cocktails at trendy restaurants; now, they scatter themselves around fire pits in backyards. Each month an invitation arrives in my inbox, and each month I decline it. Most of the time I’ve had a legitimate conflict: work, carpooling duties, band concerts, meetings with my writing group, a school open house. On the rare occasion I’ve been available, I’ve found myself reticent to attend. Although more or less my age, the moms on my block are in a different phase of life: they are busy strapping kids into car seats and throwing themed birthday parties, while I’m white-knuckling it in the passenger seat with my teenage driver and fretting over parties I might not know about. I wasn’t quite sure how my life intersected with theirs, and I hadn’t been willing to spend a couple of hours a month to find out. And then COVID happened.
I’d seen the invitation to the monthly get-together earlier in the week but hadn’t responded. The email emphasized masks and distancing, but still, I hesitated. COVID wasn’t the only reason. I caught myself thinking I can’t join now, I’ve missed so many, and they probably just keep inviting me to be polite. But I hadn’t declined, either. Part of me wanted to go. But then I’d forgotten about it. It wasn’t until we sat down to dinner and my husband reminded me of the ladies’ night happening right next door that I started to feel the itch. My longing for camaraderie gouged its way along my throat and sat heavy in my stomach like that burnt corner of toast. The distant flicker of the fire in the adjacent yard made our well-lit dining room seem blinding. The sound of muffled laughter turned my kids’ contentious words into clanging metal. Suddenly, the need for community felt urgent. But had I missed my chance?
I stood up, cleared my plate, and announced that I was going over. The kids glanced at me for a moment, curious, but then resumed picking away at their bone of contention. Braless and ponytailed, dressed in the hoodie and sweats I’d pulled on that morning, I popped my head over the fence and waved to the small collection of neighbors whose faces were lit up by the flame. “Hi guys!” I said as casually as I could. “Is it too late to join you?”
I tramped through the foliage of my neighbor’s backyard, camping chair in hand, and settled myself six feet from Mara, my host. I surveyed our group. I could make out Rachel’s face across the fire pit, her eyes peering out from above her mask, and Jen to Mara’s left. Mara’s pregnant belly shook with laughter as she recounted the day’s events. “I was just telling Jen and Rachel about the call we got from school today,” she said. Her seven-year-old, Gabriel, was doing his distance learning onsite at the neighborhood school, through an after-school program. “The proctor called to tell us that apparently Gabe has been skipping his Zooms.” She rolled her eyes. “He knows better. He just knows he can get away with it!” She sighed, then added, “He totally takes after me.”
“Well, we got a call from my daughter’s preschool last week,” Jen said. “First positive case. And they’ve been so careful!” She detailed how the director—the benevolent sovereign who had been in charge of the school since my kids attended a decade ago—would meet them at the door every day with a thermometer and a list of questions. I could picture her kind but unchanging face as she went through her checklist methodically, not allowing the frazzled parents to rush through the process. I felt the surprising tug of nostalgia.
Sitting opposite me, Rachel appeared lost in thought. She had two young kids learning from home. They rode scooters past my house at lunchtime each day, their blond curls secured at the ears by a cloth mask. Their nanny was young and energetic, always engaged with the boys. I knew Rachel felt lucky to have her. But with the recent spike in cases at the university, I wondered if she felt a little uneasy having a college-aged nanny. “Our nanny has five roommates,” Rachel offered up, wide-eyed. An invisible jolt went through the circle. “I know she’s super careful, but still . . .” I did a quick mental calculation of the distance between all of our chairs and readjusted my mask.
I listened with intensity and spoke with a candor usually reserved for my close friends. “I’m worried about my kids’ mental health,” I admitted. “My boys are teenagers—they’re supposed to be out there doing the things I never wanted them to do!” I joked. “I mean, how are they supposed to date with masks on?”
In any other time, our conversation might have been mistaken for small talk, something that has always drained me. But there was nothing small or superficial about our discussion. Even though none of the topics fell squarely into my purview, I felt invigorated and expanded by the exchange. I was not an outsider here. I was just a fellow woman, mom, and human being. I could hear the pings of my ten-year-old daughter’s texts, probably wondering when I was coming home, but I left the phone in my pocket. I wasn’t ready to leave.
I was surprised at my sudden yearning for camaraderie. I’ve always considered myself lucky to be steeped in close friendships, even if many of them are not local. My constellation of friends extends thousands of miles in every direction and has always shone brightly enough to light up my night sky. I’ve never felt the need for more. In the almost-fifteen years since I moved to this mid-sized Midwestern city, I’ve declined invitations to book clubs, avoided the circle of chatty parents at my kids’ sporting events, and sidestepped the touchy-feely community of yogis at the yoga studio where I used to teach. And, despite being a spiritual person, I’ve never felt comfortable with organized religion. The fact is, I’ve never been a joiner. Whether it’s because I spent my young adult life moving around, never staying in one place long enough to dig in, or because I tend to focus more on the dangers of groupthink than on the power of groups to connect, I’ve never gravitated towards collective experiences. And yet, here I was, suddenly drawn to the same types of situations that used to repel me.
What changed, I wondered? As I contemplated this question, my mind wandered to all the little things that had slipped away in the past six months: weekend afternoons spent on the sidelines of soccer games, the brief encounters with parents whose first names I barely knew. Families I only saw at middle school band concerts, whose news I’d loosely followed for years. My writing group, our hands curled around mugs of tea as we pored over each other’s stories at the coffee shop. The faces of my adult Italian students and the snippets of conversation we shared before and after class, about retirement trips to Cinque Terre and golden wedding anniversaries in Tuscany. And then there were the moms I’d known since my kids were in preschool, whose appearance at the neighborhood pool each summer was like a perennial bloom, a frivolous, but dependable burst of color in my world. I missed them, I realized now—all these people and situations that in normal times did not register as more than a blip on my radar.
I was beginning to see that all of these seemingly weightless exchanges I’d taken for granted over the years were actually charged with a substance that filled in the cracks of my life. The faces that floated in and out of my awareness on a regular basis, while not the bedrock of my existence, constituted my community. And without this glue, the pillars of my life—my family, my marriage, my close friends, my work—felt disconnected, like icebergs adrift at sea. Before the pandemic, I hadn’t realized there were spaces in my life that cried out to be filled. Now, as I sat around the fire pit with my fellow moms, I felt the scattered pieces of my world slowly knit themselves back together. A wave of gratitude swelled in my chest—gratitude for the solid foundation of my life, and for the connections that cemented it in place. As my friends rose up one by one to head back to the bright lights of their homes, I found myself wondering if I would remember this feeling. A year from now, when we once again gather in living rooms and coffee shops, or congregate in the stands of high school gymnasiums, I wondered, will I solicit the power of these invisible connections? Will I remember to see community not just as an act of civic duty or an outward expression of compassion, but as a necessary ingredient for my own well-being? At the precipice of fifty, is it too late to join the party?