By Jennifer Richardson
I remember complaining to my mom during a conversation about small town living while I was a high school student. Most of the discussion centered on my frustration with feeling like no one could make a move that others did not observe and report–and embellish if the details were not interesting enough.
It was just a part of small town life she assured me. There are really wonderful things about small town living as well she said. I mentioned there was nothing much to do, and we had to drive to have any fun. After a few more ideas were exchanged I left the discussion unconvinced. I couldn’t wait to shake the small town dust off my feet and run straight into the future.
A few years later I went off to college and received my first lesson in small town appreciation. I took a music class and it was challenging. I had a flashback to the woman who always played the piano for our choral concerts, and how she always listened so attentively to me. Ruth knew I could not read music but I loved to sing. On her own time, she plunked out melodies on her piano keys over and over to get me ready for music contest. Her eyes lit up and then crinkled and disappeared when she smiled; she had that rare quality that made me feel like every word I uttered was important. She was one of many people from my small town who took time out of their own lives to help. I was one of the local kids, so I was one of her own.
Years later when my own children were babies I moved back to my hometown. My brother and his family lived there at the time as well. We traded babysitting. On Monday night we took their little ones, and on Tuesday nights they took ours. Neither of us had to pay for childcare and we each enjoyed an evening out. I now understand that relationships like that are rare outside of the security of those we grew up with.
A few years after that my family and I had moved three hours downstate so my husband could attend graduate school. We were living on a shoestring budget and we were dismayed to find I would need to have surgery. Our former pastor from our small hometown heard about our challenges and made multiple trips to our home to deliver loads of groceries. We were humbled and grateful to understand how much those hometown connections meant.
In 2015 I attended a class reunion; I couldn’t wait to see how people had changed. Twenty five years had slipped through the hourglass since we threw our caps into the air and headed out into the world as the TCHS class of 1988, confident we knew everything we needed to know. As we reconvened, I could see bits and pieces of the small town people I knew, and I saw the best in all of them. The hugs, the connections, the touching base and catching up, in just a few hours it pulled their lives right into mine. Old memories and new ones were happy companions. We had stepped past the petty disagreements, the differences, and the many directions our lives have taken, into that beautiful place where it is simply enough that we share a collective history. We enjoyed each other and were invested in each other’s lives simply because of our upbringing on the same little patch of earth in Tuscola, Illinois.
I was uplifted by the company and proud to have been a part of a childhood that included a small town experience and the strong bond that forms over time while you don’t even notice.
The wonderful things about a small town life are now what I focus on when I drive into town. Fundraisers to help those in desperate need, coming together in joy or tragedy, committed civic organizations, even dropping off a meal when it is needed, these are the predictable movements of a connected community. Small towns gather together to offer comfort, support, and well wishes for the happiness of any of their own. Classmates and friends battle illnesses and challenges together, strengthened by the bonds that form when everyone knows everyone. We have a common identity, a close association and an understanding of our history that is unique to us, which makes us a family.
It took some time to understand, but the older I become the more I appreciate what my mom was trying to say. I am sure that big cities have their great qualities, but small towns are amazing blessings. We all listen, love, give, and help—knowing that someday it may be our turn to be in need. Yes, we know each other’s business, and ultimately we take care of each other’s business. Each time I think of Tuscola I remember, small towns make big hearts, and I realize the life-changing gratitude in learning to love coming home.