It would be so nice to be from a small town. Everyone would know my name and I would know theirs. We would always greet each other with a friendly hello on the street or a wave from the driver’s seat. The townspeople would rally around a family in pain or join in the collective joy for someone’s happy moment. Within the confines of this bucolic small town, everyone would care about her neighbor. Kids would walk to school together. People would have to spend an extra half hour in the local restaurant because they were chatting with their fellow townspeople on the way out. We would all gather in the school gym to cheer the hometown team to victory. And when that hard-fought victory arrived, we would have a such a communal sense of pride that it would seep into the water system and we would drink it up as we counted the days until the next season began. Life would be great. High school seniors would leave for college but eventually come back to raise their families in the loving arms of this town. Our town.
Here’s the thing, though. I did grow up in such a town. My hometown of Livingston Manor, New York, had a population of around 1,200 people while I was growing up. A quick Google search tells me that the population is currently 1,221. Obviously urban sprawl has not yet hit the western end of the Catskills. My hometown is actually quite lovely. A small downtown area sits acrosss from a river that meanders by the showplace of the town: our beautiful school.
This Georgian colonial-style structure is known as one of the most beautiful education structures in the state of New York. I spent 13 years in this K-12 building and I am here to tell you: small-town life in books and movies is not what it is envisioned by the people who write those things.
I never felt like I fit in. Not ever. I guess this is because I didn’t fit in. This is not the town’s fault. I think it may have been my mom’s fault. My parents were German immigrants who came to America in 1954 and because my mother was insecure about both her strong accent and her grasp of the English language, she shied away from the other humans. She did not want to be heard, or seen, or to interact with anyone. This uber keeping-to-one’s-self rubbed off on me. Her paranoia about not being accepted by other people became a huge part of my personality. She modeled this behavior exceedingly well and I was her eager student. Lucky me.
But I also never saw any of the other hallmarks of small town life. The rallying around each other, the sense of community, the ballgames where every house in town in empty because they are all at the big game. And I don’t have much evidence of people wanting to go back and reminisce, either. There were 44 students in my graduating class. I don’t know where many of them are now; all I can tell you is that there were only four of us at our last high school reunion. Four. I’m not sure if they weren’t found, didn’t want to be found because they are in witness protection, or just didn’t care enough to show up.
Yet, when a good friend and his wife traveled to Livingston Manor for my father’s funeral, they arrived early and decided to explore one of the local shops in my little hometown. When the proprietor asked where they were from (obviously taking note of their nice clothing; not quite fly-fishing attire) and they said, “New Jersey,” she immediately asked if they were in town for Hans’s funeral. My dad’s funeral. She knew my dad and proceeded to tell them about all of the quality carpentry work he was known for. Homes he had built. Major repairs he had done. People liked my dad. People respected him. In this little town, my dad’s name was held in reverence. This made me incredibly happy and filled with pride, but it also one of the first times I realized that my family, especially my dad, had made an impact on this small corner of Sullivan County, New York.
Now, having grown up in a small town is a source of pride for me. I like the fact that I’m not from a place where I remained nameless. I like that I didn’t graduate in a class of 600. I take pride in telling people that my town didn’t even have a stoplight until I was a teenager. I am proud that I walked into such a beautiful building for 13 years. Mostly, though, I am happy that even though I never felt like I fit in, my dad certainly did, and he left behind a legacy of well-made houses built of sweat and sawdust and integrity. I guess my small town wasn’t the idealized place I wish it would have been, but it provided a safe place for two newly minted Americans to raise their children and live out the wonderful mirage we call the America dream. And it’s the kind of place I am quite content to call my hometown.