Over Christmas we made a 13-hour drive north to be with family. It was the first time I’ve been back to my stomping grounds since moving south. And even though I grew up there and have visited the place a hundred times I saw it with new eyes, recognizing that trips will now be planned and probably will involve using vacation time. Don’t misunderstand, little had changed. While there, the church I attended every Sunday as a girl honored my mother for 40 years of volunteering as their organist. 40 years! Who does anything for 40 years anymore? Most people can’t stay married that long, let alone commit themselves to every Sunday morning service, every cantata, nearly every wedding and special holiday service (including two Christmas Eve services this year) for only a small stipend in return? (Actually, my dad has been an usher in this small church for nearly the same amount of time.)
My brother and sister-in-law still live in the same house they bought over 20 years ago. My parents have lived in their house for 36 years. My in-laws have lived in their house for 38 years. In fact, many of the houses are still owned by the same family that owned them when I was growing up. The vet and the dairy farmer still hang their signs in their front yards. Some of the buildings have been updated in our small hometown of 1100 with one yellow blinking light on the main street. Others have not. Small businesses have come and gone. The library remains (albeit in a new building) and so does the only tavern in town. Many of our classmates remain in the area with their children.
On the way to and from our hometown we noticed, with renewed vision, the similarity of other small Midwest towns. They all had a church (or two or three), at least one bank, and a bar. Many had pizza places and a dime store (if it was longstanding) or a dollar store. Also common was an American Legion and, if the place was a little bigger, a lumber store. Our hometown is a rural community with many Amish enclaves. The horse and buggy as familiar a site as I had remembered. This is not a wealthy community, yet people have gotten by for years one way or another and it appears as if that strategy still holds. By the way…you can still get two eggs, hash browns and toast for $2.25.
It’s like time stands still in many of these communities. And while I appreciate that we were raised by loving parents and acquired many small-town values like helping your neighbor and appreciating nature, the trip also opened my eyes to other things. Like how much I’ve changed. The rural Midwest is typically very conservative and with Republican leanings. Over the 20+ years since leaving this community, I’ve lived in several places and am drawn to university towns where there is a consistent flow of transplants from all walks of life and diverse places.
We’ve been privileged to gain friends who’ve challenged our thinking and expanded our experiences and interests. Over the last several years my husband and I have surprised even ourselves by our evolving worldviews and continue to seek information, new perspectives and greater understanding about many issues that, frankly, we either didn’t know about or take time to understand in previous decades. Not that we’re so avant-garde. But it’s like visiting your elementary school for the first time as an adult and realizing how the lunchroom really isn’t the size of the grand canyon and the toilet seats look like doll-house models they’re so short.
Spending vacation time in my childhood town gave me time to reflect. Perspectives change slowly, often unnoticed bit by bit. Yet when I stood side-by-side with the me of 20 years ago, I began to unravel the many influences in my life and why maybe sometimes I feel a bit displaced when I’ve got a foot in both places. I was glad to see my parents, my in-laws and some dear friends while we were there. Yet it also helped me sort out the changes that are happening during this mid-life transition. The internal pull to move south was, I now believe, a good choice in my life’s journey with my husband. Being in a new city, in a new state, in a new region of the country allows us to explore this community and our life without assumptions that we “know the place” or the basic storyline of the people here. It’s a great way to stretch into the second half of life with enthusiasm and a sense of optimistic anticipation. Many are comforted by routine and being surrounded by the familiar. My husband and I are stimulated by change. Going home reminded me of my roots and helped me filter the influences of my past. Coming home nurtured my heart and pointed me toward my future. A week of rewind and fast-forward…push play.