Last week I learned of the death of another childhood classmate from my hometown in Kansas. It seems like there’s been so many…..I’ve actually lost count. For a small class, it’s been a lot. These are the people I grew up with, and even though I moved away before graduating with them, they still mean a lot to me, and we share so many of the same experiences of growing up in a small town.
There is so much anger and hatred in our world right now. and the loss of this classmate has made me yearn for a simpler time, and a time when things seemed easier. Growing up in a small town in the Midwest had it’s pros and cons, but I hold so many wonderful memories from that time.
My hometown, at one time, truly did feel like Mayberry. It was an historic old railroad town in Southeast Kansas, about an hour from Kansas City, and an hour from Joplin. It was divided down the middle of town by a highway and railroad tracks….the division having racially motivated reasons dating back to the 1800’s, and the time of “Bleeding Kansas” and the John Brown raids. It had a dark history of racism (for more on this, look up the author/poet/photographer/director Gordon Parks, and the movie “The Learning Tree”). Yet, in the 70’s, I wasn’t aware of that dark past so much. I had both black and white friends. They were restoring the Fort from the 1840’s, had beautiful old Victorian homes, brick streets, and a quaint downtown. It still has one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen, Gunn Park. It had two elementary schools (one on the east side, one on the west), a junior high, which sat prominently in the middle of town, and a big old high school, which is now gone.
The town was a bit run down in some areas, had it’s nicer neighborhoods, but it was safe just about everywhere you went. It was safe to ride our bikes, go for walks, and explore. One of my friends and I used to walk to the end of our street, which was a dead end, and we would climb down the embankment to play at the river banks while our parents were at work. I could walk to my father’s office at the church where he was a minister, only a few blocks away. My mother’s office was a block from his office. I could walk downtown to the library, to stores, and to the movies. On Saturdays, another friend and I would meet at a certain corner, and we would walk to the library, then go buy a lot of candy with our little bit of allowances we had. In the summer, I would walk or ride my bike to the swimming pool.
The people in our church were wonderful. Because my father was the minister, we were invited to so many homes for Sunday dinner, on trips to Kansas City, or to our favorite chicken restaurant, Chicken Annie’s (Southeast Kansas is known for it’s chicken restaurants!). My sisters and I had babysitting jobs for many families in our church. Our doctor and dentist both went to our church. My piano teacher was our organist. Everyone knew everyone, or had some sort of connection to them.
Going back there today is different. My parents and almost all of their friends are now gone. The church is closed. It isn’t safe in a lot of areas. The old homes are in disrepair. The brick streets are not in great shape. The downtown is empty and sad. Most of the manufacturers are gone. Walmart is the biggest store in town…….
Even though I know we can’t live in the past, and I’m glad I don’t live there today, I do miss a lot of that innocence today. People really cared about each other. Small towns are not for me at this point in my life, and I’m glad my parents showed me that there was a world out there through travel and books, but growing up in a small town in the 1970’s was special. I didn’t realize then what a wonderful thing it was. I raised my own children there too, but it was already changing, and it wasn’t the same.
Life was easier then. Times were easier, or seemed to be. Maybe it was just easier for parents to protect their children from the cruel world without the influences of 24 hour news and social media. Sometimes I really miss the days when I had no worries, plenty of friends, my parents, a kinder, safer world……. We can’t go back, and we can’t bring back those we’ve lost. We can only be more appreciative of each other, treat each other with respect, be kind to each other, and not take anyone or anything for granted. Life is too short to not appreciate who and what we have in front of us. It might not be there tomorrow.