For the last twenty-five years, I’ve been a big city gal; concrete jungle where dreams are made of and all the rest. Mass transit, museums, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Too much of the great outdoors unnerves me. Mother Nature makes me break out in hives. Where others see beauty and wildlife, I see Blair Witch and hay fever. Given the choice, my olfactory system will choose the smell of wine and cheap perfume to fresh mown lawn every time.
But as happily married as I am to my urban landscape, I wasn’t raised in the city. For the most part, I grew up in a quiet, New England town. Not remote enough to be rural, not sub-divided enough to be suburban, one of thousands of one-stoplight towns across the United States. Just a small town girl, living in a small town world. There was an eponymous house of pizza, a few churches, a local Dairy Queen (my first job) and not much else. Except for the freedom to grow up.
And grow up we did. As kids, we plunged recklessly down huge sand hills blanketed in snow, cat-a-corner to a cemetery with headstones dating back to the Revolution. We ice-skated on frozen ponds behind the church and rode our bikes to neighboring towns. There were dark and winding roads to speed down, plenty of grassy lawns to stain the knees of your jeans after a make-out session, hide-outs and pull-offs where you could smoke a cigarette, or roll a joint, organize a kegger.
Though I’ve reached an age where my city dwelling years have outstripped my small town years, I come home regularly. And far from the straight jacket constraints of my teen years, it is a welcome break. My own children are city children, apartment dwellers, green space appreciators. As parents of city kids, we have to seek out sport opportunities for them. We have to make play dates, arrange free time and plan school vacations. And don’t get me started on the nightmare of having children with winter month birthdays when you live in a flat. We have annual passes to museums and lots of take out options. And generally, we love it. But when we visit the town I grew up in, I can open the screen door and let my children out. They are free to roam the neighborhood. To ride their bikes around the block, to hopscotch in the neighborhood pools. The woods, the ones I watched burn down those many years ago, are no longer there, so there won’t be a canopy of pines under which to steal a French kiss or hide a pilfered Playboy. There are no more mint leaves to crush between your fingers to mask the smell of a stolen cigarette. But for a few weeks a year, my kids have the kind of summer I remember growing up with. Freedom from school, from schedules, from bedtimes and rules. Freedom to play kick the can from dawn to dusk. In the summer months, the flicker of the porch light was enough to call us home. My own children aren’t old enough to stay out that late yet, but they will be soon enough. They will be old enough to have backyard campouts with games of spin the bottle and come home smelling of earth and sun and summer on their skin after a day of adventure.
Of course, small towns aren’t perfect. They are romanticized and air brushed in their role as American ideal. But just because they are small does not mean they are free from strife, from problems, from pain. As a teen growing up, there was a lot of drinking. A lot of drugs. Not just pot, but cocaine, acid, mushrooms. There was a lot of sex. Anyone who thinks they can stop teenagers from having sex should spend a month in small town USA with hormone riddled teens with nothing to do on a Saturday night but hang down the sand pits with a bottle of stolen Schnapps. There was a lot of drunk driving down those long and winding roads. There were accidents. There were deaths. But there was also a sense of pride, of community, of togetherness that is hard to find in the city. In a small town, Homecoming is a big deal. Football and Little League are a big deal. Big games and pep rallies and spirit weeks. Town parades on Memorial Day with the local dance school, 4th of July fireworks displays. All the stuff I feel like my kids miss out on.
A lot has changed in twenty-five years. As a teen, I felt boxed in, hemmed in by small town life. I was restless. As soon as I could, I took that midnight train going anywhere, though in my case it was a Greyhound bus headed to Port Authority. But there are things for teens to do now; a 14 screen movie theatre, McDonald’s, a Barnes and Noble. There are numerous chain restaurants, and to my utter astonishment, a sushi place. For real. Sushi has hit small town, U.S.A. The sand hills that I used to sled down have been taken over by a shopping complex. There are strings of traffic lights now, lighting up the town.
I love raising kids in the city. I love the diversity they are exposed to, the opportunities they are offered, the culture at their fingertips. But as a mother, I can better appreciate the safety and sense of home that small towns offer. It’s nice to be able to play kick-ball in the middle of the street. Yell “CAR!” during a game of street hockey, knock on someone’s door and ask if they can come out to play. There are times I long for that small town security for my kids. The sense of knowing there will be friends in the bleachers to cheer them on a frosty November afternoon. The idea of one of them waking up one day and realizing the girl next door is suddenly and completely gorgeous. And yes, even hanging out at the sand pits with a bottle of Schanpps.
Modern art museums are great. Take out is a life-saver. Mass transit is a fantastic thing.
But so is having a sense of belonging. The kind you get when you’re just a small town girl.