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  • Writer's picturemaggiehsmith07

Courage to Change the Things I Can

On Monday of this week, I texted my mom and asked when we’d moved to Centralia, Illinois. Was it 1979? 1980?

She called me and we agreed it was 1980. The move had taken place midway through my kindergarten year. I’d been enjoying an idyllic kindergarten and then I moved to a new school where the teacher was militant with standards that seemed beyond kindergarten. At the end of the year, she wanted to hold me back but my mom was having none of that shit and in the end I was transferred to the Lutheran school in town. Problem solved. During first grade, it became clear that I couldn’t hear very well. Maybe that was my problem in Kindergarten? Although it seems more plausible that I’d simply preferred the fun I was having the first half of the year to the rigor I had to endure the latter half of the year. But in first grade, the teacher would ask me to stop reading aloud and I’d keep going - unable to read her lips with my head down. After consults with a specialist, surgery was scheduled for me to have my tonsils and adenoids removed and to have tubes put in my ears. The tubes worked but I carried with me some pretty good lip reading skills. I hadn't realized I'd used these skills until masks covered everyone's lips due to the pandemic.

Centralia was an interesting place. It was 4 hours south of the Chicago suburb we’d been residing in - my grandparents and cousins nearby. At the time, it seemed incredibly far away as we didn’t get to visit much. We’d moved there due to my dad’s job with the Burlington Northern Railroad. Jobs seem a common culprit for these moves from civilization to rural environments.

I had a bike that I rode further than I was allowed. Even when I was a kid, the siren song of ice cream was difficult to resist and I’d discovered a small ice cream stand I’d pedal my bike too with change I’d helped myself to from my mom’s purse. I was once pedaling home when I saw my dad driving towards our home in his car. I raised my cone in a wave before remembering I wasn’t supposed to bike to the ice cream stand. My dad never said anything to me and, years later, I learned he’d never said anything to my mom as well. I recall struggling to learn to count change at our dining room table before that. Clearly, a trip to the ice cream stand would have been more motivating to learn to count change. I was a strange little kid who somehow befriended an elderly woman who lived around the corner from us. She has a small dog she lived with and a piano. I recall that she used to be a hairdresser. I made a friend my own age - a redhead named Melissa. I had a stint in the Brownies but I want to say that ended shortly after I went on a field trip with them and they set the nature preserve ablaze. We had built a fire and then proceeded to take a hike. When we returned, the fire had leapt out of the fire pit and spread to the grass and trees nearby. I recall marveling at the flames dripping from the tree tops. We formed a bucket brigade to put the fire out but it was still going when mom rolled in to pick me up.

“What happened?” She demanded in horror. One of the leaders explained - the fire, then the hike. Mom told them the first rule was to never leave a fire unattended. A tip that seemed better suited for the drop off than pick up given the circumstances.

We had elderly neighbors on either side of us and they became like pseudo grandparents to me. The one couple didn’t have a basement so when the tornado sirens would sound, they and their dog would make the trek across our yards to huddle in the basement with us.

When I was in 1st grade, mom whipped into pick up of the Lutheran school and demanded I get in the car. President Regan had been shot and, along with him, his press secretary James Brady, who was related to our neighbors. We huddled in their small living room while elderly Mrs. Davidson cried and fretted and, as it turned out, with good reason.

We remained in Centralia for three and a half years. My experience there seemed fine - I have a lot of good memories from that time. On Monday, neither mom nor I could recall the name of my 2nd grade teacher.

“Her husband was a teacher too.” Mom prompted. Still, nothing.

The name came to mom in the night and she texted me the next day. The teacher’s face appeared in my minds eye. For some reason, I googled them and learned that her husband had passed away back in 2016 at the age of 80. I stared at the obituary thinking, “It all goes so fast.”

If you ask my mom about that time, even now, she always answers the same, “By the end of the 3 and a half years, I would have walked home.”

I’ve never dissected this answer with my mom but have a lot of theories on why this was – we were not accustomed to the racism that openly reared its head in the south. Our neighbor Jack once said of another neighbor, “He’s a good n***er.” There were other reasons, I am sure, but I need to ask my mom what those were.

Or maybe I don’t – maybe it’s some of the same reasons that 14-months into our move to Forest, Virginia, we’re questioning the wisdom of such a move. Don’t look for us to head north – we like the mild winters, the lower cost of living, even the slower pace. I’ve spent most of my lifetime with easy access to a city, having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago then spending much of my adult life outside of Boston. During the year I lived in Korea while in the Army, I lived atop a hill in Seoul. If my calculations are any where near accurate, I have spent 38 of my 46 years in proximity to a city.

If you look your address up on Zillow, and then scroll wayyyyy down, there is a walk score assigned to your residence. Our home in Hudson had a walk score of 32 assigned to it – which makes sense as we could hit the rail trail and then walk into town (which wasn’t close nor far). Our home in Forest has a walk score of 0. Zero. A giant goose egg. We live in an area that could be described as bucolic. And, at this time, I can tell you that bucolic is a nice way of saying boring as hell.

We’re not ones to sit back and accept circumstances. The serenity prayer, a favorite with recovering drunks like me, requires us to have courage to change the things I can.

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