I spent most of my childhood in a sprawling pre-planned community where every third home looked the same. There were no front porches, no downtown, and fences separated each yard from the next--wood or metal barriers between neighbors. I preferred the towns I saw depicted on television.
We all talk a big game now about how kids need to be outside playing and exercising, but I’ve gotta say that I loved whiling away a sweltering summer day parked in front of the tube. HBO was new and had it charms, but network TV shows from decades before were my favorites: Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show and, best of all, The Andy Griffith Show.
My dad used to come in from washing his car or mowing the lawn or engaging in some other enterprising outdoor activity and shake his head in disgust at me, “Are you watching those old shows again? For God sakes, Pam, they’re not even in color!” Sure, the shows were old, but they were new to me. And I really wanted to know if Andy was going to uphold Gomer’s citizen’s arrest for Barney’s illegal U-turn (he did) and if anyone was going to tell Aunt Bee that her homemade pickles tasted like “kerosene cucumbers” (they didn’t).
I thought Dad should be glad I wasn’t watching Luke and Laura make out or pop stars gyrating on MTV. But perhaps the truth was that what I was actually tuning in to was far more dangerous for my adolescent psyche because those shows made me yearn. My post-divorce world featured stepparents and half siblings--it was complicated. I craved the simplicity of a nuclear family and the predictable rhythm of small-town life. I wanted to go down to the fishin’ hole with Andy and Opie or hang out at Floyd’s barbershop and listen to the menfolk gossip.
Instead I grew out of the innocence that drove that desire--that life was never going to be mine. I graduated from high school and left for college; I went to graduate school, then got married and moved a few more times. My unrequited crush on small-town living remained dormant until Gilmore Girls hit the air. Stars Hollow! It featured a town square with a gazebo and a statue of Casimir Pulaski. Better yet, it was in color. And this world was one I knew more intimately--it’s main characters a divorced mother and her daughter figuring out their complicated familial relationships--all against the backdrop of charming buildings full of eccentric residents.
Enter Glencoe. It’s a town of about 8,000 residents nestled on Lake Michigan with a downtown so compact that if you glance at your GPS while driving through, you might miss it. The village has three schools and three stoplights and my husband and I moved here with our children a few years ago. I’m finally living the television dreams of my youth.
Glencoe’s a town with character and full of characters. There’s the pharmacist who’ll climb out of bed and reopen the store to get your kid’s meds. And the woman who rings you up in the boutique with tags hanging off her because she’s wearing clothes right off the racks (and will put them back there for sale). We have competing coffee shops and a world-class theater group that happens to do some performances in the back of the town bookstore.
There’s no better holiday than the Fourth of July to show what Glencoe is made of. Sifting through my own childhood, I came up empty on Independence Day memories. I asked my mom how we used to commemorate the day and she said, “Your dad didn’t care for the holiday and he was the law around our house.”
Imagine my thrill, then, to finally live in a place where the entire day is crammed with activities and the freedom to do them. Other holidays mine the spirit of family and religion but on the Fourth, we celebrate not just our independence but our unity as a nation and, on a smaller scale, as a community. Since moving here, it has become my favorite day of the year.
We don red, white, and blue and hit the streets for a fun-run, family games, children’s carnival, craft fair, magician, live music, and a watermelon-eating contest. We’re wilting in the heat but sweat it out to see the local talent show called “Glencoe’s Got Talent” (which I maintain should end with a question mark).
This year’s show features a four-year-old violinist, a suited elderly man crooning show tunes and three preteen girls fighting over the microphone to sing a Katy Perry song. Watching those girls wiggle and strut reminds me of being nine and standing with friends Kim and Kathy on the latter’s diving board to sing, “Stand by Your Man” in our best twangs. We had a group name (the Bathing Beauty Sisters) but no audience. Oh, to have lived in Glencoe then! The acts feature talents only a mother could love, but we all clap enthusiastically.
Then on to the parade--an exemplification of America with its homespun joys of floats festooned with tissue paper and convertibles with waving mayors. The onlookers for Glencoe’s procession are an aged group. That’s because every kid in town is marching or riding in the event itself. Bikes are spun with streamers and children hang out of the town fire engine as it inches its way down Vernon Ave.
For the first time, my daughter decides to watch with me instead of riding with her preschool pals. She catches candy thrown from realtor cars, happily gets flags from the temple’s float, and puts a sticker that reads “Brad Schneider for Congress” on her belly. An endless stream of Corvettes crawls by and the Men’s Library Club (MLC) hands my daughter a stack of books. I’m nudged by a neighbor and told that the MLC is a group of men that meets at pubs and rarely talks books, their name an inside joke--and that’s how small-town rumors get started.
A moment later, a man approaches my daughter and points to her tummy. He says, “I really like that sticker!” She smiles shyly. He continues, “Do you know why? Because I’m Brad Schneider!” My daughter is five and doesn’t read yet; her sticker could just as well say, “I love gummi bears.” But she smiles gamely for a photo-op.
I watch my daughter standing at the edge of the parade with a red, white, and blue lei around her neck, a poitical sticker on her belly, two flags gripped in her tight little right hand, a “Beiber Fever” book crooked under her arm, and a rapidly-melting electric blue push-up popsicle in her left hand. She’s as happy as I’ve ever seen her.
Next we prepare to attend a BBQ with eight other families. My daughter and I dip strawberries in melted white chocolate then roll them in blue sprinkles for the kids and make rhubarb pie for the adults. The pie features a beautiful fluffy white meringue on top and while we’re whipping it, my daughter keeps sneaking fingerfuls from the edge of the bowl. When I chide her, she says, “My hand is getting tired but I just can’t stop eating it!” She stirs; I scrape. We’re a team, shoulder-to-shoulder in the kitchen. Baking finds us bonding. And baking for friends and neighbors deepens the experience. At the BBQ, my daughter runs off to be with friends, her own independence blossoming.
We close the day with fireworks at the beach. We nestle on blankets with our friends and let out synchronized ooh’s and aah’s when a particularly beautiful chrysanthemum bursts overhead. These technicolor moments are the ones I imagined when I propped dreamily in front of hour-after-hour of those black and white shows.
But life here isn’t scripted and therefore isn’t perfect. It can be tricky. Circles of friends overlap in an indiscernible pattern. There’s always something going on, and thereby always something to potentially be left out of. There are hurt feelings.
Another thing they don’t show on TV is that everyone knows your business. For example, I will get asked on Monday about my weekend dinner at Kansaku by someone I never discussed my plans with. I will get honked at when out for a walk--not in appreciation of my fine form but by a friend, and at least three additional people will later say they saw me out and about .
Also, don’t drink too much at a party or linger too long in a conversation with someone else’s husband. People talk. Things you say and do become part of the collective consciousness, part of your permanent record. Town opinion is formed and communicated before you take off your heels.
Even with all of its un-televised complications, I would still choose this place to raise my children. In light of my own adolescent desires, I do wonder what my own kids will feel they’ve missed as they get older. Will they chafe at the confines of small-town living? Will they find the closeness comforting or stifling? After all, Mayberry and Stars Hollow aren’t right for everyone.