I grew up in very small southern town. A town with two traffic lights nestled at the foothills of the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a different time and place and a different era. We slept with the doors unlocked at night, and it seemed as if you knew everyone. If you did something wrong every lady in our town was your Mom. When I think about being raised in a small Southern town, I think there’s some valuable life lessons about happiness that I learned. These are valuable lessons that still carry with me today and they are part of the fabric of my being. I also think they are lesson about happiness everyone can learn from in their own life.
Lesson #1: One on one is the best way to connect with others. Often in the evenings after dinner everyone would walk around the neighborhood “visiting,” and people would be sitting on their porches, and they would talk. We would sit with someone and shake their hand to look them in the eye. We would talk and maybe have a piece of cake if they offered, and really get to know who they were as a person. We were not sending emails or texts, we were truly connecting with other human beings on porches around the neighborhood, while the lightning bugs glowed and danced in the back yard. We really knew our neighbors and they knew us. We would go to Mr. Blevins gas station and buy penny candy, and we would sit and talk with him and neighbors as they stopped in to get their gas and a cold RC cola.
Lesson #2: Helping other people makes you feel good about yourself. Whenever anything would happen to someone in town, the community would surround that person with love and support. If someone lost a family member, neighbors for blocks around would bring meals and provide support for the family, holding them up through the tough times. If someone was hungry they got fed, if someone was sick there was someone to take care of them, if somebody was down on their luck, the community surrounded them with help. If a neighbor was in the hospital, someone mowed their lawn. They did not do any of these things with an expectation of return; they just did them because they cared about their neighbors.
Lesson #3: You don’t have to be family member to be someone’s family. The great thing about a small town is that everybody who lived in our small town felt like they were part of your family; more than that they were your family. So I grew up believing that someone doesn’t have to be a blood relative in order to be part of your family. The African American woman who came to our house to clean became part of our family she was a second Mom to me. Somebody can be part of your family by birth or somebody can be part of your family by your choice. My friend Dave, for example, is like a brother to me. We have been best friends for almost 30 years. He would do anything for me and I would do anything for him. He is part of my family and I am part of his.
Lesson #4: Bigger isn’t always better. In the small town that I grew up in, we had one department store, one hardware store, we had two movie theaters, and only one lake. We didn’t have a giant mall where we could go shopping, we didn’t have a mega- plex movie theater with 16 screens, or hundreds of restaurants to pick from when we went out to dinner. We loved what we had because it was local, it was homegrown and it was good. So we didn’t necessarily believe that bigger was better, and that just maybe local was better, that a restaurant owned by family in your neighborhood was better, maybe smaller was quant and interesting and charming and original. We never saw a chain restaurant for a long time.
Lesson #5: There is true joy in simplicity. Every year sometime around fall, our little town had a Fireman’s Bazaar and Carnival. A traveling carnival would come to town and set up rides at the local baseball field. There were rides and fair food, and carnival games and entertainment. It was very simple, and designed to raise money for the local volunteer fire department. It was a very small carnival, it wasn’t a giant amusement park, but it was ours and we took joy in the simplicity of it. The fireworks display at the end of the carnival was modest, but to us it was the most amazing display we ever seen. We enjoyed a lazy day fishing at the lake, or exploring the creeks looking for craw daddies under rocks, or building forts in the woods. We didn’t have video games or flat screens and the TV only had three channels.
Today, I live outside of Philadelphia, and I sometimes long for those simpler slower days. I know that even though I don’t live there anymore, and that the reality is that place really doesn’t really exist anymore, but I know that the lessons I learned are a very big part of who I am, and I will carry them with me the rest of my life.