As I read the stories about Ronald Reagan's youth when he died last month, I was struck by a sentiment expressed over and over: He rose from nothing. Nothing? A small town in Illinois with two parents who loved him (even if Dad was an alcoholic)? A neighbor lady he called Aunt Emma who let him muse for hours in her house filled with antiques and shawls?
It's not that I don't understand what the writers were trying to say. I grew up in a small town myself, at the opposite end of the state from Reagan's Tampico and Dixon. As an adolescent, I wanted to "get the hell out of Dodge," make my way to the bright lights, the big city. But most of us small-town kids, as we grow older, realize how misguided we were in that thinking.
The very conditions we felt confined by as teenagers are the ones we value as adults: friends we have known for years, a doctor who sometimes calls to check on us, store clerks who call us by name.
Many of us even wake up one day and think, "Now why is my life any better here than it would have been in a small town?" Once we check off jobs, restaurants and movie selection, we realize that in these bigger ponds where we live now, roots and connections and length of time are just as important as they were in our small towns.
The truth is: Cities aren't inherently superior to small towns. Small towns aren't "nothing" and big cities "something." And yet we persist in thinking it.
I still remember my mother lecturing me as a teenager: "The kind of boys you'll want to date in high school are not the kind of boys you'll want to marry." Being raised by her, I shared her snobbery.
These small-town boys were going nowhere. But years later, I wondered where she thought the boys I would want to marry were going to high school. At an exclusive island off the continent somewhere? Small-town boys grow up to do great things. Look at the Gipper.
But even if the Gipper hadn't left Dixon, can we really say that his life would have been nothing? He might have run the newspaper, been elected mayor, improved the school system, built a new swimming pool and learned how to make friends -- an ability all the stories say he lacked. He wouldn't have been a world leader, but would that truly have made him less of a man?
There was a time when I would have thought so. I remember tales of a high school reunion I failed to attend. A group of "stayers" and "leavers" were having breakfast together, when a leaver talked about tagging along on her husband's business trips to Europe. At the end of the story, a stayer said, "Everybody's a success 50 miles out of town."
For years, I took the leaver's side. The stayer was overreacting. The leaver was simply talking about her life. And then, after a particularly nice holiday card from the stayer (they're always the best at staying in touch), I started an e-mail friendship with her. I started getting to know her better. She had never planned to stay. She had thought she would go to college and move to a bigger town. But she fell in love with another stayer who wanted to move home after college. Today they live in an old Victorian in the town where we all grew up. They have a rich circle of friends, work they enjoy and a family they're proud of. Is something wrong with that?
As for me, I've lived in most of the major cities in this country, traveled widely, and yet I still find myself fascinated by the hold my small town has on me.
The question that nags me is why so many of us share the belief that small towns are something to be gotten out of, something to be escaped from. They're filled with myopia and prejudice and dullness, we seem to think. And yet, as I open my mind and my heart to my friend, the stayer, I see a richness in her life that isn't in mine, a richness simply created by staying: by having the same doctor who attended your birth be there at your child's. By watching your child learn civics from the same teacher who taught you. By knowing the reasons behind the irascible actions of the corner gas station clerk.
Those of us who leave, like Ronald Reagan, never discover the richness that adult life in a home town brings. Staying forces people to look at themselves in a context of people from whom nothing is hidden. No wart escapes. I've always explained to friends: It isn't that small-town people gossip more. They don't have to. Everyone simply knows everything about your family to begin with.
But it's too late for us leavers. And so we patiently build our new communities, trying to re-create what was there for the taking in our small towns. We laugh amiably as our friends tease us about our small towns. "What was the name of it again?" they ask. "And you lived on the right -- or the wrong -- side of the tracks?" And yet we persist, trying to build some semblance of a small town inside our big-city lives.