July 11, 2009
Several times lately we have mentioned small town living versus city style. Maybe that means we should think about it a little more.
As my grandson, Douglas, observed in this column, small towns often get a bad rap. I can think of several reasons for that. Examples of the top of every profession seem to gravitate to cities where more people can make use of their services. The arts flourish where audiences are larger. The sheer number of consumers makes businesses grow, which in turn makes merchandise more varied and abundant. From a larger population pool people can find not only more outstanding individuals, but more companions of like interests, if they can just handle the distances and the numbers. In spite of all the advantages, city living is not always easy. Everything, especially traffic, is more of a hassle. Anonymity can be isolating. Money does not go as far.
There are many reasons some of us cherish living in smaller communities. The bad reputations small towns suffer often center on the complaint that everyone is nosy about the other personâ€™s business. You donâ€™t have much of an opportunity to misbehave, even if you wanted to; someone is always watching. Gossip abounds, whether true or not. And peopleâ€™s ideas are so provincial. Anyone who thinks differently is a pariah.
Well, let me present a defense of smaller towns and little cities. I am well-qualified, because I have lived in them most of my life. I must confess, however, that at times I pulled at my tether, eager to get away and see the world. I might still be discontent if I had not enjoyed the opportunity to travel. Because I have, though, I can always return home and know thereâ€™s no place like it.
This knowledge is especially true as we get older, I think. What once might have been considered gossip becomes more like just knowing personal histories. We begin to feel more like an extended family. We understand each otherâ€™s eccentricities. We recognize many tensions, but we probably know the sources of them. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we become more compassionate. We understand more of why our acquaintances, and especially our friends, do what they do. Memory is a grindstone that wears down many sharp edges.
We may know of an impressive business tycoon, but we can also recall when he was just beginning his climb to success. Perhaps we also know the humble and unstable man who lent the entrepreneur $500 to get started. And we know that the rich man, to his credit, never forgot it.
We may remember the very old, one-eyed man from our childhood and recall that a country doctor had had to remove his eye using the dining room table as an operating table.
We may have gone to school with a very poor girl, who, when she â€œmarried well,â€ became mildly obsessed with beautiful clothes. We donâ€™t fault her for it. We figure she is entitled to enjoy what she never had in her youth. We may even rejoice for her.
We knew the high-school valedictorian who suffered so much from stage fright that she adamantly refused to make the valedictory address, even when the school authorities threatened to take the title away from her. We also knew another woman who earned the highest average in her graduating class, but was refused the honor of valedictorian because she was female.
We tolerate the worrier in our midst, because we know the tragedies that beset her throughout her life. We figure thereâ€™s no way she could avoid her anxieties, because we remember her experiences.
We refuse to be impressed by someoneâ€™s excessive bragging, because we know how inflated his claims are. We are impressed by someone elseâ€™s hard-won success, because we know the poverty he came from. (Obviously, there was more poverty in the Depression of our youth.)
We accept someoneâ€™s eccentricities, because we know all his crazy relatives. We donâ€™t dwell on the past scandals of the current Sunday School teacher, because she now tries so hard to do a creditable service.
Now, lest you think I am describing someone you know, let me hasten to say none of these people is from Columbus. They are, however, from other small towns I have known. Besides, all of us know such examples from our own lives.
A tie that binds
My point is that in smaller communities we do feel more connected. We tend to make allowances for each otherâ€™s flaws, hoping others will do the same for us. Living where we know, or know of, so many of our neighbors creates a colorful collage of stories for us. I think it makes our lives brighter. Just think of how people in cities tend to wear darker clothes! They fade into the crowd.
While we applaud progress and want a growing, thriving Columbus, I think we still yearn to hold on to some of that intimacy of a small town. As one doyenne of local society is reputed to have said: â€œI donâ€™t know what weâ€™re coming to! I used to know everybody, but now I donâ€™t know anyone.â€ She thought a moment and then added, â€œAnd whatâ€™s worse, they donâ€™t know me.â€
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.