I grew up in a very rural small town. Our house was at the top of the aptly named Hospital Hill. I could give a street address, but no one in town would remember my house based on address. It’s up on the big hill in town. The one with the old hospital at the top. The one where everyone wrecked their car on the curve in a rainstorm. That one.
Everything in my town of about 3,400 people (now down to 2,800) was measured, discussed, referenced with those same sorts of placemakers.
There’s a rule about being a small town kid. You hate it when you’re there. You can’t wait to get out. There’s not enough to do (yes, we cruised the main street, we parked at a Tastee Freez). Everyone knows your business.
You learn so much while you’re there, though. You’re grounded. You work hard. You earn everything. Your scrappy team with the less fancy uniforms makes it to state. You have a fairly healthy relationship with money. And with cooking from scratch. And, with family.
In my later years of college, my dad said to me, “Well, I don’t want you settling here. You don’t need to come back. There will be nothing here for you, no jobs for you.” Not because my tiny town doesn’t employ people — in fact, I’d always had good work as a teen while I was there, often multiple jobs at a time with great bosses.
What dad was really telling me is symptomatic of a much larger problem towns like my little river-nested community face. I went off and got an education. Lots of it, actually. And to return would mean I’d face an employment economy that didn’t rely on my education. I wouldn’t get paid what I was worth. Or, worse, what it would take to pay off the student loans I’d use to earn that education.
I hadn’t just flown the nest….I’d outgrown it.
Then, I married a man in the same boat. It’s important to note, our nests are about three and four hours, respectively, from the city we settled in. We’re a very ambitious day trip away.
And that’s where the struggle comes in. Visiting is wonderful. Friends, family, old dive bars, famous pizza. It’s all there. All of it grounds us too, reminds us of our dual-world perspectives. Suburban kids don’t get this. They’re too close. They enjoyed the city while growing up. Amenities. Attitudes. Culture. We had a unique world, removed from the city and its economics. City mouse, country mouse. We’re both.
We’ve done our parents proud. We own a home, we have a vast friend network, we have great jobs, we’re engaged in the community. We’re living a great life. Isn’t that what people want for their kids?
Returning to the nest, however, is hard. Physically, emotionally hard. It’s not about an uncle who drinks to much or a brother who tells your secrets at family gatherings. I’m not quite living the Holly Hunter experience (though she, too, had to fly across the country and incur that expense to visit her family). It’s the gathering itself. We’re the only ones, or among the first, who have not only flown the nest, but flown so inconveniently far.
The rest of the family can gather easily at their homestead. We, however, face a certain punishment for our city mouse selves. It means two travel days. Or, half a travel day (to go the 90 minutes to one family gathering). We travel farther than anyone else in our family — all sides, all gatherings. Yet, we have the least say in the organization of the event. The hosting, the timing or the nature of it. We get up two or three hours earlier because we’re accommodating early morning timing for someone else’s child’s schedule.
There is a certain, chronic psychic damage to always be in this position and to be the only ones who are. Did we make the right decision, moving into careers only serviced by a highly populated city hours away? Does our family value our choice? Are they proud? Amid the stress of travel, timing and coordinating, it feels like we’ve made a bad decision. Some years, it’s so hard, so stressful, the thrill of the holiday is a wash. The cherished once-a-year family recipes mean less because we’re still exhausted from coordinating our sleeping or dog arrangements to even enjoy them (or have seconds).
And because our family homes, the ones we grew up in, are no longer available, no childhood bedroom and its memorabilia remains for us. We stay in a hotel in part because it’s our new home and in part because maybe we could couch surf, but our dogs can’t. No one else incurs such expense — no one gets a babysitter for the kids, they’re expected at the gathering.
And if we hosted? Would three or four or five carloads of family drive to the city and find hotels like we do? Would they get up two hours early and be okay with planning for traffic and travel times? Would they trust us to preparing the meal, be held hostage to our recipes and rhythm in the kitchen? Because when you travel so far to be with family, cooking for the event is limited to “travels or freezes well” food. Or booze.
Make no mistake, I’m grateful. We have a good time when we gather with our families. We have so many traditions and routines, it’s reassuring to reenact them every holiday. But there’s this sense of unfairness. We left like our parents told us to. We got out. We got big jobs, big lives. We made them proud. But now, because we couldn’t settle nearby for the lives we’re living, we’re punished when it’s time to return. Our work, our salaries, our place is in the city. We can’t hold these jobs in a suburb. In a rural community.
I can’t imagine this is unique to us. Rural America is facing many challenges, this is among them. We talk about the “brain drain” in our state, but I think of my poor hometown and the 63 people in my graduating class. Many migrated to the other parts of northern Illinois and the Chicago suburbs. Others went far across the country — Florida, Montana, Wisconsin, California. Who is left? Is there any specialized work opening up among the 2800 residents of my town for careers like ours?
As a sociologist, I have to ask, how will families change — or will they — as more and more of us good rural kids make our way far and wide, just like we were told? Will we stop coming home because it’s too much? Will home and the people settled in it ever incur the expense and stress we face annually and come to us if we invited them? To kick us out of the nest is one thing, to tell us we’re always welcome back is another. Both are wonderful. How will families deal with it when the scales tip and the majority of kids and nieces and nephews are closer together in a city center?
Or is that what it’s about? Are a few decades of struggling like this just part of the holidays? Is it why stand-up comedians, sitcoms and more get to make endless jokes about the need for a stiff drink and the “uh-oh” of Thanksgiving and Christmas being, as Charles Durning says in Home for the Holidays, just weeks apart, having to do it all over again?
I fear that’s the answer. And, so, to mend the psychic damage of what’s to come in just three short weeks, I’ll over decorate my house. I’ll over cook and bake for just Andy and I so we can have our holidays our way and relax before the frenzy of non-stop travel. I’ll book our hotel rooms from our couch; I’ll freeze some appetizers and I’ll buy two bottles of wine — one to cope, one to contribute.
Feminist, activist, outdoor advocate, animal lover, chocolate shake lover, reader, watcher, talker, actor, speaker, worker, writer, urban adventurer, hustler, involved, passionate, excited, ready.