I’ve written an innumerable amount of things about growing up in a small town. In fact, I feel like I’ve been writing about it since I knew how to hold a pen, and yet it constantly and continually reveals itself to me in ways I never knew possible.
So this should begin with a disclaimer: I’ve been listening to “Dirty Old Town” by Craig Cardiff on Spotify on repeat for the last thirty minutes and I’m neither as optimistic or cynical as I sometimes come across when it comes to my hometown. I just happen to believe that the places we come from hold most of who we are, even after we’ve left.
When people ask me whether or not I like where I’m from I always respond, “It was a nice place to grow up.” Because it was. It still is on the days that I feel worlds away from the adult I’m supposed to be. I grew up between cornfields and cow pastures. I believed that getting stuck behind a tractor was a vital part of everyone’s commute, fireflies were the backdrop to every single summer night, and seeing the stars was not a luxury, but a simple way of life.
I don’t remember the exact age I was when I started to feel the “smallness “ of a place with roughly one stop light and a hill large enough to accommodate the entire town for fireworks on the fourth of July. I only remember the sudden promise to one day leave that particular highway exit in my rear view mirror. I did do that, but not before realizing that our relationship was far more complicated than I ever thought it was.
The complicated relationship part isn’t necessarily special to those who grew up in small town. I think given the opportunity everyone would change their relationship status with their hometown to “it’s complicated”, but there was something about the stark dichotomy between the love and hate I felt (and still do) for my own little corner of the world that keeps me writing about the one place I can’t quite seem to capture the way I want to.
Because I want people to know that little kids really do sell lemonade from lemonade stands, and there are still places that exist where people don’t lock their doors at night, and deer have the right of way, and on any given night in June outdoor conversation is near impossible due to the deafening sound of crickets in the field. Everything I am stems from all I’ve found and learned here.
Being from a small town is memorized back roads driven too fast without the high beams on. It is rec sports, grandparents knowing each other, and parents that graduated from the same high school thirty years earlier. It is the existence somewhere between those with “get me out of here” angst written on their forehead and those that have already planted roots for the rest of their lives. It is knowing that I didn’t have to be either or. I could love it and still want to leave it—I knew our relationship allowed for that.
It is the women who gossip at the hair salon over lemonade except instead of a hair salon it’s a group message and these women are your classmates. They will hold on to the small town gossip even after you leave. Even after you leave and come back and leave again. Even after you’ve lost your graduation tassel and boxed up all of your old yearbooks.
To be from a small town is the belief that people still care deeply about one another and long for a community based on history and legend and animals that go “moo” – but it is also the wary reminder that even beloved places grow too small and minds in those places can grow even smaller still.
It is the ache I feel when I leave it, the comfort I find in coming home, and the inevitable frustration that stems from the realization that my dreams have grown too big for the town that raised me—skinned knees and all.
At the end of the day, to be from a small town is to know that there is no string of words strong enough to bring it to life. For a writer it is the hardest thing to know, and the last thing to understand.
That’s why whenever I leave home and I find myself at a comfortable distance from the wide-open spaces, my hometown always becomes somewhat of a myth to me. Almost like the afternoons I spent stomping through the grass and drinking flavored sugar water were more of a story told to me before bed than anything else.
I think that’s one of the main truths of being from a small town. Those that grow up and out of stoplight towns know there is a simple truth in the existence of them: the corn grows tall every summer even if you are not there to witness it, and even more importantly: it will be there, just as you remember it, whenever you decide to return.