Saturday, February 25, 2012
Last night, I found out that a relative of a relative had passed away -- a woman in her early 70s, slightly older than my mother, who knew her in high school even before her family moved from the farm into town, a few doors away from my grandparents, and her younger sister started dating my uncle.
She wasn't my aunt -- she was my cousins' aunt -- but I thought of her like an aunt and I think I even called her "Auntie" as a child. Her daughter (my cousins' cousin) was just a few months older than I, and a favourite childhood playmate in those sweet summer days we both spent at our neighbouring grandparents' houses.
I have not seen my playmate in almost 30 years (I last remember seeing her mom at my grandmother's funeral, 12+ years ago) -- she is a grandmother now herself (!) -- but I recently reconnected with her through (where else?) Facebook. I sent her a message of condolence last night, & she messaged back her thanks, adding, heartbreakingly, "It is harder than I ever thought it would be."
I am sad for her & her brother, for my aunt & uncle & cousins. Her mom had been ill; she has carried a heavy load for some years.
I'm also, perhaps selfishly, feeling a little sad for me. It's a reminder -- yet another one -- that I am getting older, that a long time has gone by since those idyllic summer days of my childhood. And the older I get, the older everyone else gets, too... and we all know (those of us in this ALI community most of all) that none of us is here forever. My parents were always young, much younger than the parents of my peers -- they were both barely out of their teens when I arrived. They're still relatively young senior citizens -- but they ARE senior citizens -- and while their energy & to-do lists and extensive social networks put dh & me to shame, every time I see them (two or three times a year), I can see that they are getting older and perhaps just a touch slower. I still have all my aunts & uncles, including two uncles now in their 80s -- but the people who were a part of my childhood are slowly starting to fade from the picture.
What's more, many of the little towns where I grew up are dying too. The sign on the road outside the little town in Minnesota where my grandparents lived, where my mother grew up and where I spent so many happy childhood days -- perhaps the closest thing to a hometown I know, in a lifetime full of moving around -- was recently updated to reflect the latest population numbers -- and, for the first time, the figure dipped below 1,000 people. When I was a kid, & for many, many years, the population was listed at almost 1,500; it was more than that when my mother was growing up.
My mother can tell stories of the town's glory days in the 1940s & 50s, about the movie theatre, the shops, the restaurants, the rivalry with the town down the road. Even when I was a kid in the 1970s, there were several cafes, including a drive-in where my grandpa would take us for ice cream cones and slushies; both the movie theatre and drive-in were still in operation; and while people were beginning to go to the big town about an hour down the roead more frequently to shop -- especially since the brand new mall opened -- there were still lots of stores and businesses offering lots of products and services in town.
When my sister & I rode our bikes uptown, we would stop at my one of two grocery stores to say hello to Liz, the friendly cashier who would sometimes come to have coffee with my grandmother, bringing me a stack of old copies of Modern Screen and Photoplay and Rona Barrett's Hollywood to pore over. Then we'd go to Mecca -- i.e., the Ben Franklin five and dime, where we'd load up on penny candy and 45 records; the jewelry store, where we'd admire the charms we could buy for our bracelets; and the drug store, where we'd browse through the magazines and comic books. There were a couple of women's wear stores, and a furniture store, and several hair salons. There were always cars and people -- it was a small town, but it was the county seat, drawing business from the other small towns and farms around it, and it bustled. The pool where my sister & I took swimming lessons and spent long afternoons with our cousins was always packed and the adjacent campground was always full of camper trailers and tents. My grandparents knew everyone, & my mom still knew just about everyone too -- so, as a result, lots of people knew my sister & me too. "The little Canadian girls," they would call us.
I remember taking dh there for the first time in May 1982, when we were still a fairly new couple, for my grandpa's 70th birthday. The stores stayed open late on Thursday night, and as an added attraction, there was a draw at the gazebo in the centre of town right after the stores closed. The high school band would be there to play, the streets were full of parked cars, & everyone would be greeting each other & visiting. They'd draw the name -- and within five minutes, the streets would be deserted; everyone had gone home. Dh (born & raised in Canada's biggest city) thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen.
Every time I go there now -- which is not that often any more, since my grandparents passed away, perhaps once every few summers -- I am saddened to see the lifeblood draining out of the little town I love. Farming is not what it once was. The kids who still grow up on the remaining farms in the area go off to university or community college and never return. The people who are left are mostly greying. My grandfather came from a family of nine children and my grandmother was one of six; when I was growing up, I still had several great aunts & uncles living in the area, as well as some of their children & grandchildren -- my mother's cousins and their families. The only family members living there now are two of my mother's cousins, both well into in their 70s, and both of them spend large chunks of the year elsewhere these days. I know very few people in town these days; even my mother, who once knew everyone in town and half of the rest of the county as well admits she is recognizing fewer and fewer people when she goes there these days.
My grandparents' old house was torn down more than a decade ago. The grocery store where Liz presided at the cash register, a charming old brick building (where my great-aunt lived in an apartment upstairs for some years) with wooden floors and glass display cases, was torn down and replaced by a metal siding monstrosity, and Liz passed away at least 20 years ago. The Ben Franklin closed, stayed empty for years and eventually that building was torn down too. The movie theatre burned down when I was a teenager & the lot remains vacant to this day. Main Street -- once a major north-south highway, until the interstate was built a few miles away -- is now full of shuttered buildings and gaping holes where prosperous businesses once stood. The county fair, the highlight of my childhood summers, didn't even have a midway last year. The swimmning pool, thankfully, is still there, but it is much quieter there now than it was when I practically lived there.
I took the picture above in 2004 when I was there for a family reunion. We had dinner at one of the few restaurants left in town (it's now closed too -- there is one restaurant of any consequence lft in town, and you can buy coffee and pre-fab pizza & subs at the gas station), & then many of us walked down Main Street back to our motel on the other side of town. It was Friday night & eerily quiet. You could have shot a cannon down the road.
As I walked along, taking photos, two songs echoed through my head: Simon & Garfunkel's "My Little Town" and Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown." Taken literally, neither song really applies to "my" little town. All three singers come from New York/New Jersey; the songs talk about factories and textile mills. You might as well be singing about castles or Buddhist temples in this midwestern, rural, agricultural community. Bruce sings about troubles between black & white; this little town was probably about as whitebread as you could get. In the summers, there would be a few Mexican migrant workers around, working in, the sugar beet fields. That was about as exotic as things got thereabouts then, and it's not that much different today.
But the sad, wistful, melancholy tone of both songs is spot on.
"Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town," Simon & Garfunkel sing. When I hear those lines, part of me protests "No!" -- and part of me sadly acknowledges the truth.
Bruce's song is both full of sadness at what his hometown has become, mingled with pride and memory of what it once was.
My little town was, is and always will be a part of me.