The other day, I took my four-year-old daughter on a long-overdue “Mommy Date” to spend her birthday money at Ben Franklin. (Long-overdue because her birthday was in July, which is what happens when you’re the second child of four). After our shopping trip, we stopped by Otter Creek Bakery for cookies. As I stood at the counter to order, my daughter sat at a table playing happily with the unicorn figurine she’d just bought.
“Mommy,” she called to me across the VERY crowded bakery, “guess what? This unicorn’s a girl!”
“Really? That’s great!” I answered vaguely. The two older ladies at the next table beamed over at her.
“YES!” she yelled back, “I could tell because she doesn’t have a [insert term for male anatomy here]!”
The entire bakery went silent. Then the guffaws started and I thought – not for the first time – That’s it; now we have to move.
There have been so many embarrassing public episodes involving my children since we moved to this small town in Vermont. Our first summer here, my three-year-old very publicly forgot her potty training while dancing atop a picnic table with friends at the A&W. Last month, three of my daughters had simultaneous meltdowns in the children’s room of Ilsley Public Library and Anna, the unfailingly kind librarian, had to leave the circulation desk and help me drag everyone out the door. And there have been many similar situations in between.
My mother grew up in the small town of Winthrop, Maine, and when she’d leave the house her father would say, “Remember, you’re a Meader [her maiden name].” There’s both a promise and a threat in that statement – the promise and the threat of what it’s like to live in a small town. My grandfather was really saying: When you leave this house, you are a representative of our family. And everybody out there knows your name.
Small town life heightens your awareness that your behavior matters. Three years is not a long time to have lived somewhere, but already it’s almost impossible for me to run an errand without crossing paths with at least one friend or acquaintance. There’s a great sense of connectedness in small town living; you can’t compartmentalize your life. It’s likely that the check-out clerk’s children are your children’s classmates, or that your contractor also attends your church, or that you’ll run into your ob/gyn at the library (awkward!).
So I like to think that small town life tends to inspire kindness. People in small towns are just like people everywhere, of course, with all the quirks and flaws that go along with being human. But in small towns, it’s harder to have the illusion that how you treat others won’t attach itself to you like a tick; if you’re nasty to someone, you’re likely to run into them again. I find that the best policy is to treat everyone like they’re going to be performing your root canal next week.
There’s a potential dark side to this small town connectedness, especially where young children are concerned: if you’re not at your best (or you’re just not completely socialized), it’s likely that your shame will be witnessed by an audience of people whom you know, and whom you’ll have to see again. This can lead to paranoia if you’re someone who likes to present a bright and shiny front. One of my worse parenting moments came when I hissed at a daughter, post-tantrum, “You embarrassed yourself and me in front of EVERYBODY WE KNOW!”
That was over a year ago; since then, I’ve come to see that if you’re going to have a tantrum, EVERYBODY WE KNOW is the best possible audience.
There’s freedom in the fact that when my children (or I) misbehave, it’s in front of a town where we’re known. There’s a grace that comes with familiarity; when you see people regularly, in a variety of situations, you understand that today’s behavior isn’t the whole picture.
On the other hand, my daughter may always be known around town as “the one who discussed unicorn anatomy at the bakery.”
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.