The summer before we married, my fiancé had a sample, an adventure if you will, of what it’s like to live in a small town – emphasis on small. And, it was more than a sampling. It was in fact, the biggest day of summer for the town’s few hundred residents. There wasn’t a celebratory name, banners declaring it a “must come to event”, or any other signifiers of it’s importance. It was simply a word-of-mouth kind of knowing that everyone would be there.
Even though he was a city boy who grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, he loved trips to his grandparent’s rural home in southern Minnesota. It was those boyhood memories, treasured times in the outdoors with his grandpa, that first ignited his excitement for country life. He loved everything about it, his grandpa’s quiet and gentle ways, especially with him. So, when we got engaged, he looked forward to visiting the small town in the north woods of Wisconsin, where I grew up.
Tourists came summer and winter alike to enjoy the backwoods life of mom and pop hotels, tiny restaurants, acres of untouched timber and pristine rivers. My first job, like many of my peers, was in the tourist industry. At thirteen, I began cleaning resort cabins and serving up burgers, fries, and ice cream to “Berry Pickers.” These were the city folk who spent their vacations and money in our town. We could spot them a mile away, trying to fit in and look like us. But they never did. Most of them did not know how to pick berries, either.
My soon-to-be hubby’s adult experience in a small town was a bit different from his childhood memories. It began with the usual weekly Saturday morning house cleaning chores, except we started an hour earlier than usual. Then we went “up town” for groceries just like every other Saturday when I was growing up.
Keep in mind, this ritual, when I was a kid, even without the added activities, was exciting all by itself. Following my Mom around the grocery store was something I looked forward to each weekend. No electronic anything, just down time and pestering, depending on which of us waited in the car.
Upon arriving in town on this special Saturday, it was apparent there was more to do than the usual shopping. The smell of bratwurst gently passing through the air led us right to a stand set up outside the local grocery store. There was pop too! A dollar, maybe even fifty cents for both. Everyone was there. The whole town gathered in the store’s steamy hot asphalt parking lot to eat a brat and drink some pop. There were no barriers between the parking lot and the road running right through town but if you were lucky and came early you could secure a seat on one of those concrete stops that prevented cars from driving up onto the sidewalk next to the store. We didn’t get there early.
Just after we got our food my fiancé looked around noticing – well, he noticed nothing. The look on his face clearly indicated he did not get why we would do this. His forehead wrinkled ever so faintly as he lifted the mustard covered brat toward his opening mouth. After the first swallow, and looking around once more, he said, “Is this it?”
“Well, this IS a big deal but there’s more.” I replied.
He found a spot on the blacktop with us and we ate our brats next to the people who knew, without anyone saying a word, that HE was the Berry Picker who had asked me to marry him when I was away at college. He had no idea everyone was noticing him, noticing us.
Then it was time for the “more” I had promised. My Mom went into the grocery store, just like when I was a kid, and instead of following behind her or waiting in the car, we proceeded to the single street in town which was right along the other side of the grocery store.
The original store, dating back to 1927, was across the street. In it’s time, this country store sold everything from fresh meat to dry goods and all manner of store bought items. Now, it was a small assortment of clothing and a few gift items, much like when I was growing up. Back then, you could call up the elder Mrs. Owner on a Sunday morning if you happened to snag your pantyhose and she would come down from their upstairs residence, open the store, and let you buy a new pair of hose.
After we looked over the sale items on the table in front of the store we crossed over to the second of two blocks representing the town’s “main street.” First, we passed the bank where my parent’s borrowed money for the house I grew up in. Then we strolled in front of the elementary school where my Dad and I had the same first grade teacher, Mrs. Fink.
A few of the buildings had changed hands since my younger years but basically everything was the same. Across from the school was the post office. Next to that the drug store. They too had a small table with sale items, which we also checked out.
That was it. We were done for the day.
Home we went, not more than ninety minutes from arriving to get our brats and pop. We put the groceries away and took naps. Right after supper, my fiancé asked, “So where’s the place in town that rents videos?”
I looked at him, thinking, really? Then I answered,
“Well, the only place that MIGHT have them would be that place on the left, just as you come up over the big hill when you get to town. Across from the Corner Bar.
I continued, “But I’m positive they don’t have videos.”
He looked at me like I was from another planet.
He had no clue about the way we lived here. He couldn’t fathom the economic concept of waiting to access something new because there just were not enough people to support a business upgrade like video rentals. We were happy doing the dishes by hand, fixing each other’s broken stuff, and waiting for . . . Everything.
I knew he was bored out of his mind. So, I did the only thing I could.
“If you go the back way out to Hwy. 63, there’s a little gas station. They have frozen pizzas and and vanilla ice cream. Maybe chocolate too. They close at 6:30.”
The words were barely out of my mouth and he was up with his keys.
My future husband didn’t understand how important it was to sit, once a year, and eat with the people who always waved at you when passing on the road. The people who loaned you money even though it might take a good long while to get paid back. He hadn’t experienced setting aside the nasty parts of humanity when you live in a small town because one day you might need something more important than a pair of hose on a Sunday morning.
You might need them to go to town on their snowmobile when the temperature drops to 60 below zero. It could be your tractor that needs repairing in the middle of hay season. One of those folks might be giving you rides to work for a week because your paycheck isn’t going to last the whole month. And, when the graveyard keeper’s son dies, it might be you who needs to step up with your shovel to ease that burden.
It was years before I fully realized the value of living in a small town in the middle of the woods. To me, it was just the way things were. It was the reason city folks came to our town, spending their money, trying to capture a little bit of what many of us took for granted because we were just making ends meet, loving our families, and helping our neighbors the best we could.
A few years after we married my husband and I moved half way between a big city and the wilderness of Minnesota. We raised our children with the gentleness of his grandpa and the availability of all the big city had to offer. I learned to lock my front door and he learned to appreciate the benefits of boredom. We still like a good frozen pizza . . . and a movie. As it turned out, merging the lives of a country girl and a city boy turned out to be a big adventure for both of us.