It was just one sentence in an email from a longtime reader, but its bitter tone was cause for pause.
He referred to “the western S.C. cotton mill town where I grew up. I refuse to call it my ‘home town,’ because I despised it then and still do.”
I remember only one other person, a college roommate, who disliked his Eastern North Carolina hometown so intensely. I imagine there are many others.
Aren’t we supposed to wax nostalgically about our hometowns? I’ve written so lovingly about the foothills town of Dobson that some of you no doubt have tired of it.
In fact, I once received an email from a fellow who wrote, “You’ve raved about the place where you grew up so much my wife and I took a detour off Highway 52 to visit the town. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but to tell the truth, there’s just no there there.”
I wrote back that the “there” is, as in most cases, not visible to the eye. It resides primarily in the heart.
As someone reminded me recently, going home isn’t just about going back to a place, the house in which you were born or visiting other such landmarks. “Going home” is going back to your childhood.
That may be true. Still, the longer I live in burgeoning Raleigh, the more I long for my hometown’s smallness: four stoplights, population under 2,000.
I love its pace and its people. It’s unpretentious, approachable and filled with the imagined innocence that all small towns can claim.
For example, I recall a visit during which I was driving a sister and two nieces my age to the mountains for apples.
I pulled in at the new, and controversial, liquor store to pick up some boxes to hold the apples.
When I came out of the store, my car was empty. Or seemed so. As I approached it, I saw the three women crouched on the floorboards, fearful of being seen at a liquor store.
“Get up from there!” I ordered. “God knows you’re here even if nobody else does. And He knows why you’re here.”
Nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains, Dobson is the Surry County seat, where years ago legendary sheriff Sam Patterson would sometimes adjourn court by singing “Amazing Grace” to a captive audience.
When I called my nephew, Tim Dockery, to check on the number of Dobson’s stoplights, he explained why he could never pry himself out of the place, although his construction business is far-flung.
“It takes a village to raise kids,” he said. “My Daddy used to tell me, ‘Son, I don’t expect you to get in trouble. But if you do, I’ll know it well before you get home.’
“It’s hard to be prejudicial in small towns,” he continued. “Rich kids live beside poor kids. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, we’re all neighbors, because the neighborhood is small.
“Do prejudices exist? Certainly. You can’t run from your suppertime experiences, good or bad. But living in a small town forces one to at least deal with those prejudices.
“Communing with those who are different may not change your beliefs, but at least you can’t run to the other side of the tracks to hide from them. Also, it seems I hear God more in the quietness of a small town; whether it’s in the small towns near the banks of the Mitchell River or the small towns near the Outer Banks.”
Yes, it’s easier to become bored in small towns. Someone once told me that in the town where he grew up, the most exciting thing to do on a weekend was to go down to the meat market, look in the window and watch the liver bleed. At least the crime rate was low.
Some of you Andy Griffith fans may remember the song Aunt Bea composed for her home town:
My hometown is the greatest place I know
Where the neighbors I find are gentle and kind
And the living easy and slow
My hometown is the only place to be
Here the worries are small and the kids grow tall
And strong and healthy and free
It’s my hometown, my hometown
So let’s lift a glass to our hometowns, although they may be as imperfect as we are.