Familiarity breeds something that is not contempt. This is becoming evident as I leave this neighborhood, in which I am one of many “familiars”. As it becomes known that the Real Doctor and I are leaving, people who I don’t know very well—and who don’t know me very well—tell me that they’ll really miss me.
It’s possible that they’ll really miss Opal, and I am lumped together with her. But it’s even more likely that Opal and I—or, “Tall Guy With Funny Hat and Cute Doglet”—are simply a familiar feature in the neighborhood. We’ve been here, walking around, every day for about a decade. We’re part of the atmosphere, just like Lady With Two Scotties, and Oriental Woman with Petunia the Puppy, and Cigar Guy, and Frizzy-haired Mom Who Walks Her Two Kids To School.
Like just about every other animal, we humans love regularity and habit, so we come to love these familiars. Heck, Cigar Guy could be an axe-murderer in his spare time, but he’s friendly and says Hi, and he’s a regular—so even though I don’t know him at all, I like him. This is probably what these familiar strangers are expressing to me and Opal when they say we’ll be missed. “Oh, there’s Tall Guy With Funny Hat and Cute Doglet—all’s well with the world.”
Take away those familiarities, and all is not well.
Another of the familiars who make me feel that this neighborhood was home was Elderly Italian-American Couple. They used to always go for a morning walk together, until he developed some joint issues and started walking separately. So I got used to seeing her pacing along by herself, and him slowly measuring out his walk with his cane. Both were good for a cheery hello and a brief discourse on the weather. But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve only seen her, and barely ever.
I saw her this morning, and crossed the street to talk with her, mainly to say that I’ve liked seeing them and that I’ll miss them when I leave the neighborhood. However, she told me—barely checking the tears—that her husband had been killed a couple of weeks ago. He was out for his morning walk, and a car backing out of a driveway in too much of a hurry ran him over. He died from his injuries. She had told him that he should go thataway that morning, and he did; and so he died. She can barely walk from grief. She makes it to church and back, crying both ways.
I’m pretty shaken by the loss of this familiar stranger. Like most of the familiar strangers, I know nothing of the personal lives of Elderly Italian-American couple; I can guess that they’d been married for a long, long time. I can be pretty certain that the loss of five decades of intimate familiarity feels like the end of the world.