It was nearly impossible to go for a walk as a kid in my hometown. Not because I was worried about traversing through dangerous neighborhoods or being picked up by kidnappers in creepy vans with tinted windows. It wasn’t due to heavy traffic caused by busy roads; my town has a total of four stoplights and one of those just graduated from blinking a few years ago. And it certainly wasn’t because I didn’t have any place to go—that is, if you count an empty parking lot behind a gas station as a destination worthy of gathering with friends. What made this pursuit impossible was the sheer amount of times my walk would be interrupted by a well-meaning driver who’d pulled over to ask if I needed a ride home. After reassuring them that I was simply getting a little exercise (and promising that I’d tell my Mom they’d said hi), I would carry on again only to be stopped 50 paces later by my great-aunt or my best friend’s dad or my 6th grade teacher and be forced to repeat it all over again. After the fourth or fifth Good Samaritan stopped to offer a ride, I would finally give up, hop in the car, and catch a lift back home…usually just 15 minutes after I’d left.
That’s the thing about small towns. Everybody knows everybody and they all make a habit of looking out for one another. As teenagers from small towns across America know, this can be both a blessing and a curse. Lock your keys in your car at the grocery store? No worries, the town’s locksmith will be up in a jiffy to help you out (for the second time this month) before your Dad can even find your spare at home. Hit a homerun in the season opener? Prepare to be congratulated by every other person you see at the farmer’s market the following weekend. Planning on throwing a party for forty of your closest friends while your parents are out of town? Kind of hard to do when they find out about it before they even leave the driveway. I’m sure you get the message: secrets are merely suggestions in a small town.
It’s a bit ironic that what bugged me back then is one of many things that compelled me to return and raise my own kids here. I appreciate the comfort that comes with knowing the families of my kids’ friends, having grown up with most of them myself. The first friend I ever met in elementary school was a cute little girl with short blonde hair and emerald green earrings. We sat next to each other on the first day of school and were inseparable from that moment on. We had sleepovers and play dates (before they were called that) and skipped down the soccer field, hand-in-hand, instead of worrying about silly things like kicking the ball or scoring goals. We remained friends even after our paths led us to different colleges and different stages in life. Fast forward more than a few years later to the day my son returned home from his first day of pre-school to tell me all about his very first friend. He was a cute little boy with a head full of blonde curls who sat in the desk right next to his and had a name that sounded very familiar. These two have been best buddies ever since and it sure is fun to have an excuse to hang out with my first friend again while our sons are shooting hoops out in the driveway. You just can’t get that kind of continuity in a big city.
I think it’s the slower pace of life in a small town that draws many of us back as well. I’ll never forget the time I brought a few of my big city college friends back home with me during one of our breaks. We were driving down the main street in town and as we pulled up to one of the four stoplights my friend noticed the vehicle ahead of us and shockingly asked, “Is that someone driving a tractor…like on the road…in town?” Not an unlikely occurrence in these parts, I looked over to confirm and, in doing so, noticed that not only was there a tractor stopped at the red light, but my cousin was the one driving it. He waved, I waved back, and my friends erupted in laughter at what must’ve seemed to them like a scene right out of Mayberry. I didn’t know what was so funny—seemed like a pretty normal day to me.
My husband and I discussed many aspects of our future life and the type of parents we wanted to be in the years before we had our children. We knew we wanted to expose them to great literature and encourage them to explore whatever talents and interests they possessed. We were determined to take them to see the world and wanted them to be comfortable in foreign lands and open to new adventures. After all, we had both traveled in lived in numerous places around the globe and we were sure that our children would be just fine wherever we decided to set our circus down. And then I got pregnant. During those nine months it seemed like the more we thought about our baby the more we wanted to just go home. I landed a job teaching at our old high school a few weeks before our son was born and moved back home with my parents while my husband stayed behind in our house in the city to tie up loose ends and close that chapter of our lives. Our baby boy arrived and we found our own place to live, beginning the story of our family in the town we both grew up in.
In doing so, we made a conscious choice to replace “cutting-edge” with community. Our kids will wear maroon and white and cheer for the Bucks just like we did, and just like our parents did before us. They will run around with friends who are also cousins and play on soccer teams coached by our former teammates. They will get the same pink personalized notes sent home from their elementary principal that I still have tucked away in my own dusty scrapbooks. The ones with a special note of recognition for all A’s on a report card or a tremendous talent show performance, and punctuated with a hand drawn pig. They will probably spend their summers at the little league field down by the railroad tracks where we spent much of our youth, and run after foul balls to get a piece of gum for returning them to the concession stand. They will sled down the same hill, splash through the same creek, hike through the same woods, and fall in love with the same town that we did. They will be big fish in a small pond, and that kind of confidence will serve them well whenever they decide to venture out into the big ocean.
It’s true that we don’t have the most “cultured” environment or the most exciting nightlife to offer here in our little corner of the world. We don’t have a cinema or a shopping mall and we aren’t a stop on any metro-line. We don’t even have a bowling alley or a place to get Thai food. You won’t find a parking meter downtown or much rush hour traffic either. Instead of riding the subway to a rock concert, our kids ride in pickup trucks to the county fair. We might not catch the latest fashion trends, but we sure catch a lot of bluegills. And forget weekends spent at sushi bars and art museums—Friday nights are for bonfires, Saturday afternoons are for ball games, and Sunday evenings are reserved for family dinner at Grandma’s around these parts. We might not draw crowds of thousands to music festivals or city celebrations, but we can pack the downtown for a Chili-Walk and you should see all the folks who come back to town for the Homecoming game. No, you won’t find any gourmet food trucks on our tree lined streets, but you can get a dang good burger from the B&W, a killer omelet from Hilltop Cafe, a Green River from the Sweet Shop, a heartburn special from Milano’s Pizza, and a bag of free popcorn from the hardware store. And, while I’m at it, you can keep your Starbucks, we prefer our steamy beverages from Union Coffee House.
But what we lack in worldliness, we make up in kindness. While we will never be described as cosmopolitan, you can’t mistake our strong sense of community. I’m glad we decided to come back home. Dorothy was right, there really is no place like it.
-by Stacey Carlin
Layin’ Down Roots