I have lived in rural Vermont almost as long as I can remember. And, sometimes I realize how incredibly rural rural really is. I was shopping in the neighboring town of Randolph the other day – with two drugstores, a supermarket, music hall and hospital it passes for civilization around here. I was sitting in my car, watching passersby. Suddenly, the blurry motion of people coming and going slowed, and for a moment I seemed to really see the world around me – the man in beat-up red pickup truck, his cap sitting high on his head, his callused hands holding tight to the steering wheel; a white-haired old lady with flabby arms and knobby knees, her ivory bra straps showing from underneath her sleeveless buttoned down blue shirt, hobbling across the street; two teenaged girls in tattered shorts walking hand-in-hand down the sidewalk, their long legs reaching all the way to the sky. They pass storefront windows and brick facades, crossing the railroad tracks near the train depot, headed toward the pizza shop. For a minute, the shutter snaps and the image freezes – timeless. This could be 1950, 1980, 2000, now. Not much changes around here.
I felt the same thing tonight when I attended my nephew Christian’s open house at the Randolph Technical Training Center (RTCC). RTCC draws students from a number of surrounding towns and the work of all the various programs, from Criminal Justice to Culinary Arts to Diesel Technology, was on display. Walking the halls of the school was like being on stage for a performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Everyone was there: my best friend’s high school boyfriend, the people my parents went to church with 20 years ago, kids I went to high school with all grown up, there for their own kids’ projects, my former boss at the newspaper, our old eye doctor, even my high school math teacher. Small world? You couldn’t get much smaller. The math teacher still teaches math, the former boss still writes for the paper, the high school friends’ kid could have been mirror images of their parents. Not much had changed.
These ghosts of people past roamed the halls following the passing plates of pulled pork and black beans and guacamole in an effort to sample all the offerings. Some stopped for an occasional hello or if they hadn’t seen each other in a long while, a hug. My former math teacher and I shared such an embrace and spent a good deal of time comparing notes on my fellow classmates. I spied the woman in town who tends the small island of flowers outside my house and thanked her for her efforts. A woman my mother knows stopped to ask me if I still write for Rutland Magazine, informing me that she used to know my editor when she was a little girl. “She practically adopted me as her grandmother,” she said.
It could have been suffocating, this fishbowl atmosphere. Once when I was in high school and wanted to apply to schools besides my state university, my guidance counselor warned that here in Bethel I was a big fish in a little pond, but if I went to the schools on my list I would find myself a little fish. It was meant as a warning – a fear that the world might be too big for me to handle. It was bad advice. I left and found not a bigger pond, but a limitless ocean and I waded right in, flapping my fins in the air. But like salmon swimming upstream, I returned from the ocean to my riverbed and here I found myself once again. It was surreal and I studied my kindred with scientific objectivity – what a strange species we seemed, we small town folk, rooted in a world that seems to hardly nudge forward. What must it be like to live in a world of strangers, where you are just one among the crowd, I thought? Would it be lonelier out there or here, where your script has already been written and you have an ordained role to play?
I pondered this as my former math teacher prattled on and my nephew’s mother interrupted us to give me a hug goodbye. “I’m leaving,” she said, as I turned to look at her. She had grown into quite a woman in the 17 years since she gave birth to my nephew Christian, at that time only a high school student herself and I though how lucky I was to be there with her this evening and to be able to share in Christian’s project. I took pictures to send to my brother Paul, Christian’s father, away at boot camp for the National Guard. I drove back through Randolph’s small downtown and stopped at a local restaurant to share dinner with my Mom. Over a meal of chicken pot pie and salad, I thought about all those people I knew gathered together, roaming the same halls, sharing food and nods of appreciation and I realized sometimes small is good. Sometimes it may seem stifling, but there is something to be said for being cut from the same cloth – for knowing the names not only of your friend’s children, but of their parents and grandparents, too. Sometimes it is so good, that it hurts and I am left to wonder like Emily in the final act of Our Town, whether we ever truly appreciate it.
Here, we may never be able to be lost in the crowd, but in this rural town we always know the street on which we walk, we always find ourselves among friends.