Tell the world that I’m coming home! JUST KIDDING! I’ve been living at home for almost three weeks now. As I gear up for life’s next big adventure, I’ve had some time to think about my time at home, and I have realized some things that I’m about to share with all of you. In order to shape the context of “home” for me, I need to give you some data. The county I live in has about 45,000 people in Central New York, but my town itself is about 3,500. At a whopping 95.2%, the area is almost exclusively white. Almost 90% of the population has graduated from high school and 24% have graduated with a bachelor’s or higher. Estimated per capita income is under $30,000 (These numbers came from here and here [what can I say? I’m still in “grad student, CITE IT ALL” mode]).
I give you that background because I think it’s important to note what my hometown looks like before I get into who people are. Farming is a big industry, and if people aren’t farming, they’re often commuting elsewhere for work. There are small businesses in and around the county as well. When you watch movies about small towns like mine, you see a lot of people talking about wanting to get out and never come back. That happens here as well, and though I couldn’t find a number for it, I’m going to use a very professional guesstimate and say that a SHITLOAD of people will talk about leaving and either A) never do it, or B) leave and come back. All in all, there’s nothing wrong with that, but when you’ve been gone for the better part of 6 years, there are some things you notice upon your return.
Your favorite bartender now owns a restaurant and isn’t behind the bar anymore. The kid from high school who you never really talked to because he was painfully shy walks up to you and strikes up a conversation. You run into your first boyfriend and it’s really freaking awkward because you’re both adults now. You quickly realize that the high school hierarchy didn’t really mean shit because everyone grew up in their own way (except for the people who didn’t…more on that in a minute). The girls who were supposed to conquer the world are waiting tables, and the kids who you never thought would get out of town–much less go to college–are pursuing PhDs. Even with all of this, after any extended trip home, you realize that you’ve probably changed the most out of any of these people, and that’s okay.
Not only do friends and acquaintances and awkward ex-boyfriends change, but the people close to you change too. When you’ve left and come home, you see age in people who you never noticed it in before. In some ways, it’s kind of a funny thing. The woman who has always looked like she’s 100 years old, sitting in the front pew of church? Yep, she still looks like she’s 100, but now she’s using a cane. Your dad’s beard had crossed over from being salt-and-pepper to SALT….and pepper (sorry, Dad, I just had to do it). Then you see the big, burly guy who used to cater with your dad, and he and his wife are using walkers, and you’re jaw drops. Not in a rude, gawking way, but with the realization that everyone (and everything) is getting older and changing.
…Except for When They Don’t.
So while all those people I just mentioned have changed, there are some people who you will hope have changed or grown up or whatever you want to call it, and the reality is that they just haven’t. Maybe they left and came back, maybe they never left at all. There are always going to be those people in a small town who think that the sun rises and sets on their back ends. No matter how much you try to get away or play nice when you are home, they’re still going to side-eye you in a bar or talk about you. If you’re lucky, they’ll talk about you right in front of your face, giving you the opportunity to either show them the light or walk away. A word to the wise: walk away. You can’t control anyone but yourself, and those kind of people are probably never going to change. The world needs all kinds of kinds to keep it moving (thanks, Miranda Lambert), so say a little “thank you” that you aren’t one of those people and go on about your life.
Family Time Matters
When you come home to a small town, more often than not, you’re coming home to a big ass family confined to a relatively small area. Make the time to see as many of them as possible. I’m currently living with my grandma, but I go to my parent’s house at least once every other day, I see my aunt a few times a week…make the time. Remember what I said before about people changing and aging? It seems to happen a lot quicker when you’re away from home, so make time while you have it. If that means take a 6 hour, one day road trip to see your family nearby, cancel your plans and do it. At the minimum, it’s great for them to see you, but it’s also more likely than not going to be quite fulfilling for you too.
You’re Going to Get Stressed
When I first got home, I was trying to plan steps 2 through 10 of my life without know what step 1 was going to be. After going out test driving cars with my mom, I came home and cried because while I so wanted to purchase something, I didn’t know about a job or a paycheck was going to look like, and I was really stressed about how I was going to make ends meet. As I’m rounding out my job search now a few weeks later (more to come on this soon, I promise), I realized that I don’t think there’s anyway to avoid that kind of stress. Whether it was the reality that I might not be able to afford a car, or the deeper worry that if I didn’t get a job I wasn’t going to leave here, I’ll never know.
None of this is meant to make my hometown look bad. I love where I’m from, and it will always be home. In talking to a friend last night who’s been gone for 3 years now, we were trying to label the feeling when you come back. It’s not arrogance because I feel like I’m better than people who opted to stay or ended up back here. It’s not pity because I feel bad that they’re here. It’s just that things are different. When you get out of a poor, farming community to go elsewhere, your worldview changes. Cortland County was a great place for the first 18 years of my life, but the next 18 are going to be spent adventuring elsewhere. All in all, you start to feel like you’ve outgrown the place that was home, and while I think that can be a really scary realization, it’s also one that’s full of anticipation and excitement.