For months/years, I have threatened/promised to write about how I got to be who I am today and what shaped me along the way. This sporadic series will try to unpack my personal history and influences and, I hope, set people to thinking about their own.
So, I seem to have developed a bad habit of starting a new series here at Top of JC’s Mind at the (almost) worst possible time, as I did when starting JC’s Confessions. (Shameless plug. See link to those posts in my main menu.)
Some readers have expressed interest in knowing how I evolved into the creature I currently am and, particularly during these fraught times, there seems to be new impetus for examining our viewpoints and how we came to hold them, so I thought I’d try to break open some of that for readers.
It seems logical to start with one of the early, fundamental parts of my life, which is that I have rural roots.
And I mean, really rural.
I grew up in a town along the Massachusetts/Vermont border with a population of about 200. We had our own grammar school, grades one through eight when I entered, expanding to kindergarten through eighth when Massachusetts mandated kindergarten when I was in fifth grade or so, housed in three classroom in a WPA-built building that also had the town office, small public library, and a gym that was used by the school and for town meetings and events. There was a small general store that included a post office, which we visited every day to get our mail, but we usually shopped in North Adams, which was twenty miles away and offered more grocery selections at lower prices. We also attended high school in North Adams. It’s where my spouse B and I met, although that is definitely another story.
Although the town was small, it had two distinct sections. Down in “The Bridge” lived the people who worked in the mill, which made specialty paper products, like the wrappers for Necco wafers. They were mostly European immigrant stock, drawn to the area to work in the mill. Up on “The Hill” were the older Yankee stock, some of whom farmed or worked for the town itself, doing roadwork, plowing, etc. They also got Rural Free Delivery of their mail, so they didn’t need to come down to the post office every day, which was a blessing especially in the winter when the unpaved road from The Hill to The Bridge shut down for months and could only be traversed by snowmobile.
My family did not live in either section. Our house was about a mile from The Bridge and was owned by New England Power Company, for whom my father, known here as Paco, worked. It was located near an unmanned hydroelectric station so Paco could reach it quickly if needed. It, an observation stand, and one of the first commercial nuclear power plants in the United States which shared the hydro reservoir with the much older station were our closest neighbors.
Like other small New England towns, everyone knew everyone else and co-operated in running the school and the town. For the most part, people took care of themselves and their families, although everyone kept an eye out for a few townfolks who had special challenges due to age or health.
Then, the mill closed.
A few people re-located to Georgia where the company had another mill, but most lost their jobs and, because the whole area was having similar closures in the manufacturing sector which was the backbone of the economy, many moved away. Certainly, people in my generation moved to other places where they could get work. The population dropped to under a hundred. The school closed when they had only seven students in K-8.
Last August, I was back in the area and wrote this post, which includes some photos from the town and a bit of additional backstory.
So, what does all of this have to do with who I am today?
Growing up in the country gave me an appreciation of the natural world, its beauty, and power. I knew the names of the trees and plants and birds in the woods around our house and knew to respect the bears that sunned themselves on the rocks on the hill opposite our house, the deer that came down to drink from the reservoir, and the porcupines, that, for some reason, liked to chew on our back steps. Especially because Paco worked in hydro, we payed attention to the weather; it was important to know how much water was in the snowpack to handle the spring runoff and how high the winds might be with a storm, in case they threatened the power lines. Also, when it is twenty miles and over a mountain to get to a doctor or store or other services, you have to know how much snow is coming and when.
Like most rural folks, we gardened and bought food from local farmers. We did some of our own canning, including making bread-and-better pickles, and freezing fruits and vegetables. We always had a well-stocked pantry and freezer because you couldn’t easily run to the store if you were out of something. We did most of our cooking and baking from scratch and, like most rural New Englanders, made sure to use everything, like making stock from poultry carcasses. A lot of these skills have come in handy during the pandemic when shopping has been difficult and supply chains unreliable.
Living in such a small town gave me an appreciation of community, of working together to accomplish a task with people who hold a range of opinions and viewpoints, and to always watch out for the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. While there was seldom overt reference to it, you usually knew what struggles families were facing and were respectful of them.
I admit that I also learned what it feels like to be an outsider. I didn’t live in The Bridge or on The Hill. Because my family was Irish-Italian, instead of just having one ethnic background, I didn’t fit in a category, not that this was a detriment because it averted the “dumb (insert ethnicity here) jokes” and what would now be heard as ethnic slurs from getting lobbed my way. I guess I also learned that people can make divisions among what would look to some observers to be a racially and economically homogeneous group. My grade in grammar school was relatively large. Although we had a couple of people move in and out, our core was four girls. The other three were all cousins who lived on The Hill, so I was destined to be an outsider. This was compounded by some academic decisions of our teachers that sometimes had me working with the grade above ours or on my own. I see this tension between community and solitary pursuits continue to play out in my life over time.
Because of what happened to my town when the mill closed and because I have continued to live in an area with a similar loss of long-standing industries, jobs, and population, I can sympathize with other folks who face similar situations in their towns. In my days of frequent interaction over issues around fracking and other energy/climate issues, I would often run into people with fears of what was happening with jobs in their towns. I could certainly sympathize with the issues, but I think where I differed was that they expected that their children and grandchildren would stay in town and have the same jobs with the same company as they, their parents, and perhaps even their grandparents had had. I, on the other hand, always knew that I would need to leave my town and make a life elsewhere.
Some people growing up in small towns dream of big-city life, but I am not one of them. Large, busy cities are overwhelming for me. The traffic makes me so nervous I don’t even like to look out the windows of the vehicle. I’m uncomfortable being in crowds and feel hemmed in with large buildings adjoining each other on both sides of the street. Still, I like the opportunities for shopping, restaurants, medical services, and cultural activities that a city can provide.
I think that is why I am content with the Binghamton NY area, where I have lived for close to forty years. There are small city opportunities nearby, but also rural landscapes, hills, trees, and wildlife. Given where I grew up, I don’t think of this area as “small town” but that is a matter of perspective. People that grew up in or near New York City talk about Binghamton as though it is “the country” but, for me, an actual small town girl, it’s plenty big.
How about you? Do you see your environment while growing up as impacting your life and decisions now? Comments are always welcome here at Top of JC’s Mind.