I grew up in a tiny place in Texas. Eight kids in my graduating class and less than five hundred folks in the whole town. It was life in the middle of nowhere and intensely up-close with those sharing the space. It couldn’t be helped. You get to know people on a deeper level when all you have is each other. You know which house hands out the best treats on Halloween–The Bostons. (I still think about those popcorn balls!) You know which local business is most likely to hire you when you really need school clothes money and haven’t turned sixteen yet. The Cafe. (Who didn’t wash dishes there?) You learn who is most likely to tell on you for sneaking out with your boyfriend. (You know who you are…) In essence, you learn what community means. What it means to wrap your life up with people who aren’t even related to you. When those people die, you make casseroles. When they got married, you buy Corningware and spatulas. (I still have mine from my shower twenty-five years ago.) And, when a baby is born, you gather around to welcome it into the world. A joyous welcome usually reserved for a blood relation. But, in a small town, in the middle of nothing, everyone is a relation. Everyone is family.
For a long time, you live in that little pocket where you know every single person who lives in every single house. You know who has scary dogs and who bought a new boat and who is having an affair. You feel like nothing could ever change. You will always be in your hometown. But, it changes. Of course it changes. Friends begin to scatter. They leave for college. They quit going home for the holidays or the reunions. Their parents pass away. Then, one day, you scatter too. And, before you know it, it’s been years since you’ve seen people from your home town. But, you don’t forget.
You don’t forget what it felt like that first afternoon of Christmas break when the fire trucks would roll down main street throwing out bags of candy and you knew your folks had gifts hidden at home for you. You don’t forget what it felt like to see your classmates in tuxedos and prom dresses for the first time–a brief glimpse of what they would be like as adults that made you sad and excited at the same time. You don’t forget what it felt like to cry over your team’s loss in a basketball game and feel an immeasurable pride as you sang the school song anyway (Out upon the rolling prairie….).
So, because you don’t forget, you always have that feeling of family for anyone from your hometown. If they fly into town for the weekend, you change the guest room sheets and welcome them. If they lose their son or mom or anyone, you drive to the funeral. If their daughter graduates, you send a gift. If they get married, you spend all weekend on the road to be at that wedding. And, if they are in trouble, you help. You do that because that’s what your folks taught you to do. All those casseroles and popcorn balls and Corningware were our parents teaching us that the people God puts in our life are ours. We’re meant to involve ourselves in their triumph and in their heartache. We are their folks. Their safe spot to land. Their hometown.
What a blessing that is. It means that, with these people, we share the memory of what it felt like to come over that last hill from Booker and see our little town spread out in front of us. We share the memory of the day the park downtown was forever dedicated to Jimmy. The memory of how good a bierox tastes and what it sounds like when the crowd erupts into cheers after the melodrama. We share our growing up years with these people. All the afternoons and choices and conversations and church services that turned us into who we are today. Who can they be but family?
And, what better way to honor all that our little town gave us than to keep looking out for each other like family would. To attend those funerals, and send those gift cards and make each other a priority. And, if one of us is in trouble, to push a button and donate what we can. To send a clear message to each other and the world that where we grew up made a difference in our lives. We are small-town kids with a huge family. A family created in a tiny town in the far north-east corner of the Panhandle that will withstand time, and distance and scattering. A town that, when I close my eyes, I can still walk the streets of and that will always be a part of me. Maybe, the best part.