When I was younger, I despised the idea of being a small town girl. For the first thirteen years of my life, we lived in a large city on the east coast which I loved. When we relocated to the suburb of a smaller city in the midwest, I thought I had started a prison sentence, and I spent the rest of my teen years planning an escape back to urban life. But what I didn’t realize – and would have forcefully denied at the time – was that I was trying to escape to the wrong place.
Our summer vacations were almost always spent in our other home near South Haven, Michigan. My grandfather was born there. My grandmother’s family had built a summer house there, and, while the dunes had swallowed that house years before I was born, we still made the sojourn to the then-barren piece of land by the lake. We camped or stayed at our favorite motel in South Haven until my grandmother found creative ways to finance the building of a new house (make sure that funny-looking painting behind the bar actually is junk before you donate it to Goodwill).
Family was the ultimate focus of those visits – our entire extended family congregated there each year – but the ambience was small town. My grandmother made every evening meal a production that began with a morning visit to the lady selling corn by the road, the proceeds kept in an honor box on a card table. Each of us has memories of following her to the butcher, the bakery, and the blueberry farm. And it was only two days ago, during our annual day trip to Chicago, that I realized this annual immersion in rural life had planted a seed.
We were all excited about the museum excursion the other day. The parking there is good, and we always find people in Chicago to be very friendly. But it is a city with all of the attendant traffic and congestion and crowds. Most of all, there is constant noise.
But we went and picked our must-see exhibits and then spent the day shepherding the kids from spot to spot. When we got in the car to start the two-hour ride home at the end of the day, the comparative silence of the now-empty parking garage was a welcome change. But it was not to last. As soon as we pulled out, we were treated to the cacophony that is Chicago traffic just after rush hour. This was to be the soundtrack much of our return trip, and by the time the landscape had changed from city to industrial tracts to suburbs and finally to farms again, we did not feel enriched. We felt drained.
We got off the interstate and rolled the windows all the way down. My husband drove slowly, and we drank in the quiet and the familiar landmarks. I felt I was seeing some of them for the first time because the mobile homes and the scraggly dune-grass and trees looked beautiful. As we turned in the driveway, I realized it was because they reminded me of the Vermont home where we’ve set down roots and that this is the place those roots first began to grow.