My Road Goes Ever On
Revitalization of a small town offers the best of my childhood vision and brings fresh meaning to the term home-sweet home.
Back in the day—ancient history to some folks—I’d sit in my city high school classroom, restless, feeling completely out of place. There was only one thing that held my interest. It was a picture poster on the wall depicting a winding country road, which gently meandered toward a distant farmhouse. Oh, Lord, how my whole being longed for that mystical place…a distant harmony calling my soul to a life of peace and joy I hardly knew.
I grew up in a fractured family on Milwaukee’s east side, took a city bus to and from school, and generally managed my way in a world I rarely understood. I figured I was doomed to be a stranger in a strange land forever.
Fast forward a few decades, as a married woman with a baby and another on the way, my husband and I passed through a small town named Fillmore, one of hundreds that we had passed through in the intervening years, and my childhood yearning sprang to life again. I wanted to explore, so we drove around and discovered a “For Sale” sign posted outside a country home on a dead-end lane, just off a winding road not unlike the classroom poster. In the front yard, a glorious pine tree stretched high into the sky, and mysterious woods beckoned to me from the backyard.
I can never explain, exactly, but I knew from that moment that I was looking at my home, the one I had longed for without being able to define or describe it.
A few miracles later, we owned that house on Possum Lane.
It took time to get adjusted to the rural setting where possums take their street name seriously and wander about in happy abandon, but my heart never wavered. I met various critters, wild and tame, with the curiosity and naive innocence of a city slicker too embarrassed to ask if the term “hens” meant female chickens.
For the first years, my attention revolved solely around my growing family and then the sickness and death of my husband. I was truly amazed when towns folk showed up to offer their condolences and support. I didn’t know their names, but I soon recognized their sincerity. As with the hidden depth of that long-ago poster, I discovered rare authenticity in small-town neighborliness.
Over the years, I have gotten to know my neighbors a bit better, visiting my elder friends, sharing snacks and copious cups of tea, and listening to vibrant memories of weekly raffles, town get-togethers, and community living that I had never imagined outside of a television screen. Eventually, I joined the Election Judge crew and met more people, ever more amazed at the generational tethers joining family and friends.
I accepted the position as secretary/treasurer of our local cemetery and was astonished to learn that people actually offered donations for the upkeep of their cemetery. I never thought twice about cemeteries before, certainly never felt the slightest personal obligation to one. Fillmorians’ consistent generosity floored me. It wasn’t just about giving money, it was taking the time to see that gravestones were straightened, that walkways remained clear, that vets were honored, that loved ones were remembered and cherished, no matter how long they had been gone. Still takes my breath away. Probably always will.
This year, a new adventure began with a small-town revitalization project called “Let’s Grow Fillmore!” Monthly meetings turned into weekly sessions to organize a Saturday afternoon band and a corn hole tournament, bringing folks together to brainstorm and share knowledge and ideas. Somehow or another I managed to slip into the secretarial role for the developing non-profit community project, but once again I became aware of the unique reality behind small-town life. It’s not a place, it’s a spirit, a mindset.
Since I don’t know that many people and I have no shared educational history or family ties, I sometimes feel like a kid looking in the window at a foreign land. I can hardly imagine the generational memories, the family transitions, sacrifices, and the depth of understanding the members of this community share with a glance or a knowing look.
Saturday was the first event for Let’s Grow Fillmore! with volunteers offering pumpkins and kid games, a corn hole tournament, food available at the Grub Box, and the Cody Ryan Band playing outside the Liquor Box in the afternoon. It was a small event since the non-profit status is still in the works, but as far as the community was concerned, it was friends and family gathering, having fun together, and supporting each other. As I walked around and watched, I realized that this is what revitalization is all about.
I’m a lot older than that kid in her high school class, wishing she were somewhere else, but I must give thanks to the vision granted to me those long years ago, for though the road may have been rough at times, I am home now. There is nowhere else I’d rather be.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 18 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
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