Small Towns… life… and death…

Who knows how long this will last… Now we’ve come so far so fast…
…somewhere back there in the dust, that same small town in each of us…
(D. Henley,  B. Hornsby)

Littleton, Illinois.

The signpost on the edge of town proclaims the population to be 200, and we can forgive the residents if that might be a bit inflated these days. True to its name, it is a little town, an old farming community where founding families, pioneers in the age of western expansion, are proclaimed by the large granite monuments on the cemetery hill on the northwest edge of town; family plots surrounding monumental obelisks declaring their names.

The old store once run by members of the Horney family is crumbling on what remains of the main street in town. The remains of what was once a service station, likely a “full service” station with mechanically inclined young men who once helped residents fill their new vehicles with necessary fuel and could repair their engines, lies as testament to a busier time of life, the kind of small town experience that has been slowly deteriorating away with buildings; the one time station attendants most likely residing up on the monumented hilltop north of town…

Not too far away, the facade is all that currently remains of a one time Five & Dime store in Virginia, Illinois. The roof caved in years ago, allowing water to run through the second story and down into the first, finally completing the rot and ruin of merchandise still left on the shelves after the son of the store’s last managing owner simply, inexplicably to some residents, locked the doors one day and moved away. Like the 1960s calendar that still hangs in a locked and deteriorating barn on my grandmother’s lot in Ojai, California, visible through a window peppered with decades of dust and grime, so I I agile the old Five & Dime likely held simple items that could be redeemed as great treasures by someone.

But, alas, as both widowed grandmothers now gone and mothers still lingering in small corn field towns might have and will attest, sons and daughters – let alone grand-generations – seem little interested in going through what might seem the detritus of a life; though, in our defense (for I must number myself among the “younger generations” so far removed from the rural and small town life) said generations might attest in reply that they feel somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of personal memorabilia and belongings and tools and other items once useful and well-cared for but now seemingly useless in an age of digital tools and virtual living.

I remember sitting somewhere near the Phoenix Courthouse with my Junior High Honors class, reflecting on the day, and for whatever reason a line from a current Don Henley song came to mind, reminding me that “somewhere back there is the dust, that same small town I each of us…” A truly odd non-sequitur, as I had grown up in the suburbs of Phoenix and Los Angeles, and knew no more about small towns than I did girls. (Which at that time is to say that I knew they existed, and also that I had no experience or comprehension of them.) But, even still, I wrote some rambling missive with the lyric seemingly poignantly quoted at the top of the page.

When I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to attend Northern Arizona University, I reveled in the experience of what I deemed a “small” town, population 20,000. Half a decade later, I moved (all my worldly belongings in a Geo Metro) across the country and into a three-story farmhouse in Woodland, Illinois, population 300. Ironically, as I spent the next three years living half the week in this farming town, my world expanded. I experienced life in a small town first-hand; neighbors who would drop by to share produce from their gardens or a fresh baked treat, a church who stocked my pantry the day before I first arrived, friends who still gathered on porches or lingered out in the yard to visit, homes and yards that were not surrounded by walls or fences but open to one another.

I also made my way over to Littleton for only the second time in my life. We had visited somewhere around 1985, some few years after my grandfather Vail had passed on and gone on up to the hill to rest with the other Bartlows, but not so long that friends from his childhood days still remembered him and told my uninterested-at-the-time ten year old self that they had known my grandfather, and that he had been a “good man.” Returning again as an adult, with a farm pickup borrowed from a gracious Woodland neighbor, I met a distant cousin, re-met the great-aunt I had visited as a child, and managed to return to my own empty house with a few pieces of serviceable furniture to live with, thanks again to others’ generosity.

I returned at least twice more in the next year – once for the funeral of said 100+year old aunt, Mildred Horney. Vail’s only sister was an independent spirit known to many and remembered for telling family that she was “a Horney-Bart.” Dear Aunt Mildred is up on the hill these days, resting with her husband and next to her parents. And then, well, life intervened. I went to school, I served two churches the best that a seminary student still just learning the world can, I courted a beautiful young woman who came from a small town and through work and school had her own experiences adjusting to suburban and city life.

I proposed over a chess set, I took wedding photos in a gazebo in a park dedicated to the four freedoms, I moved to a county seat college town, a fair sized farming town, and eventually back to suburban Phoenix. Now, perhaps, I can recall with some integrity Don Henley’s insight. Littleton, Illinois faded into the dust.

But only partly, because Littleton always held a special place in my father’s heart. He would still, on occasion, reference it and Rushville, recalling the summers he would bring the train from Lowell, Indiana, to stay with Mildred on the old Bartlow farm. I only just learned that this farmhouse, where dad spent his summers reading books and where I as a precocious ten-year old caught fireflies in a jar, was where the three generations of the family prior to my father’s were all born. (The first 6 of my great-grandfather’s generation were born in the log cabin; he, as the youngest of 9, was born in the very farmhouse itself.) Like the storefronts, though, it had fallen into disrepair in recent years, and was razed just this past fall.

When we helped my father pack up his belongings for a post-divorce move from home into an apartment, he pointed out connections to Littleton via belongings and books. And when pneumonia took his life less than a year later, my brothers and I agreed that Littleton was where his ashes should find a final resting place.

So we three traveled back to what was, for us, that same small town back there in the dust. We may not have been the generation to leave town and shake the dust off our feet – that, apparently, was our grandparents, who left the family farm and the small town to work in the city (grandpa Vail worked in Chicago), and who had no desire to return, despite the wistful hope of great-grandfather Bruce, who left them his second farmhouse and acreage on the east side of town – but we are most definitely far removed from the small town.

So we came, we saw, we buried my father. We placed the small box down into the ground at his parents’ plot; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We visited with our Aunt Janet and second-cousin Jean, Mildred’s only child. And, like the generations before us, we left. And soon another memorial will be placed up on the hill, dad resting up there with others who once left home to pioneer the west.

I’d like to say the experience has granted me some great epiphany about life or God. Perhaps that is on the way. But I am left with a bit of the same nostalgia others feel for days gone by. Not days that I knew firsthand, but for the memory others’ can share, of days of activity and vitality; when the small town was bustling, when the generations gathered around for a photograph, when the promise and hope was of life. Even in a digital world, that is a hope we can hold on to.

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