Changing Times

Dealing with life in a real small town

jane sanders illustration

Our town is planning a big hurrah for its 150th birthday.

There was a time when I might have joked – and not altogether fondly – that very little has changed here in one-and-a-half centuries.

When marriage brought me here in 1992, the ways of a small town were alien to me. I was 30, a Birmingham, Ala., native fresh off the plane from Atlanta and, in retrospect, maybe a little too full of my hotshot city girl self (overlooking, for purposes of this discussion, that neither of those cities is exactly uptown Manhattan, either).

Nevertheless, I navigated my new life with a mixture of bemusement, bewilderment and downright disdain.

One of the first culture shocks was discovering that the town virtually shut down after lunchtime every Wednesday.

I now understand this was once a common tradition in small towns throughout the South. One explanation I’ve heard is it gave churchgoers the afternoon to rest and prepare for the Wednesday night service and potluck.

All I know is it took me forever to get used to a place that came to a screeching halt in the middle of the workweek.

There’s no telling how many Wednesday afternoons I drove the several miles into town from our farm only to wind up in front of a bolted shop door, clutching a to-do list while cursing the “closed” sign and my own forgetfulness.

Instead of appreciating the chance for a sensible siesta in a world spinning faster and faster, I resented the stubborn adherence to obsolete traditions. That wasn’t how we did it back in the big city.

To my frustration, the hardware stores closed at noon on Saturdays – the very day, or so I had always assumed, that one might be most inclined to patronize a hardware store. You couldn’t (and still can’t) buy alcohol here on Sundays – or purchase alcohol by the glass any day of the week.

As a result there were no bars – except for scary dives way out in the countryside – and hardly any restaurants that didn’t feature all-you-can-eat buffets or turnip greens. Every few years, someone attempts to
change the town’s laws to allow restaurants to have liquor licenses, but the churches inevitably rise
up and smite it like it some Old Testament serpent.

Socially, I can recall feeling as if I’d time-traveled into some 1950s parallel universe, too. Once, upon being introduced to an older matriarch in the community, I extended my hand. Big faux pas. She ignored it and kept right on talking. The embarrassment searing my cheeks could have set off a smoke detector.

Another time, early on, I was approached about joining one of the several women’s clubs that provide
a large part of the social life here. On the one hand, I was flattered. On the other, I was like, “You can’t be serious.”

Me? In a women’s club? Didn’t those go out with Leave it to Beaver? Surely I could find more meaningful ways to spend my time than gossiping, trading casserole recipes and playing mindless games with what my husband would call a bunch of “hens.”

Not to imply that I was unhappy living in a small town (or more accurately,
on a farm a few miles outside of a small town). To the contrary, in many ways I
am far happier.

Although I left behind dear friends and a great job in Atlanta, these are two of the main things I remember about my last few months there: I was literally scared to close my eyes at night because I no longer felt safe living alone after a couple of unnerving incidents, and I had developed a raging case of temporomandibular joint syndrome. The TMJ specialist blamed it on my grinding my teeth in my sleep. Most mornings I’d wake up with my jaw frozen in place, and I could only chew on one side of my mouth because of the excruciating pain. Only an insurance mix-up prevented me from being fitted with an $800 corrective mouthpiece just before I left town. Within months of moving to the farm, however, my TMJ completely disappeared on its own. It hasn’t bothered me since. That tells me a lot.

So it wasn’t discontent I felt. It was more like a self-imposed apartness, a choosing not to belong, a vague notion of somehow being above it all.

But somewhere along the line, my outlook began to change. Slowly, I began to think of my fellow citizens in terms of “us” instead of “them.” On forays to the nearby north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, for instance, I started noticing that people there were, in general – how shall I put this? – a little more pretentious and a little less sincere
than people here. It annoyed me. And it reminded me of me.

Gradually, I stopped wishing that this backward little town would catch up with the rest of the world and started worrying that it would. I can remember driving through the last real small town left between us and the ever-encroaching Northshore and spotting a convenience store banner that said, “Cappuccino coming soon!” My first thought, to my surprise, was, “Oh, no.”

But looking back, it was having children that really brought me – or maybe shoved me – into the
fold of small-town life. It was almost as if I woke up one day and found myself involved. Involved in our sons’ school. With other families. With our church. With sports.

With the community.

I even joined a club, not because I especially wanted to but because I ran out of excuses to turn down a friend’s repeated invitations. Once a month for at least seven years now, I have met with about 10 other women to eat dinner, gossip, trade casserole recipes and play a mindless game called Pokeno. As a group we’ve been through illness, divorce, births and even a death, but mostly we just eat and play Pokeno. It’s the same old thing every month, and I always look forward to it.

Now I find myself helping with our town’s sesquicentennial extravaganza. It’s shaping up to be a celebration of
small-town life and how far we’ve come in the past 150 years. The irony of my participation is duly noted. I can’t say if things around here have really changed all that much, but I sure have.

 

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