12 Signs You’re From a Small Town – What the Hell?

I’ve lived in four houses my entire life, all within the same county in PA: the two that are the farthest apart are separated by only 18 minutes, on a good driving day. I’ve been eating at my favorite local restaurants at least once a week for as long as I can remember, minus the time I spent away at college. I have a category of people in my life who are “mill customers:” I don’t know their names, but I know they have been buying at our family feed mill since before I was born, and I know them on sight. My family doctor went to school with my mom; they even traded homework in an alley before school in the morning (Mom did the English, and he did the math). I’m a small-town girl, and I’ve decided there are 12 signs you’re from a small town, too.

1. Everybody knows your name.

Well, they may not know your first name, but they know that you are so-and-so’s daughter or son or so-and-so’s granddaughter or grandson and you look just like her or him.

2. When you hear a train coming, you know at least two alternate routes you can take to avoid the train all together.

That first whistle is just a warning. You know you have exactly 90 seconds to turn around, head down a side street, and jump the tracks because the lights are flashing but there aren’t any bars coming down across that crossing. And you feel a little bit like Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit while you do it.

3. You hear “mom ‘n’ them” on a regular basis.

Okay. Maybe this is just a colloquialism from my particular small town, but it’s something you hear regularly around here. If it’s unfamiliar to you, picture this: you’re standing in line at a store, and you hear the people beside you say they had to pick up some Pepsi for “mom ‘n’ them;” you ask somebody to come for dinner this weekend, but they say they can’t because they’re going to be with “mom ‘n’ them.” It’s absolutely horrible. I’ve never said it. But it’s a part of the vernacular around here.

4. You don’t know street names because you reference everything by “where so-and-so used to live” or “where such-and-such store used to be.”

I hate it when people from out of town ask me for directions, because I have no idea what the streets are called around here. It’s only been 33 years; don’t judge me. I’m always fascinated by the college kids’ ability to deliver pizzas in this small town. I’ll bet not one of them knows where the old Kmart even used to be, but they’re successfully delivering pizzas nonetheless.

5. You know where everybody’s grandparents live.

Part of growing up around here meant spending time at your friends’ grandparents’ houses, not just your friends’ houses. Whether it was Sunday visits or trick-or-treating or just to drop off a clean casserole dish, you visited grandparents almost as much as you visited friends. The nice part was, you had a whole group of grandparents you weren’t related to but who still treated you like one of their own.

6. People have their own booths and tables and barstools in the restaurants and bars, and you know people are going to catch hell if they’re sitting in them on the “wrong night.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s the local family restaurants or the local dive bars: you can guarantee people will show up and immediately get pissed off if somebody else is in “their seat.” I’ve seen people march over to poor, unsuspecting patrons and tell them to get out of their seat. I’ve also seen people sit and pout while staring at the offending ignorant eaters because they didn’t have the guts to confront them. There even are a couple of waitresses in town who are nice enough to warn people about sitting in certain spots on certain nights.

7. If you can’t find somebody, you know which restaurant to find them in on a Friday night.

There is a whole culture of diners who eat in certain places on Friday nights. These people make up the majority of the people in #6 who have “their spots.” I’ve heard my parents say they weren’t going to call so-and-so because they just knew they’d see them at dinner that night. They didn’t have dinner plans together, and they weren’t going to eat together; they just knew they’d be there having dinner. In their spot.

8. Your mother and grandmother refer to all of the girls within five years of your age by their maiden names, and it doesn’t sound weird to you.

We’ve been to the weddings. We’ve seen the pictures of the ones we weren’t invited to attend. Everyone around here knows when one of “the kids” gets married. But, even though the majority of the girls take their husbands’ names, your mother and grandmother never get the memo or take notice of the new address labels on the thank-you notes and Christmas cards. You will forever go by your maiden name to those mothers and grandmothers, no matter what.

9. You see your friends’ parents and they still treat you like you’re twelve.

This probably has a lot to do with #8, too. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a wonderful development with some of the best families around, and those moms and dads watched out for us when we rode our bikes and played flashlight tag. I don’t know for sure, but whatever the reason, when I bump into those same moms and dads now, they look shocked to see that I’m old enough to be married with children (even though their kids are, too) and they still use that tone of voice they used when I was in elementary school. How are yoooou? What have you been up toooo?

10. You hear certain last names and know they’re trouble.

Right or wrong, fair or not, people are branded in a small town. Certain names and places carry stigmas, even if the current generation is made up of college graduates and success stories. It seems like the oldest generation in town is the most guilty of doing the labeling, and there is a subset of teaching families who shares the blame, but certain last names earn people the ire of many community members. And, the people who are the targets of the ridicule are aware of it and perpetuate it: “Oh, we’re not part of that clan. Our last name is spelled differently.” I’ve even heard people change the pronunciation of their last name, just to disassociate themselves from the rest of the clan.

11. You can list every sport the kids in certain families played.

Small towns like to cheer on their kids, and certain families are known for raising football players, basketball players, soccer players, baseball/softball players, and even 4-Hers. If a kid chooses not to participate in a sport that made his or her family famous, everybody wonders what’s wrong with him or her. It’s like the town expects people to follow suit and not break tradition; when it happens, they’re not sure how to handle it. On the other hand, when a new generation of a family begins, everybody starts purchasing sporting gear in the “family sport” for the new arrival. Baseball gloves for newborns are common baby shower gifts around here.

12. You expect to be able to park for five hours on one quarter.

There are some perks to being from a small town. You’re practically guaranteed a parking spot, and when you get one, you know you can spend the better part of the day parked in town on a single quarter. It’s funny when we go out of town and are expected to pay more than that for parking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain about parking fees in the surrounding communities because we are spoiled here.

I’d like to be able to say that my small town is exactly as I remember it from my childhood, but it’s not. I described my dilapidated memories of some of the places that made up my childhood in an earlier post, and after I did that, I realized that even though things don’t look the same, they often still feel the same. Some days, that’s a comfort; other days, it’s not. I don’t know if I want our boys to be able to write a list like this thirty years from now. There are some advantages to this small-town life, but I often wonder about the things I missed out on by living in a big city or going out West somewhere. The hardest part is realizing that our boys are going to have to make that decision for themselves some day, and I can’t handle thinking that my small town may not be their small town. What the Hell?

Daddy’s Girl – What the Hell?

I was a Daddy’s Girl when I was little. Okay, I was a Daddy’s Girl until our first child was born. He took my place as the apple of my dad’s eye. And then that place grew with the additions of our second son and my niece. And, I’m okay with that. But, as a Daddy’s Girl, I have some very fond memories of a childhood with my dad.


There was a pond that was our spot. I don’t remember there ever being anyone else there, other than the huge bullfrogs that scared me every time they jumped into the water. Their throaty sounds gave me goose bumps because I knew they were near me, but I did not want to see them. God forbid, one would have touched me. But, I managed to overcome my fear of all of those frogs and just enjoy fishing with my dad. I didn’t touch the worms, either, which was probably hell on Dad because he’d have to bait my hook and make sure I wasn’t about to hook him when I cast in my line. Oh, and I didn’t touch the fish that I caught, either; so, Dad probably spent 90% of his time dealing with me and 10% of his time fishing himself. I remember catching largemouth bass and pumpkinseeds and bluegills.   I remember putting the “punkies” in the ground and lighting them to keep the bugs away. I remember my dad having a lit cigar to keep the bugs away, but he never really seemed to smoke it; he just let it smolder. I don’t remember what we talked about. I just remember being with him and loving every second… well, except for the frogs.

The Mill

My dad owned and operated a feed mill less than two minutes from my childhood home for years. He grew up working there, while attending school and then college, and he bought it after earning a teaching degree that he never put to use in the classroom but that helped him to be a more knowledgeable and informed school board member. I grew up at that mill, too, but in a different way. I swept the dust-covered floors and arranged dog biscuits and watched the grain go up the elevators and then down the chutes into the huge bags. I stopped in front of his custom horse sweet feed and breathed in the smells of molasses and oats deeply every time I walked past. I climbed to the top of the stacks of bags and pretended I ruled the world. My favorite place to be, though, was behind the counter in the office. He had a horribly uncomfortable stool, but I thought its seat resembled a saddle, and I loved to sit on it and watch him work. As I got older, I was allowed to work the cash register, with his guidance. It’s funny that I don’t remember being afraid of the mice that I knew were there but never really saw, especially considering my frog phobia. It was my dad’s place, so I wanted to be there with him. I learned a lot about the value of your word and hard work and a work ethic in that dusty old place. And now, my boys are making a lot of the same memories with their dad, since we purchased the mill and my husband became the sole owner-operator three years ago. It still catches me off guard to see my husband behind the counter and not my dad when I walk in the office.

Backyard Sports

I have such fond memories of playing badminton and softball in our backyard. It seems like all of those memories involve my mom standing at the kitchen window getting supper dishes cleaned up, too. She never really got into those outdoor athletic moments with us. Dad and I could occupy ourselves with an especially intense badminton match for hours. I would be barefoot, and he would sometimes still be in his work boots if we were having a late supper, and we’d start playing. The trash talk was epic: he usually focused on how bad my serves were and how green my feet were, and I usually focused on how slow he was and how I had to give him a handicap for being left handed. On nights when we chose softball instead of badminton, he would challenge my arm and my catching ability to the nth degree, and I can still picture the look of amazement he would get when I caught a ball he never thought I’d be able to grab. I can remember knocking a few balls into the neighbors’ yards that sparked that same look, too. (Don’t start getting all excited about what an athletic wonder I am. I think these memories are mostly from ages 6-10.)

High School Football Games

My all-time favorite childhood memories of being with my dad happened under the Friday night lights. I remember getting a new purple-and-white sweatshirt and the latest purple wooly blankets and new bleacher cushions that actually had some cushion in them and new purple-and-white hair ribbons at the beginning of each season. We parked his truck in a prime parking spot near the field but in a place suited for a quick exit after the final buzzer, went for Friday dinner at our favorite local family restaurant with my Mom and brother, and then they dropped us off at the field for “our game.” We had season tickets to the high school games because my dad was a school board member (that was the one and only perk of losing him to so many meetings each month). We sat with my grandparents and the coaches’ wives and former coaches and teaching legends, and I cheered with the best of them. I still remember that adrenaline rush from the marching band songs (to this day, that is why “Louie, Louie” is my favorite song) and how loudly one of my grandmother’s best friends was able to boo. He and I would dance and sing along with the band and complain about poor officiating and cheap shots by the opponents. The players were mostly older boys from our neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods, and I suppose I should have viewed them as local celebrities for as much as I supported them every Friday night, but I looked up to my dad more than I did any of them. There were some exciting play-off seasons during my younger years, and all I would have to do was look at my dad after the latest win to know that we would be buying pep bus tickets and traveling far and wide to follow “our team.” Everyone else in town, it seemed, did too. Trips to the Pittsburgh and Erie areas to sit in freezing cold weather and cheer even more loudly than normal to warm ourselves were a given in our eyes; I think my mom sometimes wished we would just stay home, but as far as I know, she never tried to thwart our football plans. I was so fortunate to give a speech on that football field when I graduated from high school, and I started by pointing to “our seats” and talking about our purple-and-white-filled autumn nights in that stadium. The school and team colors and field may be gone now, but I never will forget the time we spent together, being goofy in all of our fandom.

So, I was hoping after seeing that I gravitated toward my dad, and my brother gravitated toward my mom, that I would have a Mama’s Boy. The odds seemed pretty good when we were blessed with two boys; surely, the numbers were in my favor. No such luck. The five year old always wants my mom, and the two year old always wants my husband or my dad. I’m left out in the cold. So, now I don’t feel so bad about not having a daughter and my husband missing out on having his own Daddy’s Girl. He’s got two boys who want to work at his feed mill and who worship his tools and his tractor nearly as much as they worship him. Oh well, I’ll get my dad back from these little munchkins some day. They can’t ALWAYS be cuter than I am. What the Hell?

After reading this, I realize that it’s no wonder I’ve never been into princesses and dance class and pink.  Dad and I didn’t have time for that stuff.

Dilapidated Memories – What the Hell?

Yesterday, I had a chance to take our five year old on a tour of my old stomping grounds. I felt like it was a great time to really show him around, since he’s old enough to remember where we go and what he sees; we’re still struggling with having him remember what we say, but that’s a topic for another blog post. When you live in a small town, build a home only 17 minutes away from the house you grew up in, and buy your father’s small business, you tend to get tangled in those roots that you’ve been putting down since you were born.

The problem with yesterday’s tour, though, was that memory lane is a lot more overgrown and decrepit than it used to be. I was downright depressed when we were done, but I didn’t want him to know that I was on the verge of tears, so I sounded like one of those overzealous Washington, DC, tour guides that you can’t wait to ditch at the next monument.

First up was the house my dad was raised in, along with his six siblings. My grandparents haven’t lived there for decades, and the house isn’t exactly on a route I travel often.  It doesn’t look like the version I’ve romanticized in my head.  The front porch is different, and of course my grandfather’s truck isn’t parked beside the barn.  The trees are older and more tired looking.  I guess I had expected it to look exactly as it did when I visited my grandparents and hunted for Easter eggs and played with all of the cousins outside. I vividly remember petting the cows and calves in that barn, picking apples along the winding dirt road, and riding all over the fields on the three-wheeler with my aunt. And there it was: just an older farmhouse. I told our son all of the memories I could in the three minutes it took to drive past, trying to make my memory come alive for him.

Then, I drove past the famous sled-riding hill. All of the kids from my neighborhood and the two adjoining ones slid down that hill, and we thought it was the best way to spend those freezing snow days. The trip up took the breath right out of us, as did the trip back down on our inflatable tubes. The hill, thankfully, looks the same. I guess a weed-covered hill doesn’t change all that much in 25 years. It was nice to hear his breathy, “Wow!” when he saw just how big it really is.

Feeling a little rejuvenated by the sameness of the hill, I drove past the old corner store. We used to buy ice cream there, on the way to the community center for bowling after a hard day in elementary school. I also remember going in with a fistful of cash and purchasing milk for my mom, from one of my classmates’ moms. She was always so nice and smiled when she asked how I was. Now, there is a display in the front window for clothing. The display was very nice. But, it’s just not the same.

The real shock came when we drove past the store to my old elementary school. Again, not exactly on my daily travels, the school is a place I haven’t seen for years. Half of it is gone. My third grade and second grade and sixth grade and fourth grade classrooms were torn down years ago. The tennis court that hosted daily kickball games and was the site of my very first homerun (second girl in my class to achieve that feat) have been removed and there are weeds growing in its place. The playground equipment that served as home to secrets and dares also has been removed. The remaining portion of the school is a personal care facility. So, I was pointing and describing things to my son, hoping that he could picture the images of my childhood as vividly as I could: “Over there is where I won the three-legged race with my friend. Right here is where we used to line up to go in after recess. That’s where we used to play hopscotch. I lost a tooth right here.” He nodded and looked where I was pointing, but the magic that I felt was making no impression on him. Through his eyes, it must look like an overgrown field and a boring brick building.

One more turn, and we were at the site of the old community swimming pool. The place where I received most of my childhood torture and harassment – it was not easy being a chubby girl trying to swim with all of the older boys from the surrounding neighborhoods – is now another overgrown empty lot. After financial and management and a host of other issues, it, too, has gone by the wayside. I admit, I glossed over that part of the childhood memories and told him that I used to swim with friends there.

Another turn, and we were at the community park and ball fields. He already has been at the park several times, but this time I made sure he knew that the park is where I had school picnics and attended friends’ birthday parties and walked with friends during summers off from school and had some of the best fun of my young life. I showed him the softball and baseball fields and proudly told him that I was a member of the first softball team in our little village. That first year, we practiced and actually had matching team shirts and a couple of scrimmages by the end of the season. By the next year, my dad sponsored one team and another local dad who owned a business sponsored the other team, and we had real uniforms and helmets and coaches and rivalries. More fields were built, more games were scheduled, and more girls joined. I was feeling pretty special when the voice from the backseat asked if we had Sour Patch Kids at the concession stands. Way to bring your mother back to present reality, kiddo. I am happy to report that we did. And, it made me feel great to see kids on the new, shiny, colorful park equipment and cars parked at all of the ball fields. Some things about childhood should improve with age, and I’m so glad it’s the park and ball field; it seems to be those places of play that can hold a community together the longest.

Finally, we headed toward my parents’ house, down the long tree-lined street that housed of so many of my classmates, teammates, teachers, and friends. I told him that my friends and I spent hours walking along those streets, talking, and heading to the ball games of their older brothers and sometimes to see the boys on whom we had crushes play baseball. “What’s a crush, Mommy?”  “When you really like somebody and think you might want to swing beside them.” Dear God, please keep him this young and innocent forever. Again, the houses are looking older, the trees are growing taller, and the community members are walking more slowly. I showed him the houses of good friends as well as those that handed out the best candy for trick-or-treaters. By that time, he was giving me polite nods.

A lot of my childhood places are gone or heading in that direction. To make matters worse, when we go on the tour of my junior and senior high school years, I’m not going to have much to show him because my senior high school has been torn down, the football field has been torn down, and the Dunkin’ Donuts has been torn down and rebuilt facing a different direction. (Yes, DD had that much of an impact on my teen years.) I suppose that things had to change after all of that time passed, and it’s good that my small town is trying to rebuild and thrive as much as possible.

It’s just hard to see those physical places that meant so much exist now in such a completely different state. I guess it’s just one of those things about getting older: not much stays the same. What the Hell?

Cleaning Day – What the Hell?

I’ll admit that I don’t do heavy-duty housecleaning as often as I should, but we do the weekly routine of light dusting and vacuuming and steam-mopping pretty well. I keep up with the laundry and dishes because there is no alternative, and I clean the kitchen counters and table several times a day. The Department of Health and Children and Youth haven’t been here yet, so things must be acceptable… or at least clean enough.

Today was one of those days that I set aside for heavy-duty cleaning. I have been dreading it for weeks. I know that I’m going to be stuck inside cleaning while everyone else is out having a day date or playing in the backyard or doing anything other than helping me clean; and, I absolutely think that they should be since the boys are so little. It just leaves me with a lot of the work. And a lot of time to complain about the work while I’m doing it, so it’s a good thing little ears are not here to hear me.

I had planned on cleaning our whole first floor – kitchen, playroom, den, walkways, dining area, and laundry room – today. I started by putting away the 900 million Thomas the Tank Engine parts and all of his friends’ parts and asking the boys to put back any toys they got out during the day, and five minutes later the toys I had just cleaned up were everywhere. On the floor. On the couch. On the end tables. Ugh! By lunch, there were more toys out than I thought we owned. I only had sat down to eat breakfast, and I had been picking up and organizing for four hours, but there was the tornado of toys yet again. What the Hell!

Part of my heavy-duty cleaning days consists of sorting toys into “Keep” and “Yard Sale” piles. All of the toys that I recognize from some form of a kid’s meal immediately get tossed into the trash, if I haven’t seen someone playing with them within the past day. It’s important to note that I never broadcast my heavy-duty cleaning days ahead of time to our five year old because I know that he has caught on to my toy-trashing plan and will sit and play with all of the toys that still faintly smell like nuggets or fries because he wants me to think that he still likes them and wants to keep them. He doesn’t even know where they are until I find them and sort them, but he wants them, by God!

Similarly, all of the not-from-a-fast-food-joint toys that I know nobody has touched in the past few weeks get put into the Yard Sale pile, and again, the phenomenon of “Keep that. I love that. I play with it all the time” starts up in full force. My favorite memory of this is the following…

Me: I haven’t seen you play with this. What is it?

Five Year Old: I don’t know and I don’t think I have all of the pieces.

Me: Let’s throw it away, then, if it’ missing parts.

Five Year Old: But I want it. We’ll find them. It’s SO fun.

Me: You don’t even know what it is!

Five Year Old: But I know it’s fun. I can tell.

After a day full of finding all of the parts to toys and putting them together and figuring out which ones to keep, putting them in the appropriate toy bins, and gluing those that we are keeping but need a little TLC first, I had two minutes to dust, wash windows, vacuum, move furniture, clean curtains and blinds, and put out the Fourth of July decorations. I got one room totally done today. ONE! What the Hell?

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Washing Machine – An Early Childhood “What the Hell?” Moment

An early “What the Hell?” moment comes from the development in which I grew up and for which I still have many fond memories.  Unfortunately, I have more “What the Hell?” memories than fond memories of growing up, but that’s to be expected when you’re the only girl living in the bottom portion of a development and all of the girls living in the top part of the development go to dance class and cheerleading camp and do all of that way-too-girly-stuff for you to want to walk the whole way to the top of the hill to play with them, anyway.

On this particular “What the Hell?” day, I was playing with four of the boys who lived closest to me.  Two of them were dangerously older than I, and that should have been my first clue to go home and stay put.  I’ve never been one to correctly judge the intentions of older boys who I thought were so cool because they could hit the ball farther and kick the ball higher than anyone else I knew, so I was doomed from the start.  One of the four boys decided that playing hide-and-seek would be a dandy way to spend the day, and, seeing as how I was the only girl, I was nominated to be the first seeker.  Before I even knew what was happening, the eldest hooligan of the group scooped me up and put me up on top of the washing machine in his garage.  He told me to stay there and count to 100 before I could get down and start seeking.  I had been counting to 100 forever, so I didn’t think this command was too far-fetched or demanding.

What I hadn’t counted on was the fact that nobody would be around to get me back down from the top of the washing machine.  At this point in my life, I was already destined to be the short, round girl, and getting down from a washing machine was a tall order.  As the numbers swelled closer and closer to 100, I started to panic.  I didn’t know how to get down, and I knew none of the boys would lose his chance at being the winner of hide-and-seek just to come and get me down.  I also didn’t want to be the girl who needed help getting down, so I never once thought about calling for an adult to help me.  My five-year-old mind wasn’t yet adept at using foul language, so I know the thought wasn’t formulated as a “What the Hell?”  But, that’s exactly what I was thinking in whatever language my inner voice was capable of producing.

So, I sat there.  He had told me to sit there, and I did.  I slowed down the counting, and I whispered the final few numbers so that anyone who had chosen to hide near me would not know that I was getting close to the final number.  I always was an obedient girl, and it was more important to me that I follow the instructions of the “big boy” than to get myself out of an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation.

The fact that I still to this day cannot remember how I was saved proves that “What the Hell?” moments are less about the outcome and more about the feeling in the moment.  How stupid could I have been to be put into that situation?  What kind of a moron lets all of the kids run away and leave her stranded on top of an old appliance in a dirty, smelly garage?  More importantly, what kind of a girl does exactly what a boy tells her to do, even when it doesn’t feel quite right?

Reflecting on the events leading up to and the circumstances that put you into the “What the Hell?” moments are where the truths of life and ourselves lie.  And having some sort of foresight is the key to not having too many of those moments.

I still bump into those boys every once in a while.  Now that we’re all grown up and some of us are married with our own children, I can’t help but wonder if they remember putting me into peril at such a tender age.  But I do know this: I will teach my boys how to get down from a washing machine so they don’t have to face the humiliation of appliance-stranding like their mother.  I might just teach them not to put a girl on a pedestal if they don’t think she belongs there, too.

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