For the first 18 years of my life all I could think about was getting the hell out of dodge, dodge being my wonderful hometown of Mt. Carroll, Illinois. I hated being stuck in the “middle of nowhere” with nothing to do, no stores to go to and nothing but cornfields to look at. Yet these days, with each trip back home, it gets harder and harder for me to come back to the golden bliss of suburbia. (And just in case you don’t actually know me, that’s me being sarcastic). Now don’t get me wrong, suburbia or not, I do love my home. With our move last summer we were able to get a house with a bigger yard for the kids (and myself) to play in, and over the past several years, I’ve made some great friends. But while Deer Park is where I currently live, it’ll never actually be my “home.” Not like Mt. Carroll was and even still is in my heart to this day.
Now to an outsider, it may not seem like much. I remember the first time I took my now husband back home with me, he was like, “wow, this is it?!” as I gave him the tour in all of three minutes. But where he sees rundown houses, I see beautiful old homes built with character and filled with memories. Where he sees only a Dairy Queen, I see the place where I spent so many summer nights hanging out with friends. Where he sees a deserted, dilapidated school, I see the place where I spent the most impressionable 13 years of my life. The place that not only formed the mold of who I would become as an adult but also the place where I met and grew to love some of the best friends that I still have to this day.
Mt. Carroll isn’t just a place where I was raised. It’s the place where I grew up. And what I didn’t have the sense to know or appreciate as a bratty teenage girl, as an adult I’m finally able to understand everything that it gave me. First and foremost it gave me roots. But not just because my family is still there. It’s more than that. It’s the entire community. It’s being able to walk into a store, see the mom of a fellow high schooler that I probably haven’t seen in over 20 years and still have a 15-minute conversation together. Or running into an old teacher and giving her a hug and filling her in about my kids. It doesn’t matter if you still live here or not, people welcome you back at all times with open arms and smiles.
Growing up in Mt. Carroll also gave the adult me a different perspective on the beauty and importance of simplicity. People back home just aren’t the same as they are in the suburbs. They seem to live in the the moment a lot more and stress a lot less on keeping up with the Jones’s. I’m the first to admit it’s easy to get sucked into the uppity idealistic suburban lifestyle, but it’s comforting to be reminded of what’s truly important in life every time I go back home. For example, during my last visit, my dad made a pit stop on our mule ride to “look for rocks.” My first thought was, “you’ve got to be kidding me.” But honestly, I think I had more fun than my kids looking for all the “pretty” things. I had forgotten that I used to spend hours by myself looking for fossils or fools gold as a kid – something my own kids most likely will never spend time doing (unless it’s with Grandpa.) Because in here, nature has been replaced by things like sod, manicured lawns and parking lots.
I often wonder if I’m doing my kids a disservice by not raising them in a rural community. Sure the suburbs have better schools and way more opportunities for them, but where the country lacks in educational opportunities, it makes up for it with offering experiences and life lessons that aren’t taught in a classroom. I went to school with a lot of farm kids. Kids who learned at a very early age what it meant to contribute to the family, join in the hard work and still go to school and participate in extracurricular activities. These kids weren’t coddled. They knew what was expected and they did it. No excuses. I certainly never knew anyone who had a stay-at-home mom that also had a nanny, something that seems to be extremely common where I live now. As kids we played outside. We got dirty. We laughed. We built forts. We were kids. Yet my kids’ free time is spent begging for any kind of screen time. Or complaining how bored they are despite having the entire Toys R’ Us store in the basement.
I’m sure these differences in the generations aren’t just related to the environment. It’s the technology craze we live in, the need for instant gratification. Regardless I still believe suburbia is perfecting the art of raising lazy, entitled brats who would rather stare into their phones all day than play outside or pull their share of the family load. Unfortunately kids that expect handouts eventually grow into adults that expect the same thing.
Country living isn’t just about working hard, however. There’s always time for play. From preschool to senior year I went to school with the same group of kids. Ed Sheeran nailed it in his song “Castle on the Hill” when he sings, “But these people raised me and I can’t wait to go home.” No other statement could be more true. This small group of kids were my life for the first 18 years. They were my influences, my confidantes, my partners in crime. And as a result, incredible friendships and bonds were formed that I still maintain to this day. Will my kids be able to say the same thing? In our district’s high school, there’s almost 2,000 kids. That’s more than my entire town. While I know my kids will make friends, when they’re 40 years old will they still keep in touch and even hang out with the friends they had? For their sake, I hope so. Because while I’ve made some incredible friends as an adult, my best friends are the ones that I grew up with. The ones that saw me thrive and also fail. The ones that stuck by me through the horrible middle school years and then again through the hormonal teenage years. These are the friends that know me better than anyone because like the song says, they’re the ones who helped raise me.
I suppose I could ramble on forever about all the wonderful things I love about my hometown and also just the rural lifestyle in general. Obviously I wish I would have appreciated it more growing up but I guess that’s all just part of the aging and maturing process. I will forever be grateful for the memories, the experiences, the lessons (both good and bad) that my country-living youth taught me. And while my family may live in the heart of suburbia, I certainly will do my best to give them plenty of opportunities to make their own country memories and experience the beauty in nature and simplicity. Home is where the heart is, and my heart will forever remain in Mt. Carroll.
“And I’m on my way, I still remember/ This old country lanes/ When we did not know the answers” – “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran