When I first moved to this area, I was so discouraged by how different it was from where I had grown up that I failed to see what a wonderful place it actually was. Two years after that initial move, the Water Patrol decided to transfer my husband to a new lake just north of Kansas City; by then, we had both fallen in love with the area and didn’t want to leave. The only way he could refuse a transfer was to resign from the Patrol, so that’s what he did. It was a tough decision at the time but one that we have never regretted.
Personally, it was the lake that first drew me in. Shortly after I moved here (with no job, no car, no Wal-Mart, etc.), one of our neighbors–a fishing guide–took pity on me and started inviting me to go fishing with him on days when he didn’t have paying clients. It was an offer I was tempted to refuse–until I learned that, in these parts, the worms were artificial and didn’t ooze goo when threaded onto a hook. When he also offered to remove any caught fish from said hook (and kill it and filet it), the deal was sealed.
I spent many peaceful hours sitting in the back seat of his bass boat, occasionally hooking a bass or crappie worthy of the dinner table, soaking up the glorious sun, and admiring the rocky cliffs bordering the shoreline. Throw in a picturesque orange and pink sunset over the lake, and I was starting to realize that this place was pretty darn close to Heaven.
Even more impressive to me was the crystal-clear blueness of the water. Growing up, I had spent a lot of days playing in and sailing on nearby Lake Wappapello, which wasn’t much more than an overcrowded, glorified puddle. I remember my 17-year-old self strutting so proudly into that lake in my brand new white bikini–and then cowering in embarrassment a short time later when I came out of the murky water and realized my white bikini had been forever dyed a muddy brown! This place, this lake was such a refreshing change from that–it seemed so vast by comparison, and no matter where I jumped in on the lake, I could wiggle my toes five feet below and watch the minnows darting away in response.
So it was the lake that first opened my eyes to the beauty all around me, but ultimately it was the people of this place who won me over and made me realize there was nowhere else on earth I would rather be. In addition to my fishing guide and his wife (who became one of my dearest friends and my very own librarian), there were countless other locals who went out of their way to include a pair of young strangers and to make us feel welcome. Their kindnesses were and continue to be so many and so varied:
- When we decided we were staying, my husband’s new boss and his wife co-signed on a loan so we could buy our first home. They didn’t know us that well, and they certainly didn’t have to do this–but they did.
- One day I went through the check-out at the local grocery before realizing I had no checks or cash with me. I’m not sure the lady behind the register even knew my name, but she had seen me in the store enough to know that I was now a local, and she said, “Don’t worry about it–I’ve got you covered” and pulled money out of her own pocket to pay my bill. When I protested, she told me to just pay her back the next time I came in.
- For years one of our neighbors has plowed the entire gravel road every time it snows. He doesn’t have to do this, but he graciously volunteers his time/equipment/gas so that the rest of us can get to the highway.
- Every summer we are bombarded by neighbors sharing the bounty of their gardens–tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, peppers; if it can be grown in the ground, it has probably shown up on our doorstep (often anonymously).
- Two years ago our youngest son had his back broken in a car wreck, and the outpouring of love and concern was overwhelming. One example: While we were with our son in the hospital, a heavy rain once again washed away our driveway. Before we brought him home in his back brace, another of our neighbors spent several hours grading our driveway so that our son could have as smooth a ride as possible. It may have seemed like a small gesture to him, but to us it meant the world.
And I haven’t even gotten to the best people of all. Eight months after moving to the area, I was hired by the Gainesville school district to teach junior high and high school English. Suddenly my isolation was replaced with colleagues–a dedicated, caring group of experienced teachers willing to share their wisdom with a 22-year-old newbie (as long as I didn’t park in their parking space or complain about their smoking in the teachers’ lounge!). Even more importantly, though, I now had the pleasure (and the honor) of spending the better part of every day with the most amazing groups of young people–young people who were smart and funny and talented and kind. I’ll admit that, over the years, not every day was perfect and not every student was incredible; in fact, a few were downright knuckleheads intent on trying my patience and preventing me from teaching them and everybody else anything about English (Why do we have to learn this stuff? I ain’t never gonna need this!). But the overwhelming majority were just good kids who had good parents at home who expected them to learn and to behave. I was very lucky.
And I continue to be lucky. Because I have stayed put for almost 29 years, I have gotten to see so many of those amazing young people grow into amazing young adults, many of them with families of their own. I have had the satisfaction of seeing them become leaders in our school and community and world; I have been able to rejoice in their successes, and I have despaired over their losses. And, best of all, I have been blessed to be able to call many of them my friends (even if they can’t bring themselves to call me by my first name!). Now, how cool is that?!
These and so many, many other experiences have taught me the true value of “this place.” They have also taught me that “neighbor” isn’t limited to the person next door; “neighbor” is a culture characterized by the sharing of heart and spirit and soul. So what if there are a few tarantulas and scorpions, hills and curves (and a lot of slow-moving Buicks)–I’m surrounded by neighbors in this place that I am happy to call home.