Dad was a painfully private man, especially in his later years, after Mother was in the nursing home across the street and he lived in their apartment alone. I was visiting him one day when there was a knock on his door. He unlocked (but did not unchain) the door, peeked through the narrow opening, said, “No. I don’t want any. No,” and closed the door again.
“Who was it, Dad?”
“Oh, that old woman down the hall. She’s such a busybody.” He snorted, “I can’t stand her.”
“What did she want?”
“She had some pie, but I don’t want anything from her.” Then he proceeded to harangue against busybodies, gossips, scandalmongers, and (because he had been a journalist) even muckrakers (though he’d conveniently forgotten the proud history of that label).
I’d known Betty, “that old woman down the hall,” since I was three, when my family moved into a small Indiana village nestled in the sand dunes on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. For all my life I’d heard Dad’s assessment of her as “nosy”; I’d seen his discrete but dismissive grimace whenever she was near.
But as I grew up I became aware of a different aspect of Betty, one that changed my perception of who she was, what “gossip” is, and what intimate news might mean to a community.
Betty was a village story-carrier, not of rumor but of news – there is an important difference here. Rumor is interpretation that doesn’t need much basis in fact; news (as even my father knew) is verifiable events. Betty maintained the village “grapevine” through which we heard the news of who was sick, who was on vacation in Canada for two weeks, who needed help, who was available to help. Dad hated that invasion into the privacy of the village, and into his privacy in particular.
On a daily basis village both news and rumors were shared through our community’s switchboard, where (I’ve forgotten her name, but I’ll call her . . .) “Sadie” reigned over the connections of hand-cranked phones, each to the other. In an emergency she knew where the village doctor was at that minute; she knew how to alert the volunteer firemen (though on weekdays it was usually women) when there was a threatening autumn grass fire sweeping up the dunes toward our homes. Sadie also listened in on many conversations, but that was accepted as part of the cost of her services and, interestingly, she seldom disclosed anything she heard.
But the part of Sadie’s work that affected me most, and that I found out about only years after the fact, was the freedom she enabled for us kids as she kept track of where we were playing during the day. Our mothers could turn us loose after breakfast and not worry about us until dinner time because of Sadie. If we had stopped at Mandy’s house for a toilet break and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk, within five minutes after we’d left, Mandy’s mom would have alerted Sadie, and Sadie would be letting all the mothers know that our gang of kids were safe and on our way to explore the pollywogs in the pond between the sand dunes. Was that gossip? Rumor? Small but important news?
I believe that Sadie and Betty and Mandy’s mom and other village “yentas” were the lifeblood of our village. Yes, there were some who engaged in what I now call “recreational sniping,” spreading negative rumors and taking smug pleasure in a temporary one-up position when they knew something and were the first to pass along that something to the next person. But (despite Dad’s opinion) these were few. Most of the story-carriers were benign and caring, and performed a valuable service for us all.
The word “gossip” derives from an Old English word, “godsibb,” meaning godparent. Betty took her gossip seriously. She kept in touch with the teens of our village as we became college students, found jobs and spouses, became parents, had teens and successes and tragedies of our own. Through her passing along of this information, I’m quite certain that she, who was also the village’s church organist, saw that we were surrounded in a cloud of protective prayer and concern far more often than we ever knew. And if any of us wondered, twenty or thirty years later, “What ever happened to Jean and Bobby?” it was certain that Betty would know, and probably had received a postcard from them just last week.
I have come to see that Betty was the keeper of a web of connections that was strong when we lived in our small, close-knit village. Were it not for her after we left, those strands would quickly have become fragile and, in the time long before Facebook, would have broken within a few years. But through Betty, maintaining her post at the center of the web even decades later in her retirement apartment with the seldom-closed and never-locked door, we were always connected to each other, and to a sense of “home.”
In the midst of our contemporary world of Twitter, People Magazine, and the endless supply of scandal and misinformation in online gossip blogs, I have a serious personal and professional reason for considering whether gossip has value. As a medical advocate, as a participant in several prayer chains, and, often, as a bedside caregiver for ill and dying people, I have to be exquisitely cautious about confidentiality. I have constantly to assess the quality and the motivation behind any news that I may be tempted to pass along to the small island community in which I now live.
However, though I sometimes get annoyed by it (I do have some of my father’s genes), I think I’d not like a world devoid of benevolent community gossip. I hope not to die the way Dad did. Ironically, in the end it was Betty, who had known him and cared about him and his family for thirty-five years, it was Betty, “that old woman down the hall,” with her yenta instincts, who alerted their building maintenance man that something was amiss. The man broke through the defenses of Dad’s apartment and found him, behind his locked and chained door, lying between the couch and the coffee table. Dead. Alone.