As you may know because I wrote about it two weeks ago (Road trip prep), our family went to northwestern Pennsylvania to visit my parents last week. ASIDE: For those of you who are curious, the individual DVD players were lifesavers for the trip and we didn’t even need all those travel tickets and new toys. The boys were almost completely silent all the way there and all the way back. Heaven. END OF ASIDE
I grew up in a tiny town called Conneautville. It’s so tiny, there’s not even a stop light. My parents still live in the house in which I grew up and although I’ve been back there before, I was excited to show it to my kids for the first time. I wanted to be able to show them Mama’s childhood room, the school I attended, and the neighborhood where I played. I have wonderful memories of my childhood in Conneautville in the 70s and 80s. I was anticipating that everything would be surreal, that it would be strange to see my kids in the spots from my own childhood. It was surreal, but not for the reason I anticipated.
My childhood bedroom? It’s now my mom’s “parlor.” It’s basically a big closet. Well, big for a closet; it was always small for a bedroom. My high school? It’s been merged with schools in two other towns because of dwindling population. Everything seems smaller. Everyone seems older (as well they should, I’m older, too).
The starkest change, though, and the one that hit me the hardest, was the level of poverty in my hometown. Maybe it was always there, but if it was, I never saw it in quite this way. My mister and I took the boys for a walk on our first day in town. In just a square block around my parents’ house, we saw many houses that should have been (or were, in fact) condemned. All but one of these were still inhabited.
The median income in Conneautville in 2009 was $30,353 (source). Remember that median means that half of the people make more than $30K but half of them make less. In 2010, 15.4% of the population here was living below the poverty line; 12% had incomes of less than 50% of the poverty level that same year (source). In 2009, 14% of the population was on food stamps (source); the area is also 96.4% white so there goes that stereotype (source).
I am fully aware that Connecticut has some of the highest incomes and some of the lowest in the country. In 2009, the median household income for Connecticut was $68,174 (source). My family and I live in Simsbury, where the 2009 median household income was $101,431 (source). Don’t forget, Conneautville’s was $30K.
Maybe my shock over my hometown was so great because I spend so much time in Simsbury, I don’t know. What I do know is that I didn’t grow up feeling “poor.” Sure, some of my friends’ houses were nicer than ours but some of them were worse, much worse.
Growing up, though, my family were the “wealthy” ones. We had one of the nicer houses, a house that my parents bought for $8,000 in 1971. According to Zillow, my parents’ house would be worth $95K today (then again, Zillow lists that vacant, condemned house across the street at $78K, so their numbers are suspect). The house has three bedrooms, one and a half baths and a huge yard. We had two cars, my sister and I each had our own bedroom, and yes, we had indoor plumbing. Even being “well-off,” we still had to pinch a little. We had a garden not because it was the cool and eco-friendly thing to do, but because my mother canned our own food. We had a blanket hung at the bottom of the stairs in winter to keep the warm air from escaping to the second floor. My parents were public school teachers who didn’t get paid all summer, so I remember complaining that I could never get new school clothes until after the first day of school, after my parents got their first paychecks of the school year. Aside from new school clothes for Day 1, my sister and I didn’t want for anything. We both attended public school in a very poor, rural district. I was second in my graduating class and third in my college class and my sister has a law degree, so we obviously thrived because of (or despite) our poor school.
I look around at what my two- and four-year-old boys already have and what their lives will be like. They will have televisions and computers, birthday parties at bounce houses and scheduled play dates. When we were at my parents’ house, Big and Little didn’t notice the poverty or the general rundown state of their surroundings. What they noticed was fun stuff — a huge yard to run in, a safe street to play in, a hose with a sprinkler, lawn chairs and hammocks to climb on, bunnies and butterflies to catch. Simple things that don’t cost a lot. The lesson I learned from my visit home is that things change over time and the lens that you view them through — that of a mother — changes as well. I look back at my hometown and my childhood not through the lens of Simsbury, but through the somewhat rose-colored glasses of a mama who had a happy childhood, one that I want to emulate as much as possible for my own kids. It’s not money that makes a happy childhood. You may not be able to go home again in a real sense, but you can recreate the feeling of home for your own kids, wherever and however you live.