A Familiar Question


oneinathousandlogoE.O. Schaub

A few nights ago a friend was over with her kids and the inevitable question arose once again: “So, how did you end up… here?”

If you move to the middle of nowhere, prepare to ask, and be asked, this question a lot- by people who live next door, by your friends and family, by the guy in the elevator, (you know, when you go to big, fancy cities where they have elevators.) I don’t imagine folks ask this question, in exactly this way, in say, Cleveland. It’s as if living in a town of a thousand or so inhabitants, where a substantial percentage are self-employed and/or working a multiplicity of jobs to piece together a livelihood is a sort of personal eccentricity along the lines of talking to the contents of your refrigerator or of keeping a monkey for a pet.

I suppose I could skip the rambling story, with its too-many details, and simply say: “Fate.” Or: “Luck.” Or, worse yet: “Destiny!”

Anything, anything but the usual story- blah blah blah, my parents came here on their honeymoon/my family came here for vacations/my future husband and I decided to get married here and whoops! Found The Perfect House in about ten seconds flat when we decided to look- no, not that.

Because that really doesn’t explain anything at all. In fact, it almost starts to feel like an excuse, “well, we just got used to it and then a house fell on us!” It doesn’t address the real question that underlies the spoken one which is, to paraphrase: “The winters here suck-with-a-capital-S, jobs here are permanently on the endangered-species list, and you have to drive a half an hour to buy milk; Ferchrissakes, why why WHY do you live here?”

That’s the question we don’t really answer each other even when we ask it. If I weren’t afraid of appearing awkwardly sentimental I imagine I’d try to describe how I feel at home here in a way I never knew in the big, sprawling suburb where I grew up; as if I was somehow lost for the first twenty-seven years of my life. I’d tell the story of how the only contact I ever had with our next door neighbors growing up was when we held a garage sale and they called the police; or how the kids on my block only got together to pick fights and throw rocks at each other. I might wonder aloud why it is that the closer together people are physically, the more isolated from one another they seem to become.

The big doings in our town the other day was the annual recital for the Dorothy R. Leach School of Dance, known affectionately to everyone as “Miss Dot.” I have two girls, ages four and nine, and donning the bobby pins, blush and tutus to go on stage in front of an audience of adoring, video-camera toting parents is a highlight of their year.

It’s a highlight of mine too. But this year was especially nice. It was a glorious, Spring-really-might-come-someday kind of day with sun beaming down and a light breeze in the air. After the performance a gaggle of pumped up ballerinas and antsy siblings liberated from the dark auditorium fairly flew outdoors and attacked the school jungle gym with an exuberance we parents haven’t seen in months.

The parents stood in clusters and chatted about nothing in particular and laughed a lot. I never recall my parents ever doing any such thing. *After a while a bunch of us tall people got the bright idea to lure the small people back to our various dusty cars with the promise of ice cream cones… and why not? Days like this were made for spontaneous tips to the country store- in this case Dutchie’s- to sit on a bench with a cone of sweet, melting dairy product. You can sit there on that peeling, ancient bench, enjoying the sun and the fact that the only place you have to be rushing off to at that particular moment is to grab another handful of napkins when somebody’s toddler’s cone begins doing its impression of Mount Saint Helens. If you sit there long enough you can say hello to half the town, coming and going, buying milk and soda and wine and dog food and Fritos.

And there were the girls- our beautiful, happy girls- with four pounds of hairspray per kid holding their buns FIRMLY in place, getting drips on their black leotards and complaining and giggling and jostling and earnestly telling store owners Will and Eric all about the performance and how it really was hard, but they did do it and yes it was fun and could they have their chocolate with a pointy cone now, please?

Sure, there are things to miss about big-city/small-city/suburban existence… but they are all things: indian food, museums, a decent cappuccino, a place where I could learn Italian or watch an arty movie. But those are all things I can visit- they’ll all be waiting for me were I ever to go looking for them. On the other hand this day- this ballerina sunshine ice cream day? This is the exclusive province of folks who are lucky enough to live where I live; lucky enough to have the opportunity to appreciate life just as it happens to happen.

So that’s kind of a complicated answer to a deceptively simple question. I know some will never really understand…maybe I don’t either. The next time someone asks me that familiar question, I’m going to try to remember not to launch into the epic saga, complete with bells, whistles and interpretive dance. Perhaps it would be more accurate to just reply: “You know, it’s the funniest thing. I belong here.”

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