Two Saturdays ago, on Circle Avenue in Forest Park, I passed a 3D Norman Rockwell portrait. A homeowner was working on his porch and front steps, building it anew. Nearby on the sidewalk, his son, who looked to be about 10 years old, wearing a baseball cap, stood transfixed, arms at his side, completely absorbed by his father’s efforts.

We drove past on our way to some early-morning errand, but the image imprinted. All I could think about was that the memory of watching his father laboring might last that boy a lifetime and might have real impact on the course of his life. Or not. Maybe the father was disciplining a wayward, errant child, forcing him to watch his handiwork instead of Saturday morning cartoons (if there still are Saturday morning cartoons). Grounded, or maybe grounding.

I choose the more positive interpretation because I am a longtime community witness. Home upkeep is a big part of community-mindedness (especially the DIY kind). And intergenerational interaction is essential to sustaining community — passing down values, not just by words, but what we do.

Who knows what this family’s real story is. Life unfurls along so many different paths. Impossible to predict outcomes. Maybe he’ll pull this memory from his mental files later in life and discover to his surprise that it was, from the start, liberally infused with love.

The next Saturday, same street, same errand, we passed another living Rockwell portrait. A different father, hand-in-hand with his young daughter, who was maybe 3 or 4 years old. In his other hand, the father carried a small, purple, molded-plastic chair. In her other hand, the daughter held a single, bright yellow dandelion proudly aloft, as if it were a trophy bouquet. They were talking as we sped past, but it was their walking that spoke volumes. Total ease, unhurried, utterly comfortable with one another.

And then they were gone, on to shared and separate lives that I will never know about, but off, it seems, to a fine start.

My eyes are drawn to such scenes as I roam about because I am a longtime community watcher. I began this occupation, or preoccupation, when I became a journalist, which forces focus on something other than yourself. I get paid for paying attention, then bringing what I find to readers’ attention. I comb the town for glimpses of interaction, interdependence, intersection, interchange and inspiration, all of which add up to community.

Last Wednesday, I visited a friend at Great Sip Café, 818 S. Oak Park Ave. My friend, who is retired, had a longstanding longing to be a barista, so she helps out here a couple of days a week. She refuses payment, making her perhaps the only volunteer barkeep in any commercial establishment in our fair village.

The owner of Great Sip, Rosa Cruz, appreciates the help. She’s quite a story in her own right. An emigre from the Dominican Republic, her longtime dream was opening a coffeeshop like this. To help pay for it, she cleans Metra train cars at 3:30 in the morning, then comes here. A foster parent, she has two 10-year-olds with special needs. DCFS couldn’t find a permanent home, so she adopted them. She is living her dream — the hard way.

As my friend and I talked, a young couple came in with their 5-week-old child in tow. Perhaps they’re both on parental leave and just wanted to get out of the house. I don’t know if they grew up in Oak Park, but if they did and are under the age of 32 (as they looked to be), then they were children in tow in the 1990s when I moved back to Oak Park to pursue my career as a community vigilant. Out the window over their shoulders I see the former storefront of Lauterbach Bootery, the neighborhood shoe emporium where I was a child in tow once upon another eon, a regular customer with my mom as my brothers and I continuously wore out our shoes. Lauterbach had the best suckers, which sweetened the visit, but what I remember most were the two wall mirrors, directly across from one another, producing my first experience with “infinity vision,” mirrors within mirrors, receding forever.

Coming back to the present, a group of four Irving moms sit in a circle nearby, doing what moms have been doing in coffeehouses all over Oak Park for generations: planning and organizing. Likely they are “stay-at-homes” (parenting and/or working remotely) and while their kids are in school, they plan events and programs at school or through various volunteer organizations. Coffee clusters like this have long served as the spine of Oak Park community. One can’t help feeling our social “infrastructure” would disintegrate without them.

Oak Park, Forest Park and River Forest are welcoming places that provide welcoming spaces, like Great Sip Café, where community becomes visible to itself, a testament to continuity — like mirrors hanging on opposite walls, each generation framing the next, we dearly hope, into an infinite future. 

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