I played my role in *[Meet the Fockers]* this weekend and in the process of learning literally and figuratively where our new son-in-law comes from ([Arkadelphia, AR]), found myself getting in touch with the best of the roots established in my own small town ([Geneva, OH]) six and a half decades ago. Both the in-law and the hometown hospitality were wonderfully generous, rich in welcoming us and imbued with loving acceptance of our daughter. The several events were lovely -- and downright fattening: at tea, a groaning table of home-made desserts -- devil’s food cake, orange bundt cake, poppyseed cake, Italian cream cake, lemon cookies, white chocolate chip cookies and, later that day, following massive quantities of barbecued pork and all the fixins’, baked Alaska! And yet, no one was “putting on the dog” for us; they were just being genuinely friendly, because they think the world (as they told me) of our daughter’s husband, whom they had watched grow up.
This is how I grew up, too. Watched -- by family and friends, by all 5,000 of the townspeople. Eventually, I felt they -- and their expectations -- were suffocating me, and I had to leave. Initially this weekend, as we drove through Arkadelphia’s “downtown” area lined with mostly empty storefronts and more social services than merchants, that feeling returned. I felt palpably constricted, as if my labored breathing echoed the all-too-familiar limitations of the environment.
Once I looked beyond the main street, however, to the beautiful hills and rivers and forests, across the two thriving university campuses, even to the prosperous-looking shopping center and a bit further out from town, the Walmart, and, ultimately, to the lives of the people who had -- to a person -- chosen to live here, I relaxed into Arkadelphia’s reassuring -- and reaffirming -- sense of community. And I realized that I have not been able to re-create that profound sense of belonging (sometimes whether I wanted to or not) anywhere else I have lived, no matter how great the horizons and opportunities, no matter what one group or another appeared to have in common, be it church, office, the kids’ school, the neighborhood, or a tennis club. It has never been the same, it has rarely even come close to what a small-town community can be, given all that its people share in common: a history, family ties, faith lives, educational experiences, natural disasters, annual celebrations, births, deaths, weddings, divorces, economic downturns, pride of place, even the sheer convenience -- or the many inconveniences -- of daily living. (Key limes, I was told, for example, rarely appear in any produce section and when they do, they’re dry and worthless. And a grown daughter in Little Rock or Dallas worries that her mother can’t get the best medical care in town, though that’s where her mother wants to be, of course, if she’s got to have surgery.)
Naturally, when everyone has their party hats on, a visitor won’t recognize the tensions, or hear the gossip, can’t perceive the fissures or fault lines. And with most everyone involved in the weekend festivities affiliated with one of the universities and/or retired or thinking about retiring, the competitive edges have been worn down and most grudges overcome. By our age, too, at least in most communities, you know how little any of that who’s-made-it-big-and-who-hasn’t really matters; you understand that by now everyone has experienced disappointments as well as joy, that everyone has buried a parent and that everyone is now faced with unwelcome physical and spiritual vulnerabilities along with the freedom to, say, take a cruise. Or, to put it another way, you’re all in it together -- we all are -- but in a small town, in a “real” community, you know you’re not alone and that your family, friends, and neighbors will be there for you, as you’ll be there for them. As they -- and you -- always have been.
That’s the core value I trust my son-in-law has carried with him from Arkadelphia. And it’s the one I now need to reclaim from my time in Geneva. I can’t Go Home; I don’t really want to. But I do want to recommit to building real community among my friends and family and neighbors now, not only serendipitously as our paths intersect but, with age, more intentionally, as our paths actually start coming together.
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