Tuesday, December 21, 2010
I think I have small town fever. I grew up in a small town, I currently live in a small town, I love to discover small towns and drive slowly through them imagining what it would be like to live there. I especially love the phrase hometown; it makes me feel like something important happens to people who feel connected to a place known as their hometown. Youngstown, NY is my hometown. It just happens to be a small town that sits right at the mouth of the Niagara River where it meets Lake Ontario. It is the place where I first caught small town fever. As a child I was always impressed that it measured one square mile, or so I’d been told (and still choose to believe that without knowing for sure). The village has one major intersection with a flashing stoplight; a red, yellow, green traffic light would have been too much for our small amount of traffic. Growing up there I enjoyed the freedom of biking or walking most places in my free time, we were bussed to school, but church and many friends’ houses were close enough to walk or bike to, most of the time.
Having that said, I have also had the luxury of moving away from Youngstown as an adult. Now, I am not saying that to show distain for those who are living there now, believe me I have moments of great envy for people I grew up with who are living there still, or again-- I am simply pointing out that I have a unique perspective on my hometown. My parents don’t live there now, there is no one place I can go to and call home, the whole place is my home! I have never been made to see Youngstown as a place where I ended up, it is a place frozen in my memory. I have a treasure trove of memories of my childhood, adolescence and just a smidge of my adulthood as a citizen of this little village. When I was just finishing college, my parents moved away, not far, just about 60 miles east, but far enough to tug at our heartstrings and to freeze Youngstown into our lives as a wonderful place to live, one that we would move back to in a heartbeat if we could. It became that unattainable place; you can never go back to and have it be the same. I do so love visiting and feeling the longing to live there again. I love to reminisce. I love to look around to see what remains the same and what has changed. I love to bore my husband by going out of our way to drive past the two houses I lived in growing up and to point out familiar places, announcing them like he hasn’t heard it a million times before, which he has!! I love to point out the fire hall, the red-brick schoolhouse where the library and my nursery school was housed, the VFW where I took dance lessons, houses my friends grew up in and houses I just love to drive by and check up on; the church, the river, the park; the apartment my parents moved to when they first were married. It is with hungry eyes that I revisit all of these old familiar sights. Maybe it is the very fact that this place was once new to my parents as newlyweds. They left their families and familiar places to start their married lives near where my dad started his career. They were once newcomers to this place, just as I once was here in the town where I am now raising my own family. Their deliberate choice of this place where I spent my growing years is what makes it special for me. They are the ones who created a life for my brother and me there, choosing the houses we lived in the church we attended and who made friends who have become a special family to us and will always be.
Driving past the church, the park, taking a slow drive down the steep bank to look past the sailboat mast docked at the Yacht Club to get a look at the river and wave to Canada on the other side, it is a part of going back for me. I almost feel incomplete if I haven’t taken the 15 minutes it takes to see these dear places and scenic views. I love to recount stories and memories to whoever happens to be in the car with me, whether they have heard it once or several times, it is my way of coming home.
This past weekend, I got to make that trip again. German, Sofia and I made the trip along the southern edge of the lake driving the 60 or so miles through flat farmland on one side and the great lake, only visible at times, on the other. I bit my tongue over and over again wanting to speak memories aloud, saving German from hearing them all over again and also saving some tucked away memories not to be spoken…
Entering Youngstown, as the driver I had to keep darting my glance from the road to the houses and landmarks that we passed. I noticed new houses where there had been empty fields, fresh paint on old houses, improvements made to the front of the post office and new signs Main Street. We stopped at the little grocery mart on our way in and I was surprised at how this once convenient little shop, great for having that forgotten ingredient was now kind of creepy and deserted. But I was pleased to see a new building going up where a burned out house-turned-restaurant had sat vacant for several years. I found myself enjoying showing Sofia some of the places from my childhood, but we didn’t take the time to make the grand tour, because we were heading to THE PARTY!
For many years as children, Andy and I would go with mom and dad to our friends, the Rogers’ big house in Niagara Falls for a fantastic Christmas party, good food, lots of church friends, many hugs, we went enough times to think of it as an every year thing in our memories! As adults, our generation became too busy to be invited or to attend the party on a regular basis, but we tried to go when we could. The Rogers have now retired and moved into a neighborhood just outside of the village proper, giving us a quick version of my memory tour as we made our way there in the growing twilight.
THE PARTY itself speaks of the best things that Youngstown has to offer for me. Upon arriving at the Rogers’ house, it quickly became filled with folks I haven’t seen since the last party we attended, or longer. The majority of the guests knew me as a teenager, a child, or even as an infant! It was certainly like coming home. Most of those friends knew the basics of my life; their kids graduated with me, they watched us kick soccer balls around Fort Niagara State Park, were in Christmas plays and dance recitals with me, they had been guests at my wedding, attended baby showers and kept up with me via my parents in phone conversations and Christmas card letters. I also kept up with their lives in the same way. It was nice to see those faces in person and to receive and to give hugs to people in person, touching base in the form of small talk with mouths full of yummy Buffalo wings and chip dip.
But the best part-- the part that will make this year’s party stand out for me-- was the simple fact that I got the chance to sit and have a heart to heart conversation with women who have known me forever and knew my mom and share an empty spot in their hearts about her loss. It was like exhaling to be able to ask some of these wise women questions about strange, random things I can’t ask mom anymore. I sat and got advice about being a Girl Scout leader from the woman who was my Girl Scout leader. I got a warm, healing hug from my dancing teacher. I looked into the kind eyes of my nursery school teacher and chatted with mom’s closest “girlfriends” the ones she had luncheons with and tapped danced in public rest rooms with, laughing till they cried. Those women, their husbands, sharing them with my husband and daughter, that feeling of coming home are enough to give anyone small town fever. It’s is addictive, it is therapeutic, it is good!
I came away from this weekend hoping that I am also providing Sofia with some sort of that feeling for her own life to be built upon. I want her to know the people that knew me when she was born, who know her now, who will witness her growing years. I want her to know the people who attended my wedding, those that saw me dance in recitals and those that knew my mom. I want her to be able to ask people questions about things I may not be able to answer someday. I want her to know she is loved and has roots that are entwined deep within her soul, just as my memories and this special village called Youngstown are to me.
I am not sure I would feel this strongly about this little town if I had not moved away when I did. I think leaving and looking back has given me the gift of appreciation for this place. I envy those who are my age and are raising their children there, yet I am thrilled that I am creating a new path for my family. I do find myself bewildered when other lifetime residents don’t see the charm, the draw and the memories that I see. I revel in the improvements and the wonderful things that are still happening there, going on after my departure, continuing without my participation. But I leave knowing that Youngstown will forever be my hometown, the place where I grew into the person I am today. I know it isn’t the place so much as the people that make the place, but I happen to believe there is a little magic in this little place and the people that inhabit this town possess that special magic. I am grateful to find that magic when I return for visits and I crave it when visits are too far apart. I look forward to breathing that good air and letting my eyes scan those old homes, familiar sidewalks, the river and the sunsets that are not to be found any other place on earth.
I feel such gratitude and good fortune to know people who live in Youngstown, to know the geography of the place as well as I do and to feel such a connection to a place of huge importance in my life. If you live there, have lived there, or have lived somewhere that makes you feel the same, count yourself as a lucky human being. In a way I feel the need to say thank you to the church goers, the dancing teachers, nursery school teachers, Girl Scout leaders, soccer coaches, neighbors, Sunday school teachers, Vacation Bible school leaders, and residents of this place for creating or discovering the magic of Youngstown.