The Trouble with Small Towns

I grew up in Northern Ontario. My hometown was Richards Landing in the middle of the Great Lakes on St. Joseph Island. My childhood was gravel roads, a handful of small businesses, a school, a bank, and an outdoor rink. It is still pretty much the same. The town was small enough that as a teenager I could lie on the “highway”, warmed by the heat of the day, and watch the stars without fear of being run over. 

Our lives existed inside this tiny bubble. My Mom worked at my doctor’s office. My Dad taught at my school. We played outside all day without a care. Milestones came and went marked by community events, seasons, and photographs. We were held by the gravity of that town, our lives in orbit around it.  

I was a town kid and walked to my school with my lunchbox and books. Friends from the country were bussed in. My class was made up of the same twenty-five or so kids for most of my schooling. A few children came and went but most families were fixtures of that area. Generations of their families had lived there. That family history was a part of your identity. People just knew who your parents were, what land you owned, how many generations you had lived there, and if you were really “an Islander”. 

If something happened in your life people knew. No...everyone knew. Casseroles were baked for hard times, rides into town were given, children were watched by neighbours, and the community mourned losses or celebrated wins as one. It was a bit like having another member of the family. The town was your nosy cousin who knew what everyone was up to, but also the tender aunt who knew just when to stop by for tea. 

I grew up and then moved away. I couldn’t wait to leave. It completed my teenage rebellion against the constraints of watchful eyes and a need for independence. I had broken the gravity of the small town. I was out in a new world. A few more moves later and I found myself in a city of a million people. I was free, anonymous, and alone. 

I could shop in the grocery store and never run into someone who knew me. I could travel to the Caribbean or have family in from out of town and it wouldn't make the local newspaper. I could get a promotion and no one would be talking about it at the corner coffee shop. I could be laid up sick and no one would stop by with a home cooked meal. It was freedom, wasn’t it?

That is the trouble with small towns. If you have ever been a part of that kind of community it cannot be easily forgotten. It is a family member and a familiar friend. It is a place where you are truly seen and known. In the city, my history does not follow me around. My family is not a part of the context. And my name does not carry shared memories with it. Once you have been in the gravity of a village you never really break free. The small town always pulls you back to her.