Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about why I want to leave my little hometown. There’s a romance about living in your hometown, and being married to your high school sweetheart, and raising your kids in the town you grew up in, and being close to family. But as with most romances, the truth is far removed from reality.
My parents moved our family out here when I was just shy of five years old. They built the house I grew up in, the house where my father still lives, in a rural outpost of a suburb just barely within suburban distance of Chicago. Out here, we’re as far away as you can be from Chicago and still be considered a suburb. My South Side Chicago mom chose this location because she wanted her kids to grow up in the country, climbing trees and swimming in a pond and sledding down actual hills. That city girl wanted us to have a real childhood, idyllic, all-American. And we did. Before the house was even built, my brothers and sister and I were down at the “lake” (really, a large puddle) catching 100 frogs which we proudly marched back to show Mom. She gamely applauded our efforts, and I don’t ever remember her recoiling from the swampy treasures we brought her from the Great Outdoors.
It WAS a great childhood. Skinned knees from tree-climbing, dirty hands and face from exploring in the forest, my imagination wild with stories and mysteries and curiosity. I swam in the lake and skated on it, sledded and rolled on the hills, ran around the neighborhood in bright sunlight and well into dusk, Ghosts in the Graveyard and Kick the Can and Sardines. We played basketball at the park, my brothers teaching me everything about sports by letting me play with them, rewarding my enthusiasm with the gift of patient tutelage. I ran and hiked and threw and tackled, though Mom never knew our touch-football games were truly full contact. I was a natural at baseball, and my oldest and middle brothers spent long hours showing me the mechanics of throwing, of catching, of hitting.
My parents also chose this town for its Catholic elementary school, and the nearby Catholic high school, which, to my mother’s dismay, closed soon after we moved here. We would all have the K-Bachelor’s Catholic education she had, by gum. Only three of us finished elementary school at the Catholic school; the other two finished at public school. Had it not been for my mother’s anger at the petty politics of the parish priest, she may have seen such an abbreviation as a defeat. Don’t ever challenge an Irish girl.
But the truth of suburban life is that we’re as riddled with flawed humanity as the city, just manifestly different. People forming social constructs will always scrabble for power, be it financial success or social status. For my mother, who lived in one parish her whole life, who grew up surrounded by her large family and by other Irish Catholics, coming to the suburbs represented a society so foreign and unfriendly that she walled herself off quickly from all but a select few. Gone were the familiar South Side porch steps on which her neighborhood would congregate, the sanctuary in which the same neighborhood families would worship, the corner store where she’d walk for a nickel loaf of bread and a lifetime of conversations with friends and classmates along the way. Suburbs do, in fact, sprawl, friends and fellow congregants divided by vast, dangerous roads no child would be safe crossing alone. She had traded the insular world of her parish neighborhood for the straggling, disconnected town subdivided by income. If you earn XYZ, you can afford to live *here*. If you earn XYZ+$10K, you can afford to live *there*. The unspoken but well-enforced rule is that if you live There, you don’t associate with people who live Here. My kind, openhearted mom just didn’t know what to do with that information.
I found several kind, truly good people in this same society, forced as I was to interact in ways she never did. But the pettiness of the social structures in these suburbs–some would say specifically in our wealthy suburb–is pervasive, and if you haven’t developed a thick skin or learned how to maneuver within it, it’s brutal. On some level, I chose to move inward instead of addressing and accepting the constant rejection of my peers. Not exactly a friendless shrinking violet, I preferred solitude over the uncertainty of my position in social groups. Even in high school, I sought the comfort and understanding I found in “nature.” I so hate that word and the closed-box, contained definition it implies. To me, what’s real and good is what man hasn’t made or fouled, not simply a tree in the distance. The suburbs typify everything man has made and fouled. Concrete everywhere, roads to take us from nail salon to pizza joint without even the hint of a blade of grass, cement planters into which non-native plants are rudely jammed to await their inevitable death by neglect.
Yes, cities and suburbs host a share of beauty, from art to music to literature, but even those are neutered in my suburb, standardized to conform to an acceptable beige. Difference is barely tolerated in this realm, from different clothing to different thoughts to different skin colors. All must be the same, all must be dull, and if you’re not the same as all the others, then you must *not* draw attention to yourself. When I moved back here with my two dark-haired children, I was shocked at the uniformity of hair color among the populace. Every single person is a dark blonde or lighter. I know this because I could find my children in a crowd instantly, simply by looking for the darkest hair. Even the parents model this hair color, and most of the time, it comes from a box. Why they would *choose* something so bland is mystifying.
My only method of coping with the sameness, with the unwritten rules of social strata, with the not-so-benign neglect of individuality is to find myself outside. But the reach of suburban life is ever extending into the farmland and open space. It’s harder to find a horizon unmarked by cheek-by-jowl housing or new highways shouldering into forests and farmland to meet the need for more traffic to connect the sardine housing to the next pizza joint/nail salon combo, the grocery and drug stores and McDonald’s necessary for serving the sardine housing. Where once I could drive 15 minutes and be free of any semblance of suburbs, now I must drive an hour or more.
The need for relief has gotten greater, and the ability to find that relief has gotten more difficult. I am increasingly encroached upon, and if I don’t get out now while I’m still healthy and young enough to enjoy it, I never will. I know this. I’m desperate to leave while I still can. My mother had the same plans to leave, but she succumbed to cancer before she could make that a reality.
This can be a nice place to live, if you have the right money, cars, social position, clothes, and hair color. I don’t. I am going to go live where those things don’t matter so much, where I can just BE.