To me coming home has always felt like looking at an old photograph. Seeing the sign that reads “Welcome to Colebrook” as I roll back into my hometown always fills me with the same sense of nostalgia that a book of childhood photos does. There is a sense of stillness here which is both comforting and disturbing. It is funny how coming home has a habit of bringing up thoughts and feelings like this.
There is something strangely alluring about the cliché “small town USA” which makes it feel frozen to the passing of time, yet if you leave it for a while and then return, it feels somewhat different, though nothing has seemingly changed. This is the paradox I find myself stuck in, the feeling of change in a place which never changes. Though perhaps I should go back and tell you first about this town of which I speak.
Like most children who grow up in a small town, I spent my whole childhood running towards the future as if it was an express ticket out of here. I spent countless hours of my youth dreaming of a world outside of the small bubble in which I lived. I dreamt of the liveliness of the cities which was lacking in our small community. I grew to believe that most who grew up here shared my longing; even those most content with staying cannot help but envy the ability to be able to order Chinese at two in the morning on a Sunday or only have to take a five-minute car ride down the road to the Super-Walmart. Yet having finally left and found myself in the city, with all its luxuries, I have noticed there always seems to be something missing after having grown up in a small town.
My town has just shy of two thousand people in it, positioned snuggly in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire with the Connecticut river running swiftly against its back and miles of uninhabited woods and farmland hugging it on its remaining sides. It is the type of place where folks still go to church on Sunday—seven different churches to be precise—and the type where people still take the time to learn your name.
They call this town Colebrook. It has one of those main streets where if you blink you might miss it, but if you keep a keen eye out you can’t help but call it cute. There are two banks, on one each end and a dozen little shops between them. Dr. Katz’s office is there too. He has been cleaning teeth for as long as anyone can remember and never fails to ask about your family when you drop by for a cleaning.
It is also the type of place where people still make small talk when they see you out on the street, or in the grocery store. People also don’t look down much, but instead are always looking up, always smiling at strangers. There is a strong sense of community which is lacking in most of the world. Neighbors still look out for neighbors here; we are still our brother’s keeper. And if you are patient enough, you can find out that almost everyone is your cousin somehow.
Colebrook truly is like an old photograph which is tucked away in a drawer and when it is pulled out again memories come rushing back. When I pull back into town I can’t help but think of the annual Moose Festival, when Main Street is shut down one night a year for a street fair, or sitting on the bridge in the center town watching the Fourth of July parade. And as we pass by the one shop that sells soft serve ice cream I am reminded of walking with my cousins in the summer heat to that very same shop to get a cool treat. Each shop, each inch of sidewalk holds a different memory.
Recently while making the trek back home there was a group of kids walking on the very same sidewalks I used to walk on when I was their age with my friends. I saw them laughing and joking, and I could not help but wonder if they were dreaming of the very same things I was dreaming of when I was in their shoes—of big cities and adventures that waited for them as soon as they got of out of here. And then I found myself smiling too, thinking of my youthful naivety. For the reality is once you leave Colebrook you often find yourself wishing you were right back here in this small town where you spent so many hours wishing you were somewhere else and my theory is such is the case in all small towns.
Yet here comes into play once more the paradox I mentioned at the beginning: Colebrook is a place which never changes yet every time I return it feels changed. I realized there is but one reason for this, and that is that I am the one who has changed. It was not in the leaving I realized the beauty of this town, but in the coming back. Colebrook didn’t change on me, but I changed on it and it was because of that I was able to see the true beauty of this town, of this community, which I failed to see as a child.