Becoming Mr. Page

By: Kelly McDonald

 “Call me trimtab”

                                        Buckminster Fuller

My parents, in their mid-forties, moved with their five children from a dairy farm in eastern Oregon to a small home in a rural Utah community during the mid 1950s. I was the youngest, only four years old. Our family’s new neighborhood was the entire town of perhaps eight hundred, a quiet community nestled next to rugged mountains. The village brought together a mixture of families, with all ages of adults, many in those aging decades of their sixties and seventies. At my young age, I was oblivious to my parent’s concerns during their move, but I remember some old-timers in my childhood community who welcomed my parents, siblings, and me into our new home.

I have sometimes wondered about our transition into that small town’s social dynamics when my family and I moved there, some sixty-five years ago. I recall a few elderly women and men who made a point of celebrating our arrival by giving us heaping plates of food as house-warming gifts. But I don’t remember the names of these kind individuals except for one especially welcoming, aging gentleman—Mr. Page. Not only did Mr. Page shake hands with my parents before church services, but he also recognized ‌my brothers and me. He said nothing more than a simple “glad you are here”. Mr. Page wasn’t the only one who acknowledged all of us, but he was the most memorable to me, probably because he also regularly stood up in church and spoke, verbally welcoming us and the other new move-ins. Then, I rolled my eyes when Mr. Page stood up to talk. But now, it's an important memory, and I remember him because of his visible presence in my young life.

I’ve taken the time to google Mr. Page and found that he would have been in his early sixties during my parent’s arrival and his friendly reception of our family. Probably, his own children would have recently left the nest, and perhaps he was simply reaching out to help other younger parents to follow in his footsteps. Whatever his reasons, he made an impression, a difference to me, and perhaps to my siblings and parents.

This fall is the thirtieth anniversary of when my wife and I built our current family home and moved into this neighborhood close to the mountains, featuring bright sunrises—with our seven children in tow, from eighteen years down to four. When we made that move, Beverly and I were in our early forties, and my first observation of our new neighbors was their age diversity. There were many families similar to ours. We were the young middle-agers focused on our own child-rearing. However, a significant number of our nearby neighbors were older, often empty-nesters, working in the twilight of their careers, many already retired.

We had moved from a neighborhood of a more homogenous age makeup of mostly young families. We needed more room than our old house could provide, and luckily, the economy at the time ‌was friendly to new construction. Though we remained in the same city, this new neighborhood seemed very different from our old one. I was hopeful, though not confident, that new friends would soon surround us, not just casual neighbors who wondered about that big family down the street with all the kids. I was sensitive to our reception because I still recalled the family move during my childhood. I also wondered, when we moved in, if we would meet the Mr. Pages of our new neighborhood.

 I recently asked my youngest son, who was four years old when we moved into this neighborhood, if he still remembers any individuals who paid attention to him, beyond his assigned Sunday teachers. I had already mentally noted a few of the mature folks down the street whom I still recalled from those early years. After a few days of reflection, he mentioned a senior gentleman who lived several doors down from us. He couldn’t remember the person’s name, but he described the house and recalled that this neighbor would say hello to him at church. He admitted that once, when riding his bike home from school, past this gentleman’s house, he wasn’t paying attention and collided with the neighbor’s tree next to the sidewalk. This elderly neighbor came out, helped him up, and assisted him in getting on his way. As my son related this experience to me, I silently reflected that I, too, had already identified that same gentleman in my mind as a candidate for remembrance. This elderly neighbor, and some others, who had simply been an extrovert to us, had become my son’s Mr. Page.

 What are the good works that a budding Mr. or Ms. Page in a neighborhood is supposed to do? From my experience, and that of my son, it is simply to recognize and speak to the younger families moving in, smile when they see them, and be their friend.

I’m reminded of an interesting metaphor, originating with Buckminster Fuller, the early 20th century architect, inventor, and philosopher. During World War II, the US Navy commissioned him to help solve the problem of steering their increasingly larger warships. Fuller helped them discover the paradigm of placing a small rudder on the much larger rudder of the ship. Known as a trim tab, this small rudder, easily turned because of its small size, exerts a turning force on the larger rudder which then turns the ship. He helped the Navy refine the function of the trim tab to guide successfully the large rudder. That small but influential actions of the trim tab eventually multiplies and becomes the major force which changes the movement and direction of the entire craft. Like the physics of watercraft, Fuller also recognized this same behavior in his own human relationships. Small compliments, suggestions, smiles and influence might eventually make a difference in the lives of others. On his gravestone, Fuller instructed it be etched with his mantra, “Call me trimtab”. 

Stephen Covey popularized the concept of the trim tab by applying it to the workforce. He explained how an employee could calmly influence their troublesome manager and eventually guide their entire dysfunctional organization toward improvement without direct confrontation. Perhaps, I can go further in this essay and surmise that the primary activity for a fledgling Mr. or Ms. Page is simply to be a trim tab for building and improving the human relationships in their neighborhood.

Now, thirty years after our construction and move into this house, we have become some of the old-timers in the neighborhood. I quietly conducted an informal tally of the residents of the houses in the adjoining city blocks, where we know the names of the occupants. I estimated that sixty of the surrounding adults probably fit into the decade of their forties, a similar age to when we moved here with our young family. Yet there are also another fifty of us in the decades of our sixties and seventies, mostly empty nesters, retired, quiet residents, living in the neighborhood amongst the youngsters. What could I do to become their trim tab? I can do the same things I observed in my Mr. Page, and the elderly neighbors when we were in that fortyish age group: Be a friend, reach out and shake their hands at church, or when meeting them at the store. Make eye contact with the entire family, smile more. If the noise of youthful activities in the streets of your neighborhood becomes annoying to your aging brains, quietly close the window and turn up the sound on the television.

There is a family who has recently moved into the house across the street from us. They have children of various ages. The youngest boy appears to be about four years old. Several of our granddaughters started playing with him when they came to visit us, and they would often invite him to our home for their playtime activities. We welcomed him, fixed him treats alongside our granddaughters, and in every way tried to forge a positive relationship with him and his parents. The other day, as I was walking to the postal box down the street, our new young friend was in his front yard with his mother. He looked over at me and yelled, “Hey Grandpa, where you going?” 

Perhaps I have become his Mr. Page.


ckk said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said…
Ahhhh, the joy friendships bring.
Julia B. said…
Such a sweet and important message. Brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

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