“Living in a small town…is like living in a large family of rather uncongenial relations. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s perfectly awful, but it’s always good for you. People in large towns are like only-children.”
― Joyce Dennys, Henrietta Sees It Through: More News from the Home Front 1942-1945
There are only two breeds of people in a small town, those who will make it their life’s mission to preserve its self-perceived charm and those who can’t wait to get the hell out. At least that’s what I always thought. How immature. The highs and lows we consider life experiences have altered my linear perspective of small town life over the years. I guess with age comes wisdom.
I’m a protective mother of my roots. It’s true. I’m allowed to rant and rave at the drop of a pin about the quirks of my upbringing but ready to throw down the second an outsider thinks of passing judgement on the memories I consider sacred and the people I call heroes.
It’s funny. I see this “country life” fad heating up and I’m transported to adolescence when I felt utterly suffocated by the overwhelmingly loud silence of small town life. You could live miles apart from the nearest neighbor, but it was like Tommy’s peep show any day of the week… no detail of one’s life left unknown. In the midst of such wide open spaces, you couldn’t help but to feel trapped.
Dosey doe a few decades back to a generation that didn’t glorify being from a small town like the modern-day lyrics of bro country. It wasn’t good, bad or ugly. It just was. It was a time when you fell into one of two camps: proud to defend your folks and humble way of life or embarrassed to share too much information, fearing it would have you pegged as simple, closed minded, naive or even racist. It was back when boots, chewing tobacco and greasy hands were a staple of hard work and hard life, not the billboard for pop culture. Back when country didn’t mean Barbie blondes sitting on tailgates down by the river sippin’ Coors Light piss water in their Daisy Dukes, skimpy bikini tops and cowboy boots. Back when there was no such thing as a small town poser because it was the last thing you wanted to be. Back when…
Small town life was boys being shipped off to war and returning as men. It was barely having a roof over your head but somehow scraping up enough cash to afford that new truck payment each month. It was being able to run a tab at the local hardware store and townies not giving two shits what they said to whom because political correctness was for the birds. Small town life was the same drunks parking their asses on the same stools night after night, sipping their hard-earned dollars away. Their breath wreaking of cheap liquor and stale cigarettes.
Small town life was hussies, some old enough to be my mother, wearing tank tops two sizes too small and working their way through the bar, rubbing up on the nearest schmuck gullible or drunk enough to sponsor the next round. It was high school sweethearts getting hitched shortly after graduation, too young and in love to foresee the challenges marriage presents and single moms carrying two jobs just to get by with the basics, while local burnouts got high every chance they could score. Small town life was the American flag flying high and proud in everyone’s front yard long before the attack of September 11 – no excuses. And don’t forget all walks of life gathering at a local establishment to exchange the latest shop talk on their way to or from work. (Typically, a wide range of worldly topics arise including hunting, fishing, camping and off road season; who is no longer talking to who, who is banging or swinging with who, who broke up with who and whose kid got into what trouble with who; as well as race, religion, gun control, “those Democrats” and taxes.) Come Sunday morning, the sinners and the saints sit side by side at service, exchanging genuine prayers of communal love and kindness, only to pick up where they left off the day before.
I revel in the social juxtaposition, really. It’s the only microcosm of its kind, a beautiful hot mess. Possibly even more fascinating is the fact that nothing I stated is unique to where I grew up. But like many others my age, I couldn’t wait to claw myself out of the coffin, catch the first bus to Port Authority and somehow, in the sea of welcomed strangers, find my own voice.
I reference the small town memories as back when but in truth, nothing has changed… I’ve changed. Life experiences have broadened my worldview, and I’m forever grateful. No longer do I feel threatened by the overwhelmingly loud silence – I miss it. No longer do I feel lonely in wide open spaces – I yearn for it. No longer do I feel irritated at incessant inquisitiveness – I envy the sense of community. And no longer do I feel inferior to rich development life. Instead, I feel an indescribable amount of pride in my family, my community, my town and my roots.
It took me finding the love of my life, traveling the world and settling in another small town to realize that I’ll always be an outsider within their asylum walls but never in my own. These days the gossip, nosiness and predictability that once wracked my nerves are fleeting thoughts often replaced with the fondest of memories. It’s true that it takes losing what we have to ever quantify the enormously positive effect it actually had.
Storytelling on the front stoop.
Making “snow angels” in a bed of dandelions.
Shooting hoops in the front yard during the dead of winter.
Playing hide-and-go-seek in the woods.
Falling asleep on the back porch to the sound of crickets.
Fishing with a makeshift rod at the neighbor’s pond.
Exploring old dirt roads, abandoned barns and overgrown fields.
Enjoying the annual pig roast at Winfield Farm.
Camping in a sleeping bag under the stars.
Playing without the interruption of cell phones.
Learning the value of independence.
I share these thoughts not to devalue small town life, rather to celebrate it. It’s that special place where you learn the value of manners and an entire community disciplines your child. It’s that special place where you bow your head before meals and offer a prayer before bedtime even if you don’t think the Big Guy Upstairs is listening. It’s that special place where chickens run wild, kids name their pet ducks and men still tip their hats to ladies while holding the door. It’s that special place where the tee-ball coach still frequents your parent’s business 25 years later and community members that you don’t even know drop off handmade baby blankets for your unborn child. It’s that special place where neighbors and strangers alike rally by your side during natural disasters, accidents, divorce, sickness and death – making sure you have a hot meal, fresh clothes and someone who cares.
It’s that special place called home.