As much as I hate to write with stereotypes, I’ll be the first to admit that I am one. If you looked up small town, Midwest farmer’s daughter in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of me in a sunflower-dotted sundress and boots tossing hay bales, gigging frogs and tipping cows.
I’m the oldest of three rowdy brothers and a sweet little sister. Our farm was tucked into between two towns and the place we called home was Tipton, KS pop. 300. Even though I spent less than a third of my life there, it provided the foundation for much of who I am now.
My Grandpa Becker, a German immigrant, planted his proud roots out on the farm that my parents moved to as newlyweds and still live today. It’s where my Grandmas taught me how to garden and crochet. Where Mom educated me on sewing, cooking, praying and the nuances of taking care of a husband.
Dad and his brothers schooled me on the land, weather patterns to watch and the value of old-fashioned hard work. I also learned to capture fireflies, chase bunnies with a salt shaker and drive a stick shift without killing it.
My teachers, who would have been top-notch in any college, taught us the basics and beyond. We quoted Salinger and Shakespeare and knew how to work a mean linear equation. We conjugated Latin verbs in between classes, play practice and track meets. We cheered for our state-bound 8-man football team and managed to keep our small school afloat through the generosity of alumni and community members–even in the eighties when the farming industry tanked right along with the economy.
Gambrinus Street was the 600 yard stretch of road that my grandparents lived on, where I went to school, landed my first kiss and got married (not the same dude–phew!) Fancy street signs finally arrived in the early nineties and you can find us on a Google map right here.
My days were spent going to school, church and participating in anything that exercised the mind, spirit and the body. I graduated from high school with 12 other eager souls and never looked back when the Chevy Citation hit the gravel roads that led to college.
And this is where the pavement turns to gravel and the difficult discussion begins.
Detours and surgery excuses aside, I’ve been wrestling with this article since April. Even the basic question of, “Where is your hometown?” dredges up trepidation to answer it the right way. My friend Karen told me, “It’s hard to tell our story without telling someone else’s.”
What if I get it wrong?
As I wrote the first draft, it became evident that the years I spent on the playground provided a perfect representation of the struggle to honor my roots while staying grounded to the imperfect, grateful and wiser person I’ve become.
A person who wouldn’t recognize the me I was thirty years ago.
The playground taught us how to handle bullies, stand up for our friends and get a little braver every day. It’s where alliances were formed while kisses were stolen.
Slippery slides, merry-go-rounds, teeter totters, swing sets and Ferris Wheels.
When it came to the merry-go-round, I preferred the perimeter. Typically, I was one of two people slapping at and pushing the galvanized metal bars while the riders pretended to fly or bravely dipped their heads low enough to let long braids brush the dirt beneath. The ride always ended with squeals of delight as they leapt to the ground from the wheel when it reached top speed.
The few times I actually rode, I got caught between trying to enjoy it, upchucking school lunch and being too terrified to make the terminal leap. Most of the time I had a death grip on the center bar with my eyes closed and prayers whispered under my breath.
That was so me. Timid, shy and publicly puking at inopportune moments. In order to hide my inner chicken, I spent years pushing, challenging, studying and working myself to the bone because I never felt good enough, smart enough or pretty enough to make a difference.
But that’s not my hometown’s fault. Some kiddos are just more sensitive–it comes with the territory of being an old soul in an eight-year old body. I spent too many years taking words, deeds and promises literally. My family’s legacy taught me to be humble first while my inner fighter lent me some resilience until I figured it out.
The teeter totter taught me about the careful balance required for friendship. Even as second graders, there’s a required trust that the other won’t leave you hanging in the air or bail to send you plummeting to the Earth. Trust runs abound in my spirit despite the fact that I landed on my noggin more than a few times after a mischievous friend couldn’t resist.
When I got up early this morning to finish writing, movement forward was more difficult than I could have ever imagined. Like a swing, I soared from high to low with very short, sometimes sobby stops in the middle.
The swing toward the sky took me to over-the-top sentimental memories where I miss my siblings, nieces and nephews who are scattered like fluffy dandelion seeds from West Virginia to Oregon. Even happy memories make me wiggly because I know that there is an inevitable good-bye at the end. Good-byes suck and I’ll run to the trees and hide if needed.
The flight down from the high point lead me to the tortured writer’s cave I live in sometimes. There lay a canyon of hurtful memories, disappointments and questions. Questions around what battles families in our little town may have privately fought while keeping food on the table, staying sane and not giving away secrets.
Then, there is the Ferris wheel.
Every year, our town holds a Church Picnic to raise funds for the school. It’s the first weekend in August and, as a teenager, I used to save my money and plan what to wear for the weeks leading up to it. Boys came from out of town…with cars. It was a big deal that required lots of hairspray and perfume.
Even now, we go back for the celebration once in a while and the landmark Ferris wheel still sits at the juncture between the church, school and the fields to the East. No matter what your age, it’s customary to ride it at least once.
The Ferris wheel is the same year after year. It’s like all one ride to me: we go up and I think of people I knew who are dead and I smell fall in the air, manure, corn dogs, and we drop down into blazing light and blaring music. Every summer I’m a little bigger, but riding the Ferris wheel, I feel the same as ever, I feel eternal….
This is my vision: little kids holding on to their daddy’s hand, and he is me. He looks down on them with love and buys them another corn dog. They are worried they will lose him, they hang on to his leg with one hand, eat with the other. This vision is unbearably wonderful. Then the wheel brings me down to the ground. We get off and other people get on. Thank you, dear God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”
~ Garrison Keillor, Leaving Home
Dad introduced me to Garrison Keillor a few years back and my friend Christy sent me this excerpt a few weeks ago. The poet’s words and a childhood that’s a lifetime away are what inspired me to write this series in the first place.
Hometown memories and experiences naturally come with bittersweet feelings and stomachs loaded with butterflies. We can all find instances of childhood angst and sadness and I’m not dwelling on any of it. I’m too grateful for the life I have now as well as the extended family who wholeheartedly shared their last name with me (thank you Ron, Marie, Suzanne and Big Daddy). I’m so thankful for the place I’ve called home for the last twenty-three years and for my kiddos who now call it theirs.
Thanks to the past and present, old and new hometowns, I can honestly say that I’m a brave and outspoken woman who is more than willing to spin wildly, dip my braids in the dirt and fly free until it’s time to jump.
Written with love to my parents, Bob and Marguerite who provided me with the best childhood a kid could have. Hugs to my siblings Dennis, Sharon, Jerry and Wayne who grew up beside me and became wonderful adults blessed with bountiful gifts, talents and beautiful families.
Enjoy this very special playlist with selections from Kacey Musgraves, Eric Church, Eli Young Band, Deanna Carter and Dierks Bentley.
These songs fill crevices that my words can’t reach.
Up Next: Long Trip Alone
Note: A few more photos are posted on Ps and Qs