As I get older, and tally all the things that we will never see or experience again – E tickets, Crispy Critters, meeting people at airport gates – I come to appreciate the things that do remain all the more. One of those is the place where I grew up.
I imagine that this is what people who live in small towns get to experience – a consistency, a thread of connection that links families and friends through generations. I know there are drawbacks to that, just as there are drawbacks to any kind of upbringing – urban, suburban, or rural.
But in the 21st century, movement is so much easier – and prevalent – than it was in my parents’ day. When they left the east coast to move to California after World War II, it must have seemed to their families like they were climbing into a Conestoga wagon and heading west. Long distance calls really were long distance calls, and priced like them. There were no commercial jets. The time difference was just three hours, the same as it is today, but the distance difference must have seemed as vast as my Indian neighbors feel being away from Mumbai.
And today, opportunities are everywhere. As I wrote in Life In The Valley Gets Weird Again, I’ve been dealing with sources all over the world. But I feel like I’ve won the geographic lottery. I got to grow up in Silicon Valley, a region that is such a massive economic engine that many of us never had to leave to find jobs. We get to have the small town feeling in the big, bad suburbs. I sympathize with those who grew up in actual small towns that have no economic future – those that have had to leave to find opportunity, that have to abandon so many familiar things. One of my college friends noted at dinner the other night that the rural Colorado town where he grew up had 1,100 residents when he lived there; now its population is down to 750.
This small town feeling was no more marked than it was last Friday, when I went to a memorial service in downtown Palo Alto. I parked my car across the street from where my father’s office had been in the 1950s and early 1960s. Though downtown has changed considerably, the building – erected in 1927 – has barely changed. The memorial service celebrated the life of the mother of my elementary school classmate Robin.
Robin’s mother had a good life. She lived in the same house for the last 55-plus years, the same length of time my classmate and I have been around. Robin’s mother was always happy to see me when I came over or when we ran into each other on the street. She always thought of me by my elementary school diminutive (which I hate), but she always endeavored to call me Howard. She was sweet that way.
The service was held in the same church in which Robin had gotten married. One of our kindergarten classmates sang. One of our junior high school classmates, a professional musician, played “When The Saints Go Marching In” on the trumpet. One of my junior high school teachers and other classmates were there.
I am still getting used to the idea of having known people for fifty years – having been part of their birthdays, their marriages, their divorces, their celebrations with their kids, their sadnesses with their parents. The time past is so long, but some of the memories are so vivid. We share so much. We have a bond of time and place that is unshakeable. We have a bond of memories that no one else outside our circle has.
These days, of course we spend more time trying to help each other remember the names of teachers and siblings and other travelers along the way – as we did at the reception after the service – but even that involves giggles and the joy of sharing and remembering.
I felt so grateful to live in a small town in a big suburb, I almost forgot to be sad. I think Robin’s mother would have wanted it that way.