How My Neighbors Turned Me into a Permanent Minnesotan

People often talk about the iciness of Minnesotans, but I’ve found the opposite to be true

 

Illustration by Samantha Mash

Illustration by Samantha Mash

Rain drummed the roof. The gutters overflowed and curtains of water fell past the windows, making the woods out back into a green smear. The rain gauge indicated four inches had already fallen—and the storm didn’t seem in any hurry to blow off. I checked the basement several times, walking barefoot across the carpet, flattening my palms against the walls, hunting for moisture.

My phone buzzed with a text. “My sump’s going,” it read. “How about yours?” This was from my neighbor, Mark Berndahl. He’s lived here over two decades, and in that time his sump pump has only gurgled to life twice. Our houses perch on the edge of a hill, so flooding had never been a concern. Until now.

I creaked open the door to the furnace room—and listened. The pump wasn’t on, but there was an undersound I couldn’t quite place. Like the faint lapping you might hear at the edge of a pond. I approached the sump cover and tipped it up and there discovered a mildewy scrim of water about to spill into the basement.

“Red alert,” I texted Mark. Within minutes, he was pounding up my porch stairs and charging into my house to help. Looped around his shoulder was a garden hose and tucked into the crook of his arm was a portable pump he kept as a backup.

When my wife and I were house-hunting, I thought I had a comprehensive checklist, focusing on the number of bedrooms, the quality of the school district, the proximity to an airport. But never did I consider the relevancy of neighbors. That’s because I’d never lived next door to a Minnesotan.

 

In Carbondale, Illinois, I had a neighbor who shot off fireworks every night at 1 a.m. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had a neighbor who never looked me in the eye. In Kailua, Oahu, I had a neighbor who screamed at any children who came near his property. In Bend, Oregon, I had a neighbor who blasted a shotgun at the ducks over the canal splitting our properties and showered our roof with buckshot.  In Ames, Iowa, I had a neighbor who spent his days on his front porch, shirtless and staring and silent, nursing a thermos full of ice and vodka.

Neighbors were people you avoided or waved at in passing. Not knowing the name of the person next door was normal. Never seeing the inside of their house or sharing a meal was expected.

People often talk about the iciness of Minnesotans. The way they’ll give you directions anywhere but their own house. But I’ve found the opposite to be true. I don’t know if it’s the cold winters that bring people together—or the habits of Lutheranism ingrained in the culture here—but my Minnesota neighborhood is a kind of family. I use that word specifically, because we’re not all friends, but we nonetheless remain loyal to one another.

We know each other’s names, cars, dog-walking habits, gardening routines. We know if someone’s sick or expecting or retiring or vacationing. If someone is mourning, we bring a meal. If someone needs mulch, we loan out a truck. Our children play together. We have each other over for drinks and grill-outs.  And if trouble comes, we’re there.

 

This neighborly spirit was never more apparent than last fall, when the sky turned a wicked witch shade of green over Rice County. My phone blew up with alerts—and a tornado watch became a warning. Sirens wailed. The lights blinked off. And I crouched in the basement bathroom with my wife, two kids, and goldendoodle for a long 10 minutes. The wind gusted and rose to a deafening scream. The house shook when a tree hit it.

That day, more than 20 tornados touched down in southern Minnesota, and one of them, an F1, skirted our neighborhood. We walked outside and blinked in confusion. Because in the space of a few minutes, everything had changed. Hundreds and hundreds of trees were down in our wooded neighborhood. One had punched a hole in our roof. Another had flattened our neighbors’ car as they raced home through the storm.

Night was falling. The street filled with people, gaping at the damage, hurrying door to door, making sure everyone was accounted for. Then we got to work. Down the road, a neighbor was pregnant—her due date imminent—and there was no way out.  So we all clicked on our headlamps and gassed up our chainsaws. Late into the night, we carved a path through the fallen trees until our arms shook and our clothes were snowy with sawdust. And that was just the beginning.

We had no power. We had no water. Our houses were gouged and battered, and our yards were tangled with limbs and tentacled with roots. There weren’t days of work ahead of us—there were weeks, even months.  And as we helped each other—sawing, wheelbarrowing, dragging—the spirit of our neighborhood extended to the community. Friends and volunteers showed up and dropped off water, food, gas, generators. They offered us tools and they offered us muscle.

Seventy-two hours later, the power finally zapped back on. Faucets hissed and toilets tanks swelled full again. We all ran into the street and laughed and hooted and cracked open beers and toasted each other and said, “We made it.”

The other day, I did something unprecedented. I threw away all of our boxes.

If you come from an itinerant family, like I did, this is something you never, ever do. You hoard cardboard and continue to collect it from UPS deliveries and recycling bins. Part of moving in is getting ready to move out: flattening the boxes and tucking them neatly into a crawl space for later use.

But I’m not going anywhere. I choose Minnesota as my neighborhood.

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