the only one

Tucked away in the corner of a little Italian place that, after the sun went down, was dim like a mine shaft and just as cold, we sat discussing the living we’ve done over the last 30 years.

The two of us, middle-aged women now —whose bodies have performed a miracle or two since we last saw each other — grew up in the same small town. As kids in the 70s, we passed each other often in the hallways of our town’s worn-out elementary school and later, we rode the same bus down the back highway to our worn-out high school. The thing about people your age from the town you grew up in is that it doesn’t matter how well you knew them. You’re connected like a tangle of roots in a pot that’s too small. Your histories will always touch. In a bigger place, we can choose our connections. In a small town, they’re chosen for us.

We reminisced awhile about people we knew before the conversation turned to our families and growing up in that little town which was famous only for complaints about its complicated five-corner intersection. Over the years, it’s become clearer to me that when you grow up in a small town, in some ways, you live in a much larger world. I don’t know if it’s through osmosis or hearing the gossip at Joe’s on Saturday mornings when your dad takes you for Texas toast – or the stories my parents told me once I got older – but I think small town kids know more about the variety and uncompromising divergences of the men and women around them. There are no secrets in a small town. And no strangers either.

Even as kids, I knew about her family, and she knew about mine. Of course she knew that I grew up in a bungalow in the Rudy subdivision, bounded by cornfields, the 14th line, and a shortcut through the dead end to the park. And I knew that she lived in a big, old red brick house on a street way across town. But we learned at dinner that we each knew more, as kids, than we wanted to admit about fragile mothers. About fathers who were rarely home. About booze and indiscretions and a little of how those mothers got so fragile. About the quiet struggles of older brothers and sisters. And how, when you made your proverbial bed – your life, really – you had to lie in it, no matter how uncomfortable it was. And if you did, it meant you were strong.

At a time when the families in our town were defined by a street address, a phone number, and the rumour mill, the two of us kids were likely off playing in the park with our friends or biking down dirt roads with a pack of sandwiches and a gaggle of neighbourhood kids, feeling like we’d run off with everything in that town that was worth having. But still, underneath the innocence, the tanned faces, ball uniforms and cutoff shorts, we already knew so many heavy things.

We both knew as kids that the thing about families is that there is always something that no one wants to talk about. Something that everyone wants to look away from. A question that no one wants to answer for you. These things are like stray threads pulling loose in a sweater. You can pull it all you want but, in the end, all you have is a pile of twisted yarn. So, you learn to look away too. It’s an early lesson for many of us that you don’t look too closely at what’s hard or what hurts.

Feeling too much is covered off in a sort of family contract. And the contract to look away, or to try to forget, is as important as any promise to remember. Families agree on their history by mutual consent. Or, silent consent. Many of us learn that that’s how life goes on best – protected by the silence that numbs out shame.

I don’t know what I knew about shame as a kid. But I think both of us at dinner knew quite a bit, when we were young, about moms and dads and brothers and sisters who struggled with demons and mistakes and other difficulties unimaginable to the youngest kid in the family. We carried our own inner sorrow and confusion about that. We didn’t know how things happened or why. But we knew about mothers who sacrificed. Who carried hidden sadnesses and silent sorrows on their backs. Who cried silently when they vacuumed the house on Saturday afternoon because they knew closing time at the hotel was still nine hours away and they’d eat dinner alone. We knew about steel backbones already then too. Mostly those we witnessed in our mothers, and not yet the ones we would inherit for ourselves.

We knew what it was like to be from a family that struggled quietly – together and individually – and how those struggles sometimes kept the town’s gossip mill working overtime like a hamster wheel. And we knew these things without knowing that we knew them. They were born and bred in us; they were part of our smalltown DNA. I wish we hadn’t had to know any of those things. And I’m glad I knew all of them, if that makes any sense.

We learned early that folks are generally comfortable with the small lies they tell each other. And with the small lies they tell themselves. We knew that everyone – rich or poor, liked or disliked – had some kind of a role and a place in our community, and some of them would do anything to maintain it. We could never have articulated then what we somehow knew to be true about how everyone arrived at whatever point they were at in life through the storms of family dysfunction. In glimpses at lunch, or at a sleepover, I sometimes saw pain and trouble around the dinner tables of my friends, too. Parents who ate or drank or shopped or smoked or yelled their pain away. No family was immune it seemed. Some just tucked it away better than others.

By this time, we’d talked the evening away. We settled the bill and, on the way out the door, I was thinking about how when you love something as a kid, you don’t ever stop loving it. At least, you don’t want to stop loving it.

I feel that way about swings. Playing marbles. The way shooting off a round of caps smells. Wading in creeks full of clams and leeches on a summer Saturday. Skating in the woods behind the lagoon in the winter. Twilight games of hide and seek and kick the can. The Rudy’s front yard willow tree. Their backyard train caboose. Jumping hopscotch along in the dust, barefoot, with a mouthful of Thrills. Buying Pez and Bazooka gum from Stedman’s. Learning to smoke cigarettes in the rafters of the horse barns in the park. And oh, the library. With its tall green wooden doors and infinite other worlds hidden within. As long as you could abide by Isabel Schwartzentruber’s rules for an afternoon.

Parents are no different. We want to love them too. They can be glorious or terrible, or benevolent or filled with anger, but we’re hard-wired to love them either way. (I’m convinced that this might be the greatest power in the universe). We tend to either idealize them or blame them. We see them through a polarized black and white lens, leaving little room for the truth of the complexity of their lives – and no consideration for the fact that our growing up was their growing up too.

But from our small town vantage point, we had the unimagined, cumulative benefit of seeing the flaws in people up close, our parents included. It let us see that so many of the people we loved most were doing the best they could with the baggage and family histories they each carried. And, though the town was small, there was room enough for love and empathy and forgiveness to find their way to two little girls who would keep them for sometime decades later, when they understood what they were for.

As we parted ways in the parking lot, I turned back to my dinner companion, my scarf threatening to unravel in the wind. “You know, we weren’t the only ones. In that town, I mean. We weren’t the only ones to see the things we did back then,” I said. “It’s just that every family kept their own secrets.”

“I know,” she said. “I really thought I was the only one though.”

“I knew I wasn’t,” I said, remembering that night when I was 9 or 10 and the girl from a few doors up hugged me tight during a sleepover after we woke up at closing time to my parents fighting in the next room. Don’t be scared, she whispered. My parents do this all the time. It doesn’t mean anything. And in the end, it didn’t, I guess. Time was a friend and my parents eventually settled into a kind of peace together. They stayed married until death stepped in. Hers did not.

I think it’s true that sometimes you just feel too big for a place. Like you and your hopes and dreams and memories don’t really fit there anymore. And then, 30 years later, you get out in the world with a friend for good Italian food on a Wednesday night and realize how small you are.

And that you were not the only one.

5 thoughts on “the only one”

  1. My grandparents were farmers born in the early part of the 20th century. They lived through the depression and prohibition and came out the other side extremely religious teetotallers. It can go either way I think. They were very good and kind people. Religion gave their lives community and a lot of stability as they experienced the loss of two of their children. Like many of their generation they also had a strong “make your bed and lie in it” mentality, particularly as it related to “till death do us part.” Every time my Aunt would come home battered and bruised by her abusive husband, they would send her back. It was only after he attacked her with a butcher knife and almost killed her that they let her come “home”. I remember as a child asking why my Aunt was living back with her parents and who was taking care of Uncle Doug? The answers never came. No one talked about it. That’s just how it was back then. My mother spent her whole married life lying in the bed she supposedly made for herself. Who was it who spoke of people living lives of “quiet desperation”? I guess that’s why I just never really make my bed.

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