I first came to Hagerstown in 1997 as a renter living on the South End in a first floor apartment of a duplex with a backyard for my dog. I loved that place and so did my three little girls. That apartment had character. It was a downtown environment with a country kitchen and a large bathroom with a claw foot tub. The only hint to passersby that we had a backyard was the tall wooden gate on the front of the house that led to our secret family hideaway where we had cookouts, played cards in the evening, carved pumpkins, dyed Easter eggs, and all of the things that families do together that makes them a family. We grew tomatoes back there the size of apples and had a beautiful wild flower garden and tall sunflowers lined our fence. We had hummingbirds that visited our feeders. Sometimes late at night I liked to sit back there and quietly listen to the sounds of the city. We had use of the basement as well and it was fixed up for the girls. There were PJ parties in that basement almost every weekend. We were renters, but we treated that place as if we owned it, and it has a special place in our hearts. We even have a good laugh when we remember the characters, other renters, with whom we shared that building. It was as special as we wanted to make it and we made many fond memories there.
That first year I experienced some of the charming annual "events" that were a part of the Hagerstown culture. I know that those who work hard to promote Hagerstown probably would not even want me to mention my first look into the soul of the community because it is not something for which Hagerstown would want to be known. It was--simply put--"trash night," and I'm not referring to the regular weekly trash pickups. Once or twice a year everyone could put large items or boxed smaller items out on the curb and it would be picked up for free by the city and taken to the dump. I watched in utter amazement on tip-toes over my high wooden gate as most of the "trash" that had been piled high on both sides of the street was instead taken in by those who could find a use for it. There weren't city trucks picking up the couches, old mattresses, and the like. It was private citizens with pickup trucks loading up and going to the dump all day long and way into the night, who I assumed were paid by the city in some manner. There was so much activity and I loved how neighbors pretended not to notice their neighbors discreetly taking their things. Besides being a needed community service for an urban neighborhood, it was actually a festive night and I missed it when the city had to stop it due to the economy.
The second and much more respectable event that I experienced that first year was the Mummer's Parade. When I first heard of it I wondered why a city would honor Halloween with a parade. I didn't know what day it was to be held until the morning of the parade when I saw rows of chairs lining up in front of my apartment on South Potomac Street. It turned out that I lived on the parade route and I quickly realized that the parade is not so much about Halloween as it is about community. We had a front row seat and did we ever enjoy ourselves. There were marching bands, majorettes, dancers, community groups, fire engines, floats, military equipment, tractors, and everything fun that a person can imagine about a 4-hour parade held at night. This is one night where you saw all of your neighbors and their invited friends and families outside enjoying one another. I never saw one fight. There were peddlers selling parade merchandise and the girls would spend their allowance on a crazy hat, something that glowed, silly string, or until I banned it..."flatulence" spray. The parade ended around 11:00 p.m., and just as the last participant passed by, the city workers swung into action. The street sweepers came through and all of the trash disappeared in no time. In about an hour it looked like there had never been a parade. My girls are all grown up and have moved away, but they always come home for the parade.
The girls went to Heritage Academy, a private Christian school located west of town. They had been attending since K4 when in 3rd grade I called a family meeting. I said that they could either continue to go to Heritage Academy or they could transfer to a public school and we could try to buy our own house. We took a vote and it was unanimous to try to buy our own home. I was leery of an inner-city public school. That was until I met with a Mr. Abe who served as vice-principal at Bester Elementary School at the time. I met with him and I shared my many concerns. I don't know where he is today, but he was a gifted and inspired administrator of a school that he believed could meet the needs of all three of my girls. After that meeting I was sold on Mr. Abe and Bester school. Again, we could get as little or as much out of that school as we wanted. It was up to us. We jumped in and gave it our all and I had no regrets.
We noticed a For Sale sign on a half of a duplex a block down from our apartment on South Potomac Street. It looked quite ordinary on the outside. It was empty, so I pressed my face onto the glass of the front door so that I could see inside and I couldn't believe the high ceilings and the open rooms with a huge stone fireplace that divided the living and dining rooms. There was an open staircase that added to the wow-appeal of the house. I said out loud to myself, "I could live here." My next thought was "...and it's on the parade route." I wanted to see the backyard because I knew it would be an integral part of our family life. It had no rear access so I had to stand on my neighbors property and peek between his house and a very large tree in order to see into the yard. It was another charming hideaway with a covered, but open, back porch. I planted a Pussy Willow sapling back there that first year and now it is as tall as the 2nd story of the house. When the realtor gave me a tour of the house I found that it had a full basement and three floors. It was 1998 when we bought the house for next to nothing, but even that was a lot for us at the time. I later researched the history of the house and I found that it was built in 1888, and that in all of those years it had only been owned by about six different owners. We loved it and we were proud of our "new" home.
The second floor of our home had three bedrooms, so it became the girl's territory. It was always full of girls of all colors, shapes and sizes with their laughter, their music, their loud chatter, and their whispered secrets. Every Friday night they had a sleepover. I was the parent that provided transportation and my car would be packed tight as I dropped off the youngest ones at the skating rink, and the older ones to the movies, school dances, and parties, and then I would pick them all up and bring them to my house for a sleepover. They would walk down to the Locust Point Market for food from the deli and snacks and sodas from the store. Their floor turned into an all-night salon with hair dos, nail polish, and funny face masks that looked like mud. Then they would all get up in the morning and walk to the diner on East Baltimore and South Potomac Streets for breakfast. This was really cool to their friends from the suburbs. They always told me how special our home was to them, and there was at least one girl who had an open door, no-questions-asked arrangement with us when things got uncomfortable for her at home. I loved all of my girls.
The third floor was my territory with a bedroom and a half-finished attic-like room that I used as a library. It was decorated kind of shabby chic with books that filled a floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcase. The girls referred to it as the pretty room. Later it became known as the bat room after I had an unwanted visitor one night. Besides that one terrifying incident the room was my quiet place and the girls knew that when I was in there they should knock softly, or better yet, wait until I came out on my own. That house had something for all of us and I will never forget the happiest days of my life raising my girls there.
As we settled into the house we also became more a part of the Hagerstown culture. We attended the Blues Fest downtown, although most years we could only go to the free session on Sunday at City Park. We also enjoyed the Augustoberfest in the big tent downtown every August. The free concerts every weekend in City Park and on Sunday in the Museum of Art were summer staples for family entertainment. When the girls were little the walk to City Park for them to play in the playground areas were evenings that I will always cherish . We started having an open house party for the Mummer's Parade when the girls started middle school. There are a few "kids" that came every year and still stop by to say hi to "Mom." I think that I cherish most the annual Night of Lights when the Christmas lights on the lake in City Park would turn on for the first time for the Christmas season. We would bundle up for the cold weather and sit by the lake and watch for that instant when the lights would switch on and the lake would come alive with Christmas splendor. The Christmas tree afloat in the lake was breathtakingly beautiful and such a part of our Christmas traditions. We would also attend the lighting of the Christmas tree on the square downtown and the free family Christmas program at the beautiful historic Maryland Theater. Everything was close and we could walk to all of these events.
Soon after moving into the house, I began to have health problems that over time made my world smaller. Except for activities for my children I barely looked out of my front door. I didn't know my neighbors. I didn't know my neighborhood. I sensed that there were problems, but I felt powerless over my own life much less the well-being of my neighborhood. One day in 2008 there was a post card left in my door about a meeting at Bester Elementary School for those interested in learning about a program called Neighborhoods 1st. Even in my diminished state I knew instantly that I wanted to attend that meeting, and it literally changed my life. In January of 2009 about a half of dozen of us formed the Locust Point Group of the Neighborhoods 1st (N1st) Program, which is a city-sponsored program where the residents and city staff work together to improve their neighborhood. I served as secretary and vice-president the first year, and as president every year since.
At first our N1st group accomplished things that could be quickly seen by our neighbors in order to build credibility. The attitude in the neighborhood was doubtful to say the least. The residents, mostly renters, felt powerless and unimportant and they were skeptical that city government or staff would care about our needs. I think over time we did begin to build a little credibility. Personally, I met some of the nicest people that I could ever hope to meet. We had a core group that worked together year-after-year and I loved every one of them. Working in N1st gave me an opportunity to use skills that I hadn't used in years and opportunities to network with people who could further the annual goals that the group set for our neighborhood. The harvest party for the children and the block party for the families became popular annual events. I loved the block party because everyone came out for it--regardless of all the things that can separate us on every other day--and have a good time together. Everyone was just one thing for one day...neighbors. We ate together, learned about city services together through speakers and demonstrations, and we danced in the street together. I will miss my friends and neighbors of Locust Point in my beloved city of Hagerstown.
In 2009 I became involved in the Hagerstown TEA Party and through that involvement was able to not only meet, but come to know, many of the local politicians and Conservative activists. I am sure that the Liberal citizens of my city, county, and state also have their groups and friends of like-mind. I can only speak for myself and the Conservative groups and friends that I came to know and love in Hagerstown. I started out clueless about my elected officials at every level. I found that the key to knowledge and the ability to make a difference comes mostly from acting on one simple principle...keep showing up. Just like everything else in this town, you can be as involved in the political process for as much or as little as you want to invest yourself.
I just kept showing up at mayor and council meetings. I kept showing up at TEA Party meetings. I kept showing up at the Republican Club meetings. I kept showing up at community meetings. I kept showing up at candidate meet-and-greets. I kept showing up at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast meetings. It didn't take long for me to figure out who the elected officials were, where they placed on the Liberal-Conservative scale (and that it can't be determined solely by the D or the R that they wave in front of them). It didn't take long until I learned where I could make a difference and where I couldn't. In other words, I learned to choose my battles. The most amazing thing that I learned is that in Hagerstown you don't have to be part of a rich elite clique to run for office and win, to serve on boards, or to have a voice. If you keep showing up and people begin to realize that you care about this town, regardless of your politics, they will invite you in and treat you with respect. That is phenomenal.
I raised my children in Hagerstown and I found myself in Hagerstown. I never thought that I would leave this town, but I leave a better person for having lived here.