By Shelley Wildgen
There are two things you should do at least once in your life:
1. Get your hair cut really, really short.
2. Live a good chunk of time in a small town.
With both experiences you get to glimpse your real self and you’ll save cash on hair products.
The hair thing is truly quite freeing.
The small town sampling started with Stirling, a few years ago. It, too, has reaped unexpected rewards.
As someone who never quite fit in with one solid group anywhere, I have forever felt the needles of restlessness at my feet. All things considered, I was a little nervous about committing to Stirling, in the early nineties. I was pretty sure I enjoyed the anonymity of unfamiliar streets and a larger city, but with our sights set on raising kids, my husband and I left the west and moved back to small town Ontario. Stirling was more affordable than Belleville so that’s where we landed.
We lived across from the Mill Pond, in a house that backed onto a farmer’s field. It wasn’t unusual, albeit a little unnerving, to step out the back door and be greeted by a dozen geese marching down our driveway to the pond across the street. It was just as common to repeatedly see familiar faces at the grocery store, the hardware store and the Stirling arena. Everyone friendly and not one bit intrusive.
“You new here?” asked the manager of the arena.
“Yes, I am. My son has signed up for ball hockey,” I answered while scanning the bustling rink and bleachers.
“Find a comfortable spot. You’re gonna be here a lot,” was his reply. Was he ever right.
The arena, the three schools (then primary, junior and senior), and the thriving little downtown became the centre of my life. The schools were so small and well-staffed that when I couldn’t find my daughter at the crossing guard corner one afternoon, the entire primary school staff knew Laura by name, fanned out on foot and in cars until they found her in the town library reading ‘Where the Wild Things Are’.
The walk to the crossing guard was also cloaked in quaintness. We’d wander down the hill and stop to watch the mile high balls of butter rolling slowly on the other side of The Stirling Creamery window. Strange, yellow and comforting.
That small town feeling of solidarity and protection was everywhere. Laura even did her own gift shopping downtown at Stedman’s. She was four. I’d watch from the porch as she made her way across the covered bridge and into the store. About 20 minutes later, someone from the store would call to tell me of Laura’s selections. “Don’t forget to tell her about the Johnny Cash CD!” Laura would lisp from over the counter. Home she’d come with her purchases and I’d nip over later to pay the bill. That’s how it went.
Winter evenings and weekends were often spent over on the Mill Pond, skating, sledding and daydreaming. I remember one mild winter afternoon when the riverbank was warm. A few of us sat there in sunbeams, eating tangerines while the kids skated. It felt like a Beatles song.
Holiday times were extra special in Stirling. The shops, street lanterns and wreaths, the tall, lit tree beside the covered bridge – magical! After a toddy or five on the porch, staring at that tree, you absolutely could hear the Whos from Whoville, “Fahoo Fores Dahoo Dores…” And parades! Always with the parades. Not just the Christmas parade. At that time Stirling had a parade for most special occasions. My personal favourite was the Canada Day parade. Floats were encouraged, and face-painted kids decorated their bicycles, tricycles and wagons to create their own little festive army. My parents were visiting from Winnipeg one year and truly they were the only ones watching the Canada Day parade. The whole town was in the parade.
Even would-be criminals were treated well in Stirling. One year a group of senior school kids were involved in a sort of small scale theft cartel. Stirling’s lone cop contacted the parents, suggesting ‘interrogations’ for the pre-teen hoodlums. There was little to be done legally with these young kids, but a good table talk with Stirling’s finest just might do the trick. And it did. Each kid sweated bullets for the two weeks leading up to their individual interviews, felt huge relief when it was over, and most volunteered to do their own restitution for their crime. Hey, the system works.
Altogether, I think I spent about 10 years living in Stirling. True to form, I then stamped my ‘Places I’ve Lived’ personal passport and moved on, but not far. Carrying Place, Frankford, and now a return to Belleville – all added to my locale collection.
Now, in addition to our Belleville house, we have a farmhouse in PEI. We live there for part of the year. Again I sort of awkwardly try, but don’t really fit into any group. In fact, in PEI, we’re actually called CFAs (Come From Aways) so we’ll never be true islanders, but they still treat us magnificently.
It is now time to get comfortable with always being a little uncomfortable. This many years into it, I’ve come to realize that whole misfit part of my persona works not so badly after all….especially when I keep my towns small, and my hair short.