Everybody Dies Famous in a Small Town

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Lost in Time

I saw Miranda Lambert perform this weekend. I’d heard her name, but I really wasn’t aware of her music. I enjoyed her performance. She had some great swingin’ fast music to dance to, but I really couldn’t understand the words to her songs in the outdoor venue. On Sunday, her song Famous in a Small Town played on the radio. The refrain Everybody dies famous in a small town struck a chord with me. Now, that’s blog fodder!

I wish that I could do a blog with all the crazy stories of people’s lives from my small town in Watson LA. Let me preface that by saying that it is no longer the small town where I grew up. It has grown, and an influx of new residents now populate the area. My graduating class at my high school had 69 people in it and was the largest class ever as of that year. This weekend somebody said they thought the current graduating class was 400. It is no longer a small town like it once was. When I drive the back roads there now, I don’t recognize anything. Friends have to point out the places we used to play, swim in the Amite River and park.

The main thoroughfare, Hwy. 16, is no longer the beautiful backwoods two lane road it used to be. It’s been re-routed to take out the curves that made you slow down to enjoy the ride, and the treeline has been cut back way off the road. I can still see Hwy. 16 as it was on the way to the ball field from my house. Curvy and two-laned, the road merged with the shadows of huge shade trees whose limbs intertwined to create a a fabulous leafy tunnel. I got lost this weekend north of Watson, and I felt like I’d been thrown back in time. The countryside of my youth showed up along with some deer and a bunny that crossed the road. All of a sudden, I wanted to go back in time. I wanted to stop the car and just sit for awhile. The scenery was familiar, but it was the energy – of that place that once forgotten life … those memories … those beautiful people – that was drawing me back like a magnet. Sit and stay for awhile, will ya? What’s your hurry? I wish I’d listened for a bit.

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I remember when they were widening Hwy. 16. My grandparents talked of how it was going to ruin the road and their relatives’ and friends’ properties. I think they also anticipated a much bigger devastation because that road represented a way of life. With a faster, cleaner, straighter road, it brought people. It brought people that weren’t from there. It brought people that needed to shop, to eat in restaurants, to go to bars. It brought commercialization. When you traveled Hwy. 16 back then, you could tell where were you were because you were up by the Chavers’ house or the Easterly Ranch or the Wests’ place. Families had property, and they spread out and built little family campuses. I can still hear the name of one of my friends and see exactly what their place looked like, feel what it was like to drive up their driveway and greet them. Home wasn’t a house, it was a garden. It was where they were planted, and where they grew. There weren’t open spaces like now with well-manicured lawns and everything all cleaned up. Land was used, and people were highlighted.

Lambert’s song captures the essence of growing up in a small town. I remember Daddy harping on me about watching what people think. As a teenager, I really didn’t care as long as I didn’t get busted, but I now get what he was talking about. I’ve been drawn back home in the last year or so and have been reuniting with old friends and establishing new bonds. We KNOW each other. We know the family secrets because they weren’t really secrets … AND we were all family. You might keep some things inside the house secret, but once other people got involved, you were Famous in a Small Town. The sheriff’s officers were everybody’s cousins and friends. If somebody had an affair .. well … everybody knew about it. I remember a woman who had a life long affair with another man in the community. Everybody knew it was going on. You just didn’t talk about it with the people involved. It became part of the backdrop of the community. Everybody could name the local drunks, drug dealers, floozies- and we did have girls that walked Hwy.16. Daddy would never let us walk down Hwy. 16 because of what people would think. We were 5 minutes from the store, so I thought it was ridiculous, but I can see now that he was worried about our reputations.

With the people I’ve grown up with, there have been affairs, shootouts with spouses, overdoses, failed careers, kids gone bad and all sorts of entertaining personal drama. Since I’ve lived in cities, I know that this stuff happens all the time with everybody. It’s not just a small town thing. It’s just that there is an ability to hide it in a city. And, people move around. The main act in Watson is still in the area. They have a lifetime of story there. Their lives are lived very publicly even in private. I don’t hear the stories about me because it’s an unspoken rule not to talk to the person about their own stuff. It adds to the illusion that you somehow escaped the public eye. But, believe me, I know I didn’t. It’s probably one reason I don’t mind writing about my life here. They may as well know, and it may as well come from me.

There is something comforting to me about being known like that. Early in life, I believed you had to keep it together in public. Now, I realize that our baggage, our problems, our drama and the way we walk through it is the beauty of being human. When I’m with a friend who’s life was touched with some personal drama, especially when they made some bad decisions, I have a lot of compassion for their imperfection. I know that there were reasons that they did the things they did, and, quite frankly, it intrigues me. In The Bridges of Madison County, Francesca seeks out the friendship of the local adultress after her affair with Robert. She says it made her feel closer to him to be with her. When I am with people who have lived the same drama, made the same mistakes, and lived the same things, I feel comforted. I don’t want to be around people who have it all together.

Miranda has another song called Mama’s Broken Heart about the pressure to look good when you’re falling apart. I can’t do it. I guess I’m lucky that I made most of my big mistakes in another land. But, in a way, I kind of regret it. Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to tell the story? Wouldn’t it be nice for people to know so I don’t have to explain it? The thing is, they love you just the same because they get it. A friend of mine was talking about her crazy family the other night, and we were laughing at the insanity of it all. “Isn’t it great to be a Watsonite?” one of my pals added. We all laughed the kind of laugh that you remember 4 days later. There’s nothing like being famous in a small town.

11 thoughts on “Everybody Dies Famous in a Small Town

  1. I remember you and that type of community well. When I began my teaching career at LOHS, I had to earn the respect of the “locals” because I was not from there. I was from Denham Springs. But during my years there I developed many great relationships that continue today. I was only 4 years older than the seniors I taught and 5 years older than the juniors. They have gone from my students to my peers. Denham Springs was not that different. No matter what I did, my parents knew about it before I got home. But now it, too, has changed like Watson has. Just before moving to Texas a year ago, we went into a local restaurant and realized that we didn’t recognize a single person in the packed house. Times have changed but some things will always be the same: history, friendships, past successes and past failures. I look forward to the future while smiling and crying as I remember the past.

    Janet Tillman

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a “foreigner” to come into our little nest. I’ve had several people comment about it on different blogs. What did you teach? I’m trying to remember.

    • Ms Tillman?! Oh, the things you endured from our freshman class in Algebra I. You had to start watching “Welcome Back Kotter” just to be prepared for the antics…

  2. After the funeral of my 93 year old grandmother this weekend, which occurred at the little white chapel that we walked to when little, those country days are gone with her. All my memories of younger days can only be told to but not understood by the current generation as they don’t see “country” anymore. So yes when passing through small country towns or areas (if you can find one) I will remember those days of back when.

    • So sorry to hear of the loss of your grandmother. I don’t know if you read my blog where I mentioned my affection for Russell, but I was crazy about him always, and, because if him, your family. I deeply regret that I never let him know.

  3. Again, another great story. I, too, was one of those “foreigners” when I began teaching at LOHS. I think the first graduating class had 38 students, the biggest ever at that time. It didn’t take long to get over the culture shock because I fell in love with my students almost immediately. Every once in awhile, the innocence of the “country kids” would amaze me, but it was so refreshing, coming from jaded Baton Rouge. Thanks for the memories, Sharon.

    • That’s so sweet. We did live naively, didn’t we? I can’t tell you the culture shocks I had in my 20s in the real world!

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