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Ways of Seeing by Laurie Cox: What makes a community special

In the late ’70s we bought a small house and moved to Ripton. One of our first tasks was to arrange for a post office box, as Ripton did not have home delivery. The Ripton Post Office was then located in the front section of a house in the town’s center.
As we entered to make our application, a woman in her late 50s stood behind the counter and introduced herself as the Postmaster, Hilda Billings. We explained our errand, but she stated that no boxes were available at that time, so we would have to use General Delivery.
I had been living in Vermont for about 10 years and was well aware of the various responses and reactions of native Vermonters to the influx of young people from other parts of the country. I vaguely wondered if the lack of available boxes was a way of saying “your kind” are not welcome here.
However, using General Delivery had the effect of giving us direct contact with Hilda each day as we went to get our mail, and she was unerringly welcoming. In fact, it wasn’t long before a box came available and we were granted an auspicious number: 100!
Meanwhile, we had gained the opportunity to know Hilda a bit, and she us. As summer came to an end, she asked if we might be interested in taking square dancing lessons over in Rochester, such dancing being a passion of her and her husband. The dancing was only a part of the scenario, however, because she was also lining up a few other young couples in town to take part.
With those dance lessons, we not only got to know a variety of older people from both sides of Middlebury Gap, but also struck up friendships with our age peers from Ripton. That winter, when we returned from our honeymoon trip to the Yucatan, Hilda arranged for us to show our slides alongside one of her locally famous wildflower slide shows at the Ripton Community House. A short time later, we were invited to her house for a gathering.
Wow! She had welcomed us, helped us meet our local peers, and connected us with the wider community, yet we had not even been in town for a year. Was it any surprise that we felt we had found home? Is it any surprise that we are still living in Ripton?
This town has an especially deep feeling of community, and I used to think the main component was our geographical separateness, but now I am not so sure. Now I think that maybe it is really because of Hilda.
You see, Hilda died recently, at the age of 98. She was definitely Ripton’s matriarch, having been born here, lived almost all of her life here, and finally died here. Further, she was actively involved right up to the end. At her memorial service, many people spoke of her warmth, her spirit, involvement and love. One grandson referred to her as a “community maker.” That caught my ear. That’s exactly what she was!
Perhaps spurred by her, we have always tried to welcome our new neighbors, with a pie, some cookies, or a jug of syrup. At an annual gathering we hold at our home each fall, we encourage people to invite anyone new to town so they can meet and connect with other folks, both new or long established. Hilda loved a community potluck, and we certainly carry on that tradition.
I have a firm belief in strong communities. A community works together to solve problems. In a community we help each other. Communities are alive, with a past, present and future. The more that we engage with our neighbors, the more satisfied we are with ourselves and our situation. We might not agree with every choice others make, or they with ours, but working together, talking together, we can often achieve a balance, a harmony over time.
Another of Hilda’s grandchildren spoke of her name, which means “warrior,” but said she was not a warrior in the traditional meaning; rather, she was a warrior of love. I think we need more such warriors, more such love — bringing people together rather than pulling them apart.
Her memorial service ended with the whole group singing that Helen Reddy anthem from the early ’70s: “I Am Woman.” This is a true song for a warrior of love, underlining the strength of women to unite us. Imagining life in a small mountain town 98 years ago, you know it was not one of ease. Hilda was very connected to the past, to her own and the town’s history, but she also was someone who embraced the present and looked forward to the future, for herself and her family, and, truly, for the whole community.
Let’s all become “community makers!”
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.

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