By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
What makes a place home? Easy answer: Home is where the heart is, presumably with one’s family. Another possibility: Home is where you spend your childhood. But don’t settle on a definition of home too quickly, for after childhood comes the bit that involves growing up, thinking for oneself, making peace with the past and setting a course for the future.
Home, considered carefully, is a slippery concept. It’s even trickier when you grow up in a place identified by the cinematic phrase, “There’s no place like home.” Not all Kansas natives agree.
In the small communities that dot the High Plains, people typically fall into two categories: Those who stayed, and the ones that left. On the rare occasions when the two groups meet, a first flush of emotion is often replaced by a difficult-to-bridge blank space. People realize they have little in common beyond the patch of ground where they stand and a hazy view of the past. Perhaps that disconnect is just a function of time. Or maybe there’s more to it, having to do with the nature of small communities, which offer equal measures of glory and gore, loyalty and alienation. It's probably true that people are pretty much the same around the world. However, extremes seem ruder and sharper in a small town. After all, everyone’s got a front-row seat when the population is small.
As a small-town girl who left, adventured and returned, I still marvel at the contrary emotions I experience when I declare this part of the world home. Mostly, I love it and God help anyone who pokes fun at the Sunflower State. Yet there are times when I’m suffused with chagrin — when Fred Phelps and his Westboro Church protesters make the national news with the label “Kansas Baptists.” Or when I encounter an article in the Boston Globe, in which the residents of Jetmore sound off about everything from Lee Harvey Oswald to global warming and claim they’ve elected Tim Huelskamp expressly for the purpose of making life in Washington more rancorous and polarized — and I know the reporter isn’t exaggerating; those opinions sound all too familiar.
At such moments, I remember why I left Kansas. At that time, the coffee-shop creed no longer convinced me. I longed for richer colors, more texture, variety in cuisine, in culture, in viewpoints.
To be part of a closely woven community, like the one where I spent my early years, is to feel one’s life embedded in a pattern set long ago. Usually, it's a simple design like gingham plaid, two colors alternating to offer only three, perhaps four variations: blue or white, light or dark. Choose your life: in town or in the country; farm or run a small business (unless you serve the community by teaching, preaching or doctoring); worship at a Catholic church or a Protestant one (because you will be expected to worship); stay or move away.
Opting for something other than the norm can leave a person ostracized, lonely, angry. The lady (I grew up calling all adult women “ladies”) who was also the town drunk stayed, alone and observed. The classmate who reluctantly realized he was homosexual left. The war bride who loved gaudy, exotic clothing and foreign music made a home, raised her children, and outlasted her scrappy farmer husband. The veteran who used a wheelchair came home, opened a watch repair shop on Main Street, and people patronized it faithfully, though it’s hard for me to imagine how a watch repair shop in a town of 800 people could provide a living wage.
Most of my classmates moved away, as did I. On social media sites, I occasionally see photographs of the ones who remained. Their children graduated this year wearing gowns much plusher than the ones students slipped on two decades ago. Perhaps the school can afford better-quality gowns because the class size is half what it once was. In these pictures, the students look happy. Their parents write satisfied summaries of what life in the old hometown holds. No one voices regret for staying.
Of course, if you stay in the place where you grew up, you never have to “come home.” As I learned — as every reunion-attendee and wedding guest knows — such visits require a particular politeness, a triumph of tact. It would be easy to view a hometown through condescending eyes, to exclaim about the lack of lattes and liberals. But once I emerged from my 20s, I haven't had the heart to skewer my point of origin. Small towns, for all their limitations, deserve gratitude and grace.
A favorite benefit, seen only in retrospect, is the way small-town life gives everyone a chance — all right, requires everyone — to be part of everything. Every able-bodied boy is needed to field a football team, stage a high school play or march a band down Main Street. Kids do it all. Specialization is a luxury, and this need to master a bit of everything serves as a secret weapon in the outside world.
When I arrived at the Times newsroom in Liberal some 20 years ago, I quickly learned that I could not confine my efforts to the society page. Reporters covered several beats, showing up to photograph Little League games and ribbon-cuttings, reporting on the Lambs Lead contest at the Five State Fair and the latest decisions by the Liberal City Commission. In that pre-digital era, reporters also developed film, pasted master copies of newspaper pages together with wax and even delivered missed copies of that day’s edition to exasperated customers who phoned the office after business hours.
“You’ll get all kinds of experience,” the editor told me wryly as he made his offer. It’s hard to say whether it was the small-town Rachel or the city-refugee Rachel who said “I’ll take the job.”
Truthfully, it was both sides of me choosing a life in a place not unlike my own hometown. If the many reunion-goers flooding Liberal this week get past the initial niceties, I'm betting they will discover a similar truth beyond the miles and beneath the surface. Home, I think, resides in who we are more than where we live.