Small Town USA, 1967

1967. Small Town, USA.

It could have been anywhere. It should have been a sort of Camelot, a place of innocent ideals and perhaps for some it was – a picture-perfect locale of neat homes dating to the 1890s or the 1930s, storefronts in brick, roads where children played without concern, on the surface, a bastion of moderate behaviors, honorable interactions, merchants who offered credit with a nod, neighbors who never thought twice about their unlocked doors.

Though we know there is no picture-perfect time without its secrets, no bright penny without its tarnished underside, no Camelot without its compromises, we dream of recapturing the sense of safe haven.

In my small town, there were streets lined with oaks and maples, rambling three-story houses in stucco and wood, children set loose on Saturday mornings to run free – scattering across the neighborhood for hide and seek, for building forts, for sitting by the reservoir and telling stories.

We would return home for lunch when we heard voices calling or, as in the case of my mother, a cow bell was rung as she stood at the back door sounding out that giggle-inducing and inimitable sound with its surprising reach.

We scrambled back to our peanut butter sandwiches or bowls of cottage cheese and fruit, taking off again after for more wandering, more exploring, more child’s play.

The small town as I remember it is a relic, an illusion, a truth, a treasure. Within a five-minute walk from our home was something of a town square, not a square by usual standards but an intersection with its businesses seemingly untouched for decades: the corner soda fountain with its red and turquoise fixtures, which became a yarn shop by the 1970s; a tiny dance studio for the willowy as well as the chubby, willing to don pink slippers and a leotard to learn balance and movement; a pharmacy in a small triangular building; a hardware store which still stands and sells its wrenches and nails, its sandpaper and stains; two rival banks (to my adult amusement); a funeral home, an A & P, a small medical office; a jeweler with few baubles to offer but a monopoly on repairing watches.

The truest pleasure to a child? The Five-and-Ten with its musty aisles that were filled with wind-up toys, bats and balls, board games stacked neatly and waiting for birthdays, paint by number kits and sketchbooks, school supplies and brightly colored pens, Elmer’s glue and pipe cleaners. My mother’s favorite section eventually became one of mine, with its pull-out drawers of Buttericks patterns and McCalls, and shelves crammed with bolts of fabric – kettle cloth and velvet and wool, from which she would choose to make her clothes and mine, and where I would purchase remnants when I, too, learned to sew.

About a mile away was the only competition to the magic of the Five-and-Ten.

The movie theater, with limited showings and one screening room of course, in which to project a movie we would anticipate for weeks and where Wednesday afternoon matinees featured a glorious escape for the sum of two quarters.

It was there that my mother could leave behind her worries and her hurt, bringing me with her on occasion in happy moments of sharing wonder and excitement on the large screen, settled into worn red seats, generally with few in attendance.

It was there that she threw me a birthday party once, which I do not recall in detail except I can see my mother’s face and how beautiful she was, and I can picture the faces of friends – Debbie with her flaming hair and freckles, Cindy with her fair curls and upturned nose, Lorilee with near violet eyes framed by long, lush lashes – a mini Liz Taylor in the making.

It was 1967, and the movie was Camelot. On the screen stood Vanessa Redgrave, exquisite more than 40 years ago and with a face I still consider magnificent, as are her powerful presence and immense talent. And if Guinevere loved two men and that did not meet with convention, surely, mesmerized in that theater as a child, I could understand why two men would pursue such beauty and grace, such tender strength.

From this vantage point, older than my mother was when we sat through the movies on Wednesday afternoons, as she insisted we stay to watch the previews of coming attractions as though her fragile hopes for the future hung on some slim promise of whatever imaginary tales lay ahead – I know my memories to be softening and growing kinder.

I know my comprehension of my mother’s life is informed by the passage of the years, by recognizing her sense of entrapment in Small Town USA even with its proximity to the Big City, her frustrations in the conventions of a lifestyle she both wanted and that constrained her, held hostage by demons I will never understand, still trying to locate her own Camelot – a place of innocent ideals, and something more, that eluded her.
This is part of a group writing exercise By Invitation Only, where the prompt was the word “Camelot.” Please visit more moments of Camelot by checking here, at Splenderosa.