I often reminisce about my origins in a rural Michigan farming community. Yes, I had one of those idyllic childhoods, with summers full of tree climbing, sunshine, hay bale forts, swimming in freshwater lakes, and walks in the hardwoods. In the winter, there was the frozen pond behind our house for ice-skating at any hour, snowmobiling, tobogganing, and cross-country skiing on trails populated by bright red cardinals and white-tail deer. Now that I live urban life in the South, I find myself comparing my attitudes and expectations to those around me who grew up in the city or crowded suburbs. The differences sneak up on me in subtle ways…
Alone Time Strengthens Your Soul
My brother, sister and I did not watch much television – I chose instead to spend as much time as possible outside exploring every nook and cranny of the fields and woods around me. Admittedly, the 60s and 70s weren’t much of a digital age and I had no tablet, smartphone, internet or cable tv, with all of their addictive temptations, to lure me back inside. Still, that feeling of unlimited potential on Saturday mornings was a blessing I took for granted.
Living in a small town (pop. 150) meant only a few friends and any child your age was an inevitable, if not enjoyable, buddy. With only one friend living within walking distance of my house, and parents who would have laughed at “arrange a play date,” I walked miles and miles of fields, woods, abandoned orchards, and old railroad beds. I knew where to find wild gooseberries in season and gulped them down. I hunted old railroad spikes and carried them home. I wandered in and out of grazing cattle and gave the horse in the back field a nice pat on the neck. I squish-squashed through muddy streams in the spring when it was just warm enough to go without boots and gloves and tried to catch frogs in the algae-covered pond. I climbed trees, road my bicycle down roller-coaster hills and played with fluffy kittens found hidden in the barn. To this day, the song of a red-winged blackbird can transport me to sights, sounds and smells of the first days of spring in Michigan.
I am sure that most of the time my parents did not know where I was, only that I was in shouting distance if they wanted me home. During those times I was un-self-consciously happy and absorbed in a world inside my head that let me ponder questions that could be simple, wise or weird. I am now an adult who cannot survive without regular time alone and I trace this need to those times of complete comfort with my own company. I know that my own daughter has not experienced this kind of soul freedom and I mourn that loss for her.
Privacy Is Sacred, But Community Means Responsibility
When you grow up in a small community, everyone is your parent. Any kid out doing what they were not supposed to be doing inevitably got caught. And you’d better believe that by the time you got home, your parents were waiting to inflict the chosen punishment for the crime. My parents owned the general store in town and even their vendors got involved with our parenting. My sister was out riding her bike along the highway (not much traffic, but it was moving fast) and one of our delivery men saw her. He turned his truck around and headed directly back to the store to let my parents know that she was out waving at passing cars and not being particularly careful. You never knew who was going to turn you in.
On the other hand, you were settled in a community with little demographic change. Not many were moving away and fewer were moving in. The people around you were there for the long haul — from kindergarten to high school graduation I was growing up with the same people around me. Although everyone knew the basics about everyone else, there was some privacy. For example, during much of my childhood, the only phone connection in town was a party line – allowing anyone on the line to hear the conversations of others. If, when I picked up the phone, I head the muted chatter of human voices I would quietly replace the receiver and check back later to see if the line was free.
Yes, there were temptations to listen. Yes, there was one boy who liked to listen in to every conversation he could, but, once his parents found out what he was doing, that came to end. Yes, people were curious about what was happening in the lives of everyone else, but I believe everyone was aware that relationships were long-term, behavior was communally based and could be communally reprimanded. Still, I experience much more gossip, benign and vicious, in the modern community in which I live now — with members floating in and out and all kinds of modern conveniences to help spread the word— than I ever did then.
Everyone Pitches In
In a rural community, with many jobs to fill and not a lot of people, everyone filled more than one role. My favorite example is that of my school bus driver. This gentle giant of a man was not only the school bus driver (with a route that picked up all the children in our area and then took them to the next county where the critical mass of kids was big enough for a public school), but a county deputy sheriff, and a full-time farmer. Women and men were postmasters/mistresses, county supervisors, firefighters, teachers, real estate agents, lumbermen, farmers, auto mechanics, Avon reps, pastors, etc. while they took on other jobs as well. You can see why parenting became a communal responsibility the adults had their hands full.
We kids had jobs to do as well. My brother and sister worked in our store pumping gas, minding the til, and stocking shelves every week night, weekend and during summers as well. As the youngest (my siblings are still bitter about this) I helped stock shelves and did housekeeping. For a short stint I also worked as a waitress at the local diner in the busy season (October and November — hunting season). Both my parents worked seven days a week, from 7 am until 9 or 11 pm (depending on the season), and rarely left the store. The farmers and lumbermen around us worked long days in all kinds of weather and, in the case of the lumbermen, dangerous conditions. I include the women in this– they worked as hard as the men and took care of the household as well. The kids worked alongside their parents when they were old enough or not in school. Everyone was needed. I thank my parents and community for instilling in me a tough work ethic — it is a lesson well-learned.
Take Time For God’s World
After all of the hard work, there was also play. On hot summer afternoons, a parent or older teen would gather kids and drive them out to one of the nearby local lakes for swimming and hard playtime. Bike riding was universal and so were sports at the school or tennis at the town hall. While minding the store, my sibs and friends would play frisbee or tennis in the street (the one road that ran through town and was nicely paved).
Family gatherings were fairly regular and, for my family in particular, so were trips to a cabin in the woods. I laugh now when I think that we lived in an area of vast farmland and national forest and still always had some sort of cabin or cottage nearby for our escape. My father bought and sold property on the side and we usually took to whatever lodging was available in the woods for a Sunday night cookout of grilled corn on the cob and kielbasa. During one period, my parents owned a beautiful cabin on a private lake and that became the center of a couple of parties — one of which the kids were not invited and gave me the opportunity to witness my father’s one and only hangover that I can remember. We fished, swam, boated and went deer watching. An evening activity that I look back on fondly (and do with my daughter when we’re back up in Michigan) is to compete to spot the first deer of the evening. The winner always won a candy bar (although it was many years until I realized my parents gave everyone a candy bar) and we could tally up to 70 or 80 deer in one short drive. They were so beautiful to me — and a lovely wild alternative to the cattle that grazed the same fields during the day.
The natural world was ours and at our doorstep. I took it for granted then, but when I am out walking with my family now I randomly throw out facts about trees, plants, and birds that I learned from my parents in our day-to-day life. Work hard, play hard and enjoy the beautiful world that God created; another of my lessons from the rural Midwest.