I didn't hardly know anyone from a small town (less than 10,000 people or so) until I came to college. Until I met Mike. Really--I lived in the suburbs of large cities or college towns (Columbia, Missouri is not a small town) and everyone I knew lived there, too. My great-grandmother might count--she was from DeSoto, Missouri--but frankly, I didn't really know her. My grandmother (her daughter-in-law) was from Maries County, Missouri, and then later moved to Marshall. So I suppose she was my only connection to small town life.
But by the time I knew my grandmother (Edith) or great-grandmother (Emma), they lived in St. Louis. My mom is from South County, my dad from Overland. His mother rode the streetcar to high school. His dad grew up within walking distance of where I'm sitting right now. All my high school friends were suburban or city dwellers; every boyfriend, every teacher, every girl I bummed a ride off to get home from my city high school to my suburban home.
When I was assigned to Marguerite Hall, 4th floor, Mike was the freshman adviser. He wrote me a letter (he wrote all the incoming freshmen letters). I had to find Cairo on a map. A speck. In contrast, my roommate was from Detroit.
I got to school, met Mike and his roommate Eric (Memphis), friends Carlos (Crestwood), Vanessa (Palm Beach), Elliot (suburban Chicago). Later I met Katy and Monica, from central Illinois, and Traci from Mexico, Missouri, but overall, we were all from the same place. Just different zip codes.
Mike didn't seem any different for growing up in a small town--he spent most of high school on the road to Belleville to attend CYO events. The first time I visited, just a month after we started dating, wasn't the eye-opening experience I thought it would be. It had to grow on me over time.
Mary ("the other mary") once said that meeting people's parents often explained things about them. Meeting my parents, for instance, or Elliot's. But meeting Mike's parents explained nothing. Going to see where he was from just made him all the more mystifying. She says this while laughing and sometimes giving a dead-on impression of my father-in-law's accent. And while this is all true, I still find myself confronted by the intricacies of small town, rural, life. And how much I just don't get it even after all this time.
Over on one of my other blogs, Most Nigh to Tears and Memory, I used to write about a song a day for a year. It's done now, but I still think about it a lot and how music is associated with times and seasons and people in my life. One of my entries was about the song "Ode to Billie Joe" and how, after all these years, I was finally grasping the difference between small town Mike and big city Bridgett.
....my family is a JD Salinger tragedy, not a Flannery O'Connor moment of tragic grace. Snappy dialogue peppered with profanity, lamentations over whiskey sours, a relationship goes bad and we just smoke more cigarettes in our pedal pushers sitting on the apartment balcony. Get rip-snortin drunk while playing pool and an uncle makes a pass at you. I'm not saying it's better. Just a different set of reference points.
The family I married into is not this way. I have not a single regret--the love story of Mike and Bridgett centers around the fact that his family didn't make me crazy. They are smart faithful people. They would do anything for me and Mike and my girls. But they are a southern family in a southern town. It might snow there but there are subtleties to conversation, relationships, gender issues, education, and religion that I'm only just now starting to scratch the surface and understand.
Imagine Boo Boo Glass walking into Scout Finch's house and having dinner on a Sunday afternoon. Repeat for 11 years and she still doesn't get it.
It can't be that all small towns are Cairo, of course. A small town in northern Michigan would probably have a very different feel. Central California. West Texas. But I think I would fail to "get it" in the very same way.
It will always be a second language for me.