I’ve written before about how it’s very easy to get up in nostalgia, forgetting the negative points of life at that time. I think there are times when our eyes are opened to this; I know some of my friends and family experienced this first-hand in the past week after they were hit with a massive ice storm in South Dakota and many were without power for a couple of days at the least. Some are still without power. Some people, like my mom, enjoyed having to hunker down in the candlelight, layer on the clothing, and cook on the woodburning stove. Others cursed as each hour of darkness went by. However, I still saw Facebook posts about how neighbors would drop by with chainsaws (to move the huge branches that had fallen from the heavy ice coating) and car chargers for phones so that even without power, people could stay in touch with friends and family.
As I was reflecting on the thought of whether the desire to help others is a thing of the past, I ran across this letter to the “Neighbor Lady” in her 1942 cookbook (the first edition):
Hi there neighbors all.
After listening to this helpful program day after day reminds me of the close neighborly spirit of long, long ago when people, especially farmers, did and could rely on their neighbors in time of need. Yes, in those days, even without telephones, somehow when help was needed, help came, voluntarily and generously. This old world certainly has changed, but the people, contrary to popular belief, have that same helpful feeling toward each other now that our parents and grandparents shared between them so long ago. Some 25 years ago I had a recipe for raisin cake that was made with one cup of bread sponge. I have lost the recipe years ago and I wonder if one of the neighbors could help me with it. I’d be so thankful.
Mrs. Elise Hecht
On another page, this letter appeared:
Dear neighbor lady:
This morning as I was doing my Saturday’s mopping I was listening to the radio and happened to have it turned os that I got your program. I have heard several ladies talk about your program and what help they get from listening to you but I never had listened until this morning. I think it is very nice to be able to help one another in this way. I noticed one lady asked for a cake recipe which called for one cup of bread sponge and I happen to have a recipe which my mother used every time she baked bread years ago. I hope it’s like she wants. My sister … Mrs. Robert Huber … is a great neighbor lady fan and has had her name mentioned several times … she even won a dollar!
Mrs. Elvin Jacobsen
Woonsocket, South Dakota
Today, this spirit of neighborliness still exists online; one only has to peruse through blogs to see how people still take the time to trade recipes, ideas, hints, and advice. What strikes me now is the time it took “back then” to be neighborly, and sometimes I think we measure our desire to be helpfulness in how many clicks of the mouse it would take in order to be helpful. Mrs. Jacobsen, in response to Mrs. Hecht, would undoubtedly have to hand-write the recipe, place a stamp, and mail the letter. She did it for one reason: she had a recipe that someone else wanted. She received no monetary gain — just the notoriety that came with being published in the Neighbor Lady cookbook.
The ice storm in South Dakota — while incredibly destructive — has brought back that neighborly spirit in many cases. I saw several posts about how meals were brought over, or home opened to friends, or yards cleaned up. Starbucks tried to do their part by handing out free coffee to police and firefighters — which, although generous, left out two other obvious categories: paramedics and power linemen. But what impressed me most of all were the random acts of kindness that no one had to do — they just simply did them because people knew that they were all in the same boat (or, in this case, all on the same ice-skating rink!).
It’s easy to claim that neighborliness has died simply because we get so comfortable in our everyday lives that we don’t take the time to do things that don’t directly benefit us. The spirit is there, just as it was in 1942. Whether it’s passing along recipes for raising cake or wielding a chain saw to clear out fallen branches, the desire to help others is alive and well; unfortunately, it takes a tragic event for that spirit to emerge.