Begrudging my better angels
I knew it was going to be small, but I didn't know how small. Even still, a quick visit last weekend to my mom's home town was more revealing than I expected. Small towns are not just a speck on the flyover map. Yes, they improve our sense of community. They might even improve our sense of humanity. Here's why: it's hard to ignore someone in the flesh. But even better, it's easy to feel kindness.
We were there barely more than an hour, but we saw some friends and family for the first time in more than a decade, multiple decades in some cases. They're the sort of connections Facebook can't duplicate. None of us could perfect our image by cheating with filters. I couldn't hide the sweat soaking through my white dress, my uncle couldn't hide the hearing aid he now needs, and a cousin couldn't conceal her tears of joy. Not that any of us should be embarrassed, though. Those are the little humilities that actually help unite us.
Last Sunday, the town of Mineral, Virginia dedicated two areas of a local park. In 1965, my grandfather helped convert what had been the local dump into a small horse show facility after Elizabeth Walton donated the land to the town. The show arena now bears the name of Peyton Noel, Grandpa, and a pavilion honors Paul Cameron.
Mineral is a town of about 500 on a good day. There's one stop light, installed to control the flow of pickup trucks towing boats to and from Lake Anna, a local destination built around a nuclear power plant. The horse park itself is nestled against a wooded lot on the other side of the train tracks, leaving little room for growth, even if there were demand for it. Driving to the event, my sister joked how the area has not changed a bit in the past 40 years. The same decrepit buildings line the road and a shockingly few new homes have been built. But that doesn't dampen the love the community has for their little spot on this Earth.
Last weekend, unbeknownst to us, the town hosted its first horse show in four decades at Walton Park. After crossing the railroad, we saw the gravel lot filled with about fifty cars, trucks, and small horse trailers. By golly, a tenth of the town was at the horse show that day. They even had a PA system, so the announcer's voice echoed up the hillside, "Halt your horses," before she called them to the center of the ring to accept their ribbons. What they didn't have though, was a proper fence. The show "ring" was defined by a single plastic chain tacked around the perimeter. Facing the show area, four vendors set up tents to sell grooming supplies to the exhibitors. For the spectators they offered kitschy items like a sign that read, "Welcome to the Porch, Where Wasting Time Is Considered Time Well Wasted." Down in the lower pavilion, food truck parked nearby, a man rested on a picnic bench.
To me, it was a throwback to another, simpler, happier, if less comfortable, era. My parents made a living breeding and showing Arabian horses, so as a teenager, my summers were spent traipsing up and down the East Coast, from our farm in Rapidan, Virginia (zero stop lights) to events at facilities that could house thousands of horses, grooms, trainers, and owners. No matter the size, though, these events had a few things in common: they're hot and sweaty, even in the shade. I swear, I can still feel the rock dust in my tennis shoes. And practically everyone knows each other.
To be honest, I had expected maybe ten people to attend this dedication event. Perhaps a few volunteers from the local fire department, which now owns the park, would show out of a sense of obligation. The fact that my expectations were off by a factor of five took me by surprise.
Even more astonishing, I knew some of the people. When I saw my cousin from afar, I thought, "Good god, he looks like Barry." Now a young father himself, he even carries himself like my uncle, who, the last time I saw him, surely walked away thinking what an indignant brat I am. So walking into that little community park, I realized there might be some awkward moments.
But some were good awkward, like trying to ignore the emotion of an elderly cousin-in-law. She's an immigrant from Germany without any children of her own, and we haven't spoken in many, many years. After my grandparents died, we slowly lost touch. I couldn't believe that Glenda made the drive (all the way from California) for this little occasion (well, she's just moved back to Charlottesville so the drive wasn't that long).
Anyway, I was happier than I expected to see these people, even if it was just for a few minutes. I also learned (but was not surprised), by listening to one of the locals, that when that horse park opened in 1965, mom had been the first entrant to enter the ring. Stage fright she has not, ever.
On the way home, my sister also shared some very important but hidden (from me) history as we passed through her small town. One county north, Gordonsville, Virginia is the "Fried Chicken Capital of the World." Of the world? Yes, in the 1800s, it became a well-known train stop. African American women would sell chicken to passengers through the train windows. Now, the town hosts an annual fried chicken festival. I can't believe I never knew that. Surely that history was overshadowed by narratives about James Madison and Thomas Jefferson who made their homes nearby. But what the heck? This is FRIED CHICKEN.
Who knows if anything else will come of the park dedication. Maybe we'll make more time for family in the future. Maybe. But I couldn't help but feel a better sense of connection, whether I wanted to or not. I liked seeing the smiles on long lost faces. There is something deep inside that takes comfort in that familiarity, no matter how logical I think I am. It made me want to smile back.
As a community leader, my grandfather was a big fish in a small pond (for argument’s sake we’ll call Mineral a pond, not a puddle). Decades after the fact, little did he know how his hard work with the fire department, church, and this damn park would eventually reunite us (well some of us who remembered to attend), even if only momentarily.
I've spent most of my adult life in big cities -- DC, SF, NYC -- so of course, I've become impatient and judgmental and am not afraid to tell anyone they're in my way. When I'm feeling particularly grumpy, I contemplate all that polarizes us. The pandemic forced a time of isolation, but our lonely divisions began well before March 2020. The news media certainly contributes to that, as does our geography. But I can't deny how I cordon myself out of habit if nothing else, even without the help of the internet or cable news. This may pass soon, but I'm wondering how I could find more ways to connect with people locally without the assistance of an algorithm. Not to hide from the big city crowds. No, so I can't hide IN the crowds.
The way I see it, that's one of the overlooked gifts at these small events. I can't dodge the people I don't want to see. But I also can't be rude. It's not in my DNA. So it makes me more humble even if I don't want to be. Just imagine what would happen if I were to make this a habit, talking to people, in person, and none of us look perfect. I might come to believe it's time well wasted.
Thanks, Grandpa. All these years later, you're still making me think about how I could be a better neighbor, even if I don't want to be.