Readers’ Voices: Joan Axelrod-Contrada: Northampton meets Longmeadow

  • Rick, holding Darwin, in front of the fireplace in Longmeadow. Submitted photo

Published: 3/23/2021 3:15:03 PM

When my new beau, Rick, first mentioned his lawn, I had to stifle my impulse to sing a few bars of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by the Monkeys.

“Here in status symbol land” echoed in my head. I couldn’t believe I was dating a guy who lived in Longmeadow and cared enough about his lawn to install an underground sprinkler system.

My late husband, Fred, and I lived on a galaxy where underground sprinkler systems didn’t exist. We did the bare minimum when it came to home maintenance because we had a million other things we’d rather do. Frankly, we looked down on people we deemed too attached to their stuff.

Rick lives just a half hour away in Longmeadow, but sometimes it feels like a different world. I’m surrounded by writers and artists, teachers and therapists; he by more high-earning, corporate types.

I grew up in a similarly affluent suburb — Swampscott in eastern Mass. — a competitive, materialistic soul-sucking place that turned me into a rebel. When Fred and I moved to Northampton in 1987, I felt like I’d found nirvana. I still live in the house in Florence where we raised our two kids, but, sadly, Fred passed away two years ago.

In the course of dating Rick, I’ve discovered that I’m not as tolerant as I thought I was. Rick might live in the snobbier town, but I’m the one with the self-righteous streak.

“I think college towns are the best places to raise kids,” I said one day early in our courtship.

“Longmeadow is a college town, too,” he replied without missing a beat. “We have Bay Path.”

He got me there! His sweet, open expression said, “We’re more alike than unalike.” I wasn’t so sure. Longmeadow might have a college, but it was still, well, Longmeadow.

How could a nice guy like Rick bring up his kids in such an evil kind of place? Wealthy suburbs like Swampscott and Longmeadow clashed with my egalitarian values. Too competitive. Too materialistic. Too wound-inflicting. Was I wrong to be looking for someone who shared my values?

Granted, Rick and I had a lot in common. We had both lost a partner, loved our dogs, and listened to classic rock. He even shared my dislike of Donald J. Trump.

Still there was the pesky matter of Longmeadow. I’d always prided myself on being a tad unconventional. Most writers are. We make too little money to buy sprinkler systems and fancy cars.

Once I became a widow, I found myself charged with taking over Fred’s household responsibilities. I got our old gas lawn mower serviced, then found out how hard it was to start up.

Did I really need to mow my lawn? In a pickle, I turned to Cousin Caryl for advice.

“Mosquitoes grow in tall grass,” she said. “That’s why you need to mow it.”

“Well, okay,” I said with an air of resignation.

Caryl jumped into big sister mode. “You should get a battery-operated lawn mower. They’re much easier to operate.”

Our friend Leslie had bought her lawn mower after researching the various types on Consumer Reports. I texted her, and she quickly responded with advice and brand names. Later that week, I bought myself a gizmo at Home Depot without breaking a sweat.

I mowed my yard every other week, barely noticing all the patches of bare ground and dandelions. Then I met Rick, Mr. Lawn Perfect. My granola-eating, tree-hugging leftover hippie went on high alert. Rick was a nice guy. Just not for me.

Then it hit me: He’d be perfect for Leslie! What better match than Ms. Lawn Mower with Mr. Perfect Lawn? I texted Leslie to offer up Rick on a silver platter.

She texted me back that she wasn’t interested in dating anyone during COVID. So I kept seeing my new guy, all the while taking stock of our differences.

I’d grown up protesting the war in Vietnam. He hadn’t. I read novels. He watched classic car auctions on TV. I ate tofu teriyaki. He favored broiled pork chops.

I texted my dating guru Rebecca in a panic. “Could you date someone who’s a lot more conventional than you?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” she replied.

Her answer surprised me. I’d expected her to tell me to keep searching for a kindred spirit.

“Anyone who’d date me would have to be open-minded,” she said.

“And that’s the important thing.”

One afternoon, over coffee in my kitchen, I asked Rick how he felt about tofu and tempeh. He hadn’t tasted either of them. With great effort, I put my judgmental side on hold and offered him tastes of both. He gave the tofu a thumbs down but liked the barbecued tempeh from Café Evolution. We’re both crazy about barbecue sauce.

Although Rick lives in a cushy suburb, he shares my dislike of hoity toity types and drives a Ford Fusion, a car he chose for reliability rather than status. He won me over the day — Black Friday, no less — he waited with me for two hours at the Holyoke Mall to get a new cellphone. His kindness blew me away. As bougie as it might sound, I melt every time I sit with him by his roaring fireplace in Longmeadow.

It was time for me to bid farewell to that angry, alienated girl from Swampscott. I might even start trying to take better care of my lawn.

Joan Axelrod-Contrada is a writer who lives in Florence with her rescue mutt Desi.

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