In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Growing up in Brooklyn, I thought all the eccentrics lived in big cities. Then I became editor of a tiny newspaper in a drab Louisiana town where every breath stank of sulfur from the local paper mill. The police chief’s brother, a sergeant on the force, was caught stealing antidrug funds. The sour-faced editor I’d replaced had baked treats for local officials in exchange for information. (The first time I asked the sheriff for the crime reports, he replied, “Where are my cookies?”) The town manager spit tobacco juice on my office carpet. Even the tragedies were bizarre: at a local funeral parlor, one minister killed another and severed his victim’s head.
The crime and scandal shocked me, as did the racially segregated bars, stores, mortuaries, and even high-school proms — this, in the 1990s. At the same time, people were often kind and generous. Our overworked obstetrician showed up with a bottle of champagne to celebrate our daughter’s birth. An employee of mine muttered about “Yankees” behind my back but stitched a beautiful quilt for our baby. Although she had voted for racist candidate David Duke, her son had married a Panamanian, and she adored her dark-skinned granddaughter. People were always more complicated than they seemed.
As a kid I’d felt anonymous even within my own apartment building, but in that town I soon knew almost everyone. My wife hated to shop with me because people would stop us every few minutes to praise or condemn something I’d written in the paper. Most loved my first-person narratives, but hated my editorials favoring gay rights or racial equality.
We left that town after two years, and I don’t miss it. But after a decade in Los Angeles I’ve come to appreciate the value of a place where the pace of life is slower, where the video-store clerks know your name and the neighbors drop by unannounced, where people — whatever their faults — have few pretensions. Here in the big city, I don’t know my neighbors’ faults, because I don’t know my neighbors. Now it is anonymous urban life that I want to escape.
Los Angeles, California
Last year, my fiancé and I moved from Minneapolis to his birthplace in western Minnesota. After twenty-six years in the city, I was ready to trade pollution, traffic, and sprawl for front-porch lemonade and harvest-moon dances.
A month after the move, though, I started to feel lonely. It wasn’t just the distance from friends and family back in the city; I felt like a different species. I had always thought of myself as extroverted, but in the eyes of my new neighbors I just talked too much, and usually about things that didn’t concern them, like movies, pop culture, and fashion. I sat silently through talk of irrigation methods and rhubarb recipes.
While I struggled to define myself amid my new surroundings, I began to change. I started to enjoy driving slowly down an empty road. Sometimes I’d cross over into the opposite lane, just because I could. The days’ journeys were becoming just as important to me as the destinations. I learned to identify plants and weather patterns. I figured out inexpensive ways to entertain myself and sometimes went a whole week without buying anything.
Sometimes I stand at the edge of the prairie and still feel lonely, but more often I feel myself expand into the wide-open space.
My husband and I have lived on a military base for nearly four years now. We must always be on our best behavior. You never hear loud parties or rowdy kids here. There are no junked cars or dead appliances in yards. Dogs are always on a leash, and poop is always scooped. Lawns are edged, hedges trimmed. You will never see a housewife picking up the morning newspaper in her bathrobe and curlers, or a bare-chested, potbellied neighbor drinking beer. You will see the occasional tank roll by, and every six weeks a B-1 bomber flies over to honor graduates from the Officer Training School. It’s possible to live here and never venture outside the gates.
The base sits on the banks of the Alabama River, which floods each spring, covering the golf course. On the river road you can walk your dog or ride a horse and forget for a short time that the threat condition is Bravo.
My husband has twenty months to go until his thirty years of service are up. We plan to retire to a small town and collect junk.
For two years, I lived in a small town on the windswept steppe of central Mongolia. Baganuur had been built by the Russians to house the families of the miners and engineers who worked in the nearby coal mine. As the only Peace Corps volunteer for thirty kilometers, I was something of a celebrity. Most people knew my name, and letters addressed simply to “Cindy, English Teacher” would invariably find their way to me.
I lived in a crumbling brick apartment building with unreliable plumbing and fierce heat. (The Mongolians couldn’t believe that I actually liked living alone, without a TV.) I had to climb seventy-eight steps to get to my unit, but the good news was that the drunks hardly ever made it up all those stairs.
I quickly learned my way around. To buy meat, I had to walk down the only road for fifteen minutes to a single-story, whitewashed building filled with headless, flyblown carcasses. To buy cooking oil and dry noodles, I went to the other end of town, where Nyamkaa and Solongo teased that they would find me a Mongolian husband. For a haircut, I climbed the stairs of Apartment Building 31, where Saraa would politely ignore my miserable language skills and cut my hair exactly the way I wanted it. If I needed something sewn or altered, Dashzeveg in Apartment Building 18 would expertly take my measurements and have the garment ready in three days.
The community education center where I worked had once been a Russian kindergarten. There were still big cutouts on the wall of roosters and cats wearing hats and boots. The day before I left, my co-workers presented me with a beautiful wool rug and a silk dell, the traditional native costume. I tearfully accepted their gifts and asked each of them to say something into my cassette recorder. Many of them said, “Namaig bitgii mart” — Don’t forget me. I wouldn’t, I promised.
Now, back in the States, I keep my photos from Mongolia in a box. Sometimes I take them out and gaze at each face fondly, trying to recall the shared laughter, impromptu language lessons, and endless cups of salty milk tea.
I am already forgetting.
Cindy Y. Ogasawara
I grew up in a century-old farmhouse outside the small Oregon town of Philomath. On the weekends my mom exhorted my siblings and me to play outside, whatever the weather. We would act out intricate scenarios based on the Hardy Boys books or, less frequently, Nancy Drew mysteries. We didn’t have a television in the house until I was seventeen, when we inherited my grandparents’ 1950s-era black-and-white set.
Rather than send her children to school in backwoods Philomath, my mother petitioned the school district to bus my siblings and me to the infinitely more “progressive” school system in Corvallis. We were the final stop on the bus route, and the ride lasted an hour each way.
Though no one in my family said it, I understood that Philomath was “low class.” We rarely went there, except on our way to the beach. The only times Philomath became acceptable were during the summer festival, when I rode my horse in the parade, and during the Benton County Fair, when we fraternized with Philomath 4H-ers in the pig barn.
I graduated from Corvallis High in 1970 and wandered aimlessly for a while before settling on San Juan Island, Washington, where I married and had a daughter. The nearest town is so small that, over a period of twenty years, the same judge has presided over my marriage, my divorce, and my daughter’s hearing for underage possession.
My mother may have intended bigger and better things for me, but I’m not comfortable anywhere except a backwoods town — the smaller, the better.
Linda T. Campbell
Friday Harbor, Washington
When I was nine, my family moved from Washington, D.C., to a log cabin at the foot of the Appalachians. Harmony, Maryland, had hardly grown since the late 1700s. When I lived there, it had ninety-nine residents, five churches, and a Coke machine.
I hated the place. Accustomed to the diversity and culture of Washington, I felt as if I’d been dropped into Hicksville. Hardly anyone in my class had even left Maryland. (I had lived in Paris for three years.)
There was nothing to do in Harmony. Our cabin was a half mile down a dirt lane, and there was no one my age to play with except a shy farm boy named Donny. Our TV got only three channels, and they were full of static.
As a teenager, I spent my free time in the woods, contemplating my miserable life. Late at night I’d walk the mile into town, where I’d peer into people’s houses and make fun of their tacky decor. Then I’d buy a soda from the Coke machine and walk the steep road back to our cabin, wondering why I had to be stuck in such an awful place.
For me, Harmony was the source of both a deep depression and the meditative life I needed to get me through it. I don’t forget how unhappy I was, but I also remember how the woods saved me. I don’t forget how the rednecks teased me at school, but I also remember how that farm boy Donny apologized one day for his friends’ behavior. I don’t forget how lonely I was, but I also remember those walks to the Coke machine and see them now as a spiritual practice of sorts.
What I most want now in my life is a sense of community: something the people in Harmony seemed to have; something that I, an outsider, never understood.
When I was conceived, my parents moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to a small farmhouse in the country. They tell me that they did this for my benefit.
There is never anything to do here, so people turn to drugs to cure their boredom. Pot is always available, and alcohol, and cocaine. The teenagers in the towns surrounding us are primarily drug addicts, and their parents are either potheads themselves or oblivious to their kids’ problems.
I know many girls who got pregnant before their senior year. Most of my friends never graduated from high school. “Hicks,” my stepsister likes to call them. It’s true, but I was fond of them. For a while I found myself attracted to older boys who were content to stay in these small towns their entire lives. I slept with these boys in their parents’ basements, or in their trailers, or in campers down by the river.
I have grown up fast and learned the hard way that it is better to be alone than to choose the wrong company. That’s why now I spend most nights sitting at home with my family. I can’t wait to leave this place. I hope I never come back.
I grew up in a small town in Texas in the early fifties. Like most small towns, mine had its share of characters.
Buck was the first policeman our town ever had. He was a huge man who sweated a lot and was always ready for a fight. He deterred crime simply because no one wanted Buck mad at him.
Once, Buck got a hankering to tour Oklahoma in the city-owned police car. He came back after about a week. No one at city hall had the guts to call him on it. People would talk to Buck’s wife about the three commodes in his front yard — he used them as flower planters — but no one could make him drag the toilets to the dump.
Dotty was another character in town. She wore men’s clothing and pumped gas at the Texaco. She was very neat and kept a like-new Pontiac in her garage while she drove an old pickup everywhere. She once came into our house when we weren’t home because she wanted to see what we’d done with the place. She even stripped the beds to find out what brand of mattresses we had. Like Buck, Dotty had a fierce temper, and no one questioned her strange behavior.
The street beside Dotty’s filling station was covered in red gravel, and when the wind blew from the north, the dust turned the side of her station red. She was always washing it off with a hose.
When the city came to grade the road, Dotty objected. It would stir up too much dust, she said. She blocked the trucks until Buck came in the police car with the lights and siren going. He told Dotty that the city owned the road, and that it was going to be graded whether she liked it or not. The two of them screamed at each other until Dotty grabbed her chest and fell to the ground. An ambulance came to take her to the hospital, where she would be pronounced dead on arrival: a heart attack.
As the ambulance pulled away, Buck signaled to the workmen and said, “Start grading, boys.”
Tom B. Poindexter
In my twenties I shared a Hollywood Hills home with a sixty-year-old French alcoholic who, when he wasn’t throwing up in the bathtub, called me pet names in French. After eight months, I packed up my belongings and left.
Some waiter friends of mine in LA had invited me in on a multilevel marketing meeting (aka a pyramid scheme), and I’d promptly signed up my mother. Now I was moving to the Midwest to go into business with her. She lived in a yellow duplex at the end of a cornfield in Indiana, where she had somehow wound up with her second husband, soon to be her ex. Our plan was to rid ourselves of debt and difficult men once and for all.
I was stunned when I walked into the town’s only bank and the teller said, “You must be Jan’s daughter.” My mother and I didn’t even have the same last name. My mother explained to me that new faces in town were rare, and nearly everyone had heard that her daughter was coming to live with her. Still, I felt a sense of foreboding.
Maxine, my mother’s landlady, occupied the other side of the duplex. In our first conversation, she told me about coming home one day and finding her ex-husband wearing her lingerie. From there she moved seamlessly to “I understand your mama and you are starting up a home business?”
Our newspaper ad read: “Earn $1,000+ a week just by talking to your friends!” We attracted curious respondents from an industrial town east of Porter, where people were as desperate and naive as my mother and I. They arrived in battered cars and left saying they’d “think about it.”
Eventually we signed up Don, a retiree who needed extra money to pay off medical bills. We liked him. He was motivated. Meanwhile, Maxine’s greetings grew chilly. My mother said she was menopausal.
The next month, two people actually showed up for a training meeting. Elated, I walked them out to their cars with their starter kits and contracts. I was heading back into the house when Maxine called me over to her side of the yard, where she was frantically weeding her rose beds. She leaned in close to me, as if trying to draw me into the bushes.
“I’m going to put a little bug in your ear, honey,” she whispered loudly. “I tried to tell your mama, but she don’t listen. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know Jan’s got her troubles, and I know she’s trying, but I can’t have any more of these meetings going on at the house. It’s not me. It’s the neighbors complaining about all the cars.”
The only neighbor I could see was Maxine’s sister, two cornfields away.
Maxine snapped her gum as she lopped off branches. “Honestly, honey,” she said, “I don’t have a problem with coloreds. I’ve even got a friend over in Valpo whose daughter sometimes trades clothes with one. But the neighbors are complaining. You’ll just have to have your meetings somewhere else.”
When I told my mother, she waved her hand as if shooing an annoying gnat. “Oh, she’s always creating some drama.”
A few days later we held another meeting with three hopefuls in attendance. When I stepped outside the next morning, Maxine was hovering in her rosebushes. I pinned on a smile and waved. She motioned me over.
“Look here,” she began in a friendly but forced tone. “If these meetings don’t stop, I’m going to have to evict you. Nobody’s trying to keep you from running your business, understand, but you can’t do it on my property. The neighbors don’t want those people here, and they’re telling me to do something about it.”
Later that day, I told my mother I was going back to California. Before the week was up, I was wedged into rush-hour traffic on the Hollywood Freeway, not quite sure where I would sleep that night, but thankful for the anonymity of the city.
My mother eventually made it back to California. Don the retiree won ten thousand dollars on a scratch ticket and paid off his medical bills. I got a job translating Venezuelan soap operas. As far as we know, Maxine still lives alone in her whites-only cornfield.
My father was born in the Bronx in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution. He was raised on Trotsky and matzo-ball soup. As an adolescent during the Depression, he bought a camera for fifty-seven cents and taught himself photography to bring home some extra money. He turned down an acceptance to a prestigious art school to go to work for the postal service.
My father was never comfortable as a postman. Photography remained his passion, and his fingernails were always stained brown with developer. He hung the negatives from the shower curtain in our tiny Bronx apartment: black-and-white slices of city life, nursery-school children, weddings, street scenes. Some of his pictures brought home a little money. With his left-wing politics and magnetic, if somewhat aggressive, personality, he was the quintessential New York Jew.
Then, at the age of fifty, my father inherited some money from a distant aunt and bought a summer house in Maine for eight thousand dollars. After a lifetime of owning nothing besides his old Rolleiflex camera and a Dodge Dart, he now possessed an 1832 farmhouse and barn on sixty-seven acres. He fell in love with his new summer environment, planting wildflowers and tomatoes and gesticulating his way into the hearts of his reserved and bemused New England neighbors.
A few years ago, as my mother began to lose her memory, my father decided to make the Maine house their permanent home. He left behind the old neighborhood, decent bagels, and daily delivery of the New York Times in favor of that place where, over time, kind people have brought them lobsters, mowed their fields, and plowed their driveway.
Lately, as my mother sinks deeper into her own private world of sleep and silence, several women have come into their lives, drawn by my father’s charisma, his photography, and something like love. One plays Scrabble with my mother and listens to her read old letters aloud. Another develops photographs in the darkroom with my father. A third brings them goat’s milk every day. In spite of my mother’s decline and the harshness of the winters, my father is happy. At eighty-six, this New York Jew has found his home in a small town in Maine.
In 1972, when I was eighteen, my mother and I moved from southern California to a small town in Montana; population: one thousand. I was young and completely unprepared for small-town life.
That first summer I got a job at the best restaurant in the valley. One night I heard the cooks and waitresses talking about a man who was a terrible dancer. They made fun of him and said he was too stupid to realize how ridiculous he looked on the dance floor.
My mom had started dating a divorcé who owned a small dairy farm. He’d bring her apples from his farm and take her dancing. I secretly hoped they weren’t talking about him.
A few weeks later I heard the waitresses say the bad dancer had gotten himself a “live one” — a divorcée from California. I was embarrassed and angry, but I didn’t have the courage to speak up. Then one day my mom and I ran into the head cook at the grocery store. After that the conversations abruptly ceased. No one apologized, though. They just started talking about someone else.
Several months later, while chatting with a new co-worker from out of town, I mentioned that I had two friends visiting me from California. “Oh,” she said, “so you’re the one.” She said that, during her interview, the owner had talked about planning to fire someone because she was “shacking up with two men from California.” (My best friend’s boyfriend was visiting, and he’d brought another guy with him to share the long drive.)
Not wanting to wait around to be fired, I quit. When the owner asked why, I told her the truth. She asked me to stay and claimed she wasn’t really going to fire me; she was just trying to appease some townspeople who had complained.
Great. It wasn’t her. It was the whole town.
I’d heard that the best-paying job a woman could get in the valley was milking cows at the county dairy, but Bob Johnson, the owner, told me he hired only experienced milkers. Determined to work there, I went to my mom’s boyfriend at his dairy and asked him to show me how to milk cows. The next time someone didn’t show up for work, Bob Johnson hired me out of desperation. After a few months on the day shift, I was asked to work nights. The day before I made the switch, the other woman on the night shift suddenly quit. I later found out she didn’t want to work with a “slut from California.” We’d never met.
Soon after that, I had car trouble and walked up the nearest driveway to ask to use the phone. The woman let me in, gave me some lemonade, and showed me around her farm. Making small talk, she commented about all the outsiders who were moving into the valley. “Like that girl from California. You know the one; she used to work at the restaurant. I heard she’s working at one of the dairies now. The owner is getting worried. People are quitting right and left because they don’t want to work with her.” When my ride showed up, I thanked her for her kindness and left.
I loved Montana. I loved the mountains, the thunderstorms, the rivers, the constantly changing seasons. I survived two winters at forty below and kept newborn calves alive after their mothers had abandoned them. I slogged through knee-deep cow manure in spring, hiked many miles of trails in summer, and reveled in the colors of fall. I couldn’t live there, though. I was lonely, and too young and insecure to make a go of it all by myself. After two years, I moved back to California, but I planned to return to Montana when I was older and stronger — and married, so I wouldn’t have to be all alone.
I haven’t gone back.
Janet E. Hilton
In 1968 a new art teacher arrived in our small Southern town. She lived in a converted barn decorated with tie-dyed sheets, bead curtains, and Peter Max posters. The music of Santana, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix pulsated through the rough wooden walls, and the pungent scent of sandalwood incense filled the air. To me, her apartment might as well have been Morocco; it was that exotic.
Mrs. Jones, our former art teacher, had made us copy still lifes and landscapes from a drawer of dusty prints. Then she “corrected” them for us. Leslie assigned “gesture studies” and “contour drawings.” The homework puzzled my parents (“What is it supposed to be?”) but later helped me ace my freshman college drawing classes.
Leslie gave me more than college-prep art training, though. She showed me how to tune in to an FM station sixty miles away. She screened Jean Cocteau’s 1930s film Beauty and the Beast in her apartment for me and her other students. She introduced me to the writing of Kahlil Gibran, Edgar Cayce, Hermann Hesse, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Hesse’s Demian spoke to my tormented fourteen-year-old soul.
Most of all, she offered me a safe refuge from the cruel taunts of the in-crowd, who ridiculed my awkwardness. She let me scrawl my adolescent angst on her darkroom walls and encouraged me to rejoice in being different. I flaunted my embroidered bell-bottoms, tie-dyed shirts, and beads before the color-coordinated girls.
Leslie’s eccentricities didn’t escape her neighbors’ notice. The widow in the columned mansion across the street peeked through her lace curtains as vans of long-haired visitors came and went. Parents weren’t charmed by the strange products of their children’s lessons. Rumors spread. Leslie left town after a year.
One of Leslie’s former students recently won an Emmy for his television writing. Another has worked as a printmaker in New York City. A third is an actress. And me? I am a professional illustrator.
Black Mountain, North Carolina
I dreaded leaving the San Francisco Bay Area for a small town in southern California. Just the words southern California left me gasping for foggy air. But we wanted to raise our children away from traffic problems and outrageous home prices.
Before I moved to this small town, I believed that tolerance was a product of big cities, an idea created by educated liberals like my friends and me, who were all of the same race, religion, and generation. Now I know that tolerance is born in small towns, out of necessity. You need each person there.
My trusted chiropractor is a deacon in a church whose beliefs I can’t fathom. When I was broken and miserable after a miscarriage, his wife brought me dinner and held my hand. My son’s music teacher never finished college; she is also my child-care provider on Thursdays and my massage therapist. Our best friends in town believe that the earth is four thousand years old. We have dinner with them at least once a month and talk heatedly about what Jesus might say about the Middle East. (In ten years of living in the Bay Area, I don’t think I ever had a serious conversation about Jesus.) Another friend is a Republican who prays for George W. Bush’s reelection.
These people are my community. They are the ones we invite to our barbecues. They are the ones who watch our children when we have to rush our dog to the vet. I never make fun of zealous Christians anymore; I see them as people with convictions. I don’t mock Republicans, either (at least, not in public). I remember that they love their kids, too, and they aren’t out to ruin our healthcare system and take over the world — not my friends, anyway.
I saw an old friend from the city last weekend. When I told him about my new social circle, he shook his head and said, “I can’t believe you even talk to those people.”
In a big city, you don’t have to talk to those who think differently than you do. Here, you have no choice. Tolerance isn’t an abstract concept to me anymore. It is a daily practice. In fact, tolerance isn’t even enough. This small town has made me willing to accept, and even love, every one of these crazy, beautiful people.
© Clemens Kalischer
Every morning, with astonishing regularity, Slim Barnhouse sneezes. He stands on his porch, stretches, bends over to retrieve his morning paper, and . . . kerchoo! My eyes pop open at the sound. I look at the clock — 7:10 A.M. — and smile. I have been awakened by the Barnhouse sneeze for sixteen summers.
Not only does Slim serve as my alarm clock, he is also the head of our Neighborhood Watch Committee. Mrs. Barnhouse died several years ago, and Slim spends a great deal of time chatting with the neighbors and puttering in his yard. Slim talks fast, in a high-pitched, squeaky voice, and has few teeth. No one is quite sure how old he is, not even Slim. He has told me a number of times that he has no birth certificate and no older living relatives to recall what year he was born. I’m thinking he’s about seventy-five.
It is difficult to extract yourself from a conversation with Slim, which usually begins when he shows up at your door with something to report: “Did you know you left your car window down last night? Someone is going to steal that car if you keep doing that. By the way, are you going to trim those dead tree branches? They’re a menace.”
One morning last week, Slim knocked on my door. I stepped outside to talk to him. (Getting him out of your house is even harder than ending a conversation with him.) Slim came right to the point. “It has occurred to me,” he said, “that you and I are a lot alike.”
“How’s that, Slim?” I asked.
“We are both single people. As you know, my wife died a few years back. And I know your husband went and moved back to Wyoming. I was thinking we should get together.”
At this point, I had to make a conscious effort not to laugh.
He blinked at me and went on talking. “I don’t take with women who smoke and drink, and I’m pretty set in my ways, but I like to go out dancing, and I think you and me could really cut a rug. Now, I know you are a few years younger than me. . . . ” And here he inserted the birth-certificate story. Meanwhile I subtracted our ages and came up with a thirty-three-year difference.
When Slim appeared to pause, I jumped in. “Slim,” I said, “I really am flattered that you would even consider going out with me, but I don’t think we are that much alike. For one thing, I do smoke and drink, and I don’t dance. Plus I really like living alone. I have a lot of things going on in my life. I don’t even have time to date someone. You understand, I’m sure. Not that I don’t thank you for thinking of me. . . . ”
He shrugged and said he’d just thought he’d try. Then he proceeded down the sidewalk.
Watching him go, I thought about the courage it took to ask someone out. Perhaps he had rehearsed his speech several times. But what could have prompted this elderly man to even think about asking me on a date?
Then I remembered that I had no curtain on my kitchen window, which faces Slim’s bedroom. Almost every morning, after being awakened by his sneeze, I stumble into the kitchen in my underwear to make coffee.
I drove to Wal-Mart that day and bought a curtain.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
My husband and I met in Chicago. After our first two children were born, we went through a series of moves that ended in this rural Iowa town.
Shortly after we arrived here, I was returning from an evening walk when a man’s voice startled me. In the dim light, I could barely see my neighbor sitting on his front porch. Considering how long I had been gone, he remarked, I must have walked on the trail.
I had, in fact, been on the trail, and his knowledge of my comings and goings unnerved me. I didn’t walk past his house again for six months. (He is now listed as the emergency backup on my children’s school records.)
After we had been here two and a half years, my husband died of a heart attack. The town rallied around me and my children in a manner that astounded me. Instead of feeling watched, I now felt watched over.
There is still a downside, though. About a week after my husband died, a friend of his from the city came and took me to lunch at our town’s cafe. As we were talking, the friend asked if I’d ever imagined I would end up living in a small town with four kids. I must have still been in shock, because I laughed hysterically at the thought. Everyone in the cafe turned to look, no doubt scandalized by my laughter, not to mention wondering who I was dining with so soon after my husband’s death.
In a small town, by the age of eleven or twelve, you are labeled for life: shy or boisterous, chubby or scrawny, quick-witted or thickheaded. Whoever you are as a preteen, that’s who you’ll always be.
Facing a future as the self-effacing, brainy girl with the politically outspoken mother, I moved across the state soon after I married. Then, five years ago, my mother died. Just sixty-seven, she had broken her hip and never recovered from the surgery.
We held her memorial service at the Methodist church, having been unable to reach anyone at the Presbyterian church we attended. It didn’t make much difference. The songs were just on a different page in the hymnal. It was the hottest day of the year, so we kept the lights off. The sanctuary was lit only by the rays of sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows.
Afterward I stood on the sidewalk with my sister and father and thanked everyone for coming. There was my childhood friend Susan, home to visit her parents. We had known each other since before kindergarten. And there was Mrs. Russell, my fourth-grade teacher, who had insisted we answer with a clear yes or no, never yeah or nah. Even Mrs. Hanks, the Girl Scout leader who had dragged me on countless hikes through the woods, was there.
These people had come to pay their respects even though they hadn’t seen us in years. They are the cornerstone of the small town, where nothing goes unnoticed, and nobody is ever forgotten.
Hoboken, New Jersey
If you lived in my little town and were like me, the local good-ol’-boy political machine might make your pulse race. Even though you jog and eat a good diet, attending a town-council meeting might make you feel like a candidate for cardiac arrest.
If you lived on my little lot in my little town, you might want to build a garage. You might spend a few years schmoozing with the local building-code enforcers, trying to persuade them that you’d found a creative way to work within the spirit of the code, if not the letter. But would you succeed? Not a chance.
If you lived here, maybe you’d like to go for a jog with a female acquaintance who was dating someone else. If so, you’d best not step out onto your deck with her at 7 A.M. before your run, or else the early-morning-walk ladies would have it all over town that you’d been making time with her. You might think to yourself that you wouldn’t mind making time with her — if she ended her current relationship, of course, and after your wife’s ashes had had time to leach into the rich soil of the family garden. And you might realize at that moment that you’d be tending that garden alone in the spring for the first time in twenty-three years.
On the other hand, you might recall how, during your wife’s seven-year illness, your neighbors delivered food, cleaned the house, did the laundry, left prayers on the answering machine, provided free nursing care three times a week for months on end, and sent cards every single day. Perhaps you’d remember the memorial service for her in the town park, where the cane she’d hated to need was passed around, touched, even kissed by some townspeople, and finally thrown on the bonfire. Maybe you’d know families who would offer to take in your two motherless sons for an hour, or a week, and treat them like family. You might also witness the smiles on your neighbors’ faces when they see you getting out of the house again, and that part of you that’s been dried up for so long might slowly come back to life.
If you lived in my little town and were like me, perhaps you’d be filled with wonder to see the light in the eyes of a neighbor who had managed to make it through her own hell, which was not unlike yours. Maybe you’d find with her a love for which you had waited all your life.
Ogden Dunes, Indiana
The summer before I turned sixteen, my father’s elderly cousins — a brother and sister — invited me to spend a week with them at their New York City apartment on West 80th Street. I was eager to escape the poverty of my small-town existence and expected to find wealth and luxury in the Big Apple. I was sorely disappointed.
Arriving in the city, I was shocked by the dirty subway, the trash blowing in the alleys, and the packed, noisy buses. My relatives’ dirty walk-up apartment was relentlessly hot (I lay awake miserably at night) and filled with ancient appliances and ruined furniture. My small-town home seemed neat, clean, and modern by comparison.
One day, my elderly cousins took me to New Jersey to meet some more distant cousins: hard-drinking, pot-smoking, and — in my mind — incredibly cool teenagers who spoke derisively of my hosts behind their backs. My teenage cousins were seasoned visitors to that city apartment and gave me tips for staying there, such as how to rid myself of the ubiquitous eggs served for breakfast. (Throw them out the kitchen window when my hosts weren’t looking.)
One cousin, a striking, high-cheekboned girl, told me, “I don’t care if they die, as long as they give me their money.”
“Me, too,” I agreed.
It seems incredibly sad to me now that none of us was able to appreciate those generous, if lonely and out-of-touch, people. Only years later, with no small amount of shame and regret, did I realize what my elderly relatives had done for me. They hadn’t swept me away into a world of opulence, but they’d given me perspective. I never had such a narrow view of poverty again, nor was I ashamed to bring friends into our modest house. I grew to appreciate New York City and even went to graduate school at Columbia University. Most of all, I never again felt trapped in my small town.
In my small Southern town, people drive as slow as they please and sometimes stop to talk, right there in the middle of the road. If you ask for tea, you’ll get it sweet and on ice unless you specify otherwise. And religion is the most important thing in most people’s lives. Even if you drink unsweetened tea and have a Yankee accent, you’re still all right if you love Jesus.
I go to church, but around here, Unitarian Universalism isn’t considered a real religion. The community leaders frown upon our open-mindedness and inclusiveness. So when N., a member of our youth group, died suddenly this year, it was a challenge to create a service that would honor his memory without offending the townspeople.
N. had been active in the theater, and once, during a drama-camp discussion about death, he had said, “At my funeral everyone’s going to wear pink.” We spread the word, not caring what people would think: mourners should wear pink.
I was the last person to speak at the funeral. I stepped up to the pulpit dressed in a pink skirt and blue Superman shirt. (N. had also loved comic books.) I took a deep breath and looked out on a sea of pink clothes and glistening, wet faces.
Only N. could get a town of closed-minded Southerners to wear pink to a funeral.
Eve M. Stevens
Pendleton, South Carolina
In the high elevation of the Rocky Mountains is a town where the bears outnumber the people. The two hundred human residents of Ophir are mainly transplants from the East Coast pursuing a dream of becoming mountain men and women — myself included.
If anything, life here is more hectic than life in the city. I live in a cabin with wood heat and no running water. Hauling creek water in the snow is hard work. When winter can last for nine and a half months, firewood is worth more than gold, and if you run out in February, you’d better be in good with your neighbors.
At ten thousand feet, the air is thin, but the testosterone is thick. The men outnumber us women eight to one. When I first arrived in town, I felt like a movie star. All the men wanted to talk to me: “Any bears break into your cabin yet?” “Want to come over for dinner tonight?” A welcome banner or a feature about me on the front page of the newspaper would not have surprised me. Everyone wanted to know if I was single. Going to my box at the post office, I could feel the stares and hear the whispers. Men went out of their way to help me carry groceries and haul my water. I was told that I was the most attractive woman in town. I was told this many times.
I had arrived a quiet, skinny, freckled woman, but I soon became a confident, sexy, freckled woman. Being the center of attention helped me tap into my powers of womanhood. I was a diva in men’s work pants.
Being an object of desire, however, is more complicated than it looks. Rumors spread, and I acquired an embarrassing reputation for promiscuity.
The good thing about this small town is that everyone is understanding, especially the women. They have all been newcomers, too.
When people ask what I like about small-town life, I tell them about the time my mother took my truck to the grocery store. I had left a fishing pole in the passenger seat, and when she rounded a curve, the pole fell over, and the hook got snagged in the back of her collar.
Unable to get the hook out — and too modest to take off her blouse — my mother went into the store carrying the fishing pole. Elvin, the elderly store owner, couldn’t get the hook out either. So he simply walked behind my mother, carrying the fishing pole, while she did her shopping.
You just can’t get that kind of service in the city.