The Tale of a Country Mouse and City Mouse…Updated a Bit
We decided to forego our middle child’s usual summer camp this year, opting instead for a City Mouse — Country Mouse adventure with one of her best camp friends. A girl named Isabel who lives several states away in the Big Apple.
For one week, our country girl will spend her time roaming New York City. And when it’s done, her buddy will come here to Virginia, where we’ll show her rural America.
My daughter will see culture with a capital C, the wisdom of crowds, Harlem and Coney Island. High self-esteem and high fashion. Swanky digs and homelessness. What it’s like to view America from the top of the world. Look down on it, some might say. Either way, it’s a view worth contemplating. New York is a place that looks around corners and glimpses the future.
Isabel will experience slowness, colonial history, lush mountain views. Berry bushes and poison ivy. Southern accents and southern hospitality. Live music and home-cooking. Beautiful old houses with ghosts and stories. Ramshackle homes and Confederate flags. All of this surrounded by patches of land where real, live battles were once fought. Ordinary grassy knolls soaked with the blood of local sons. We live in a place that knows its past.
My husband warned me from the outset not to try to compete with the Great White Way and its surrounding boroughs. “It’s a banana split of glitz and glamor,” he said.
So, I opted more for an outdoorsy kind of experience. The kind that offers a bit of romance in an old-fashioned To Kill a Mockingbird kind of way. But without the courtroom drama and wrenching shadow story.
I took them tubing down the James River, for example. Floating by hay bales and listless cows that had wandered down for a drink in the humid ninety-degree weather. Isabel screamed at the sight of every dragonfly — I’d forgotten what an assault the bugs are around here to someone who’s not used to them.
We ate barbecue at local joints some nights, but mostly wound up eating at home, which is what we do. Outside at a long picnic table that lies under a thick awning of wisteria, surrounded by torchlight. The music blared from our kitchen — a vintage mix of jazz and country, and the fireflies blinked their secret codes. Later, the girls splashed in the stream behind our house, and we told Isabel stories about how our kids used to love to fish for crawdads when they were little. Clichéd as it is, these simple pleasures are still a childhood hallmark of rural life.
But we’re not completely out in the sticks. We live a few miles from Charlottesville and I dropped the girls off “downtown” one day to show Isabel around. True, we’ve got zero skyline, but we can offer a glimpse of what towns used to look like, say, two-hundred years ago.
In the stifling heat, the girls walked Courthouse Square, “the mall”, and “the corner,” visiting University of Virginia’s campus. Founded by Thomas Jefferson, it has a distinctly country gentleman vibe that the smart and hip student body try their best to offset. Even shout down, when they’re so moved.
Then to shake things up a bit, we drove down to Williamsburg to the big water park. Our plans for the colonial museum were thwarted by a rainstorm, which neither of the girls viewed as a tragedy.
“For Isabel, just being in an actual house, with family dinners and big family dynamics will be an experience,” her mother had told me. Back in NYC, it’s just Isabel and her mom.
To be sure, staying in a house, especially an old one like ours, is an odd experience for a girl who’s used to living within the sheltering walls of a nice, new apartment complete with a doorman. Add to that the fact that siblings are loud and sometimes really annoying. Brothers push sisters — figuratively and literally. Sister scratch brothers and know how to play the victim. Layers of love, grievances, insults, memories and secret jokes pile-on, present in each and every interaction.
“You are so NOT sick. Mom is supposed to take us to Lexington today!”
“Who ate our ice cream? We bought that with our OWN money you $#*&!!!”
“And oh my God, what happened to my bathing suit?”
The hustle and bustle of our family home can be as intense as any walk down a city street, and sometimes all the girls wanted to do was lock themselves for hours in our daughter’s room. Just to escape the household, or certain members of it.
As for New York City, our daughter’s experience was nothing short of life-changing. Or rather, life-envisioning. Isabel’s mother showed the girls the time of their lives, doing all the touristy things she and Isabel never get a chance to do because they’re too busy living there.
The girls hung out with Isabel’s friends, went to The Met, played at an arcade in Times Square, visited the Statue of Liberty, ate real ethnic food and saw Hamilton! Since we hail from a hotbed of American revolutionary sedition, our daughter knew most of the characters so well that she could extrapolate on Lin Manuel Miranda’s depiction of our Founding Fathers and the political climate in which they lived and fought. That made her feel smart amongst the New York sophisticates.
“I know this is going to sound weird,” Isabel’s mom ventured. “But has Charlotte seen many African-Americans?”
Don’t laugh, it’s a reasonable question — especially at a time when the urban-rural divide is pretty great in our country. Most young Americans these days haven’t grown up with many family members who have an understanding of small-town life that isn’t based on a weird amalgam of coastal snubs and nostalgic old movies.
Add to that fact that last year, in the sip of a Mint Julep, we went from being known as a lovely college town region with a rich, American history to the place where activists from the far corners of the political spectrum got it in their heads to hold a riot. It cost one young woman her life. Locals refer to it as “the mess” and that’s about the most accurate description I’ve heard.
“Yes, she’s known plenty of African-Americans,” I told her. And I so appreciate that she asked. We can’t be afraid to get to know each other again in this country. Pose questions that might seem awkward.
“I love New York so much mom,” our daughter told me via text. “I want to live here. No offence”
None taken. I get it.
In big cities, particularly one like New York, the kids are cooler and have real style. They mature faster, too. It’s hard for my city friends to wrap their heads around the fact that my youngest, a rising middle schooler, still believes in Santa. That our children actually like pick-up trucks and are comfortable around guns — even if my husband and I have never owned one. They know how to drain the sweet stem of a honeysuckle flower and have no problem picking up a snake. As long as it’s not venomous. They know how to spot those, though.
City kids on the other hand know how to take public transportation by themselves, aren’t intimidated by strangers, and don’t just have big dreams, but fully expect them to be delivered. They stand up tall, confident they live in the best place on Earth, and that everyone they meet would change places with them in a heartbeat. They’re world-wise, connected. When they look out their window, they don’t see a mountain; they see the whole globe.
But there’s an underlying benefit to being raised in the country that may not present itself to our daughter until she’s much older. There’s a sense here of the dominance of nature. In a land of fields, mountains, overgrowth, swarming insects, wild animals, flash floods, and felled trees, it’s hard to see yourself as the center of the universe.
We feel the warm embrace of the local, the importance of community. Not long after we moved here, our youngest was born desperately ill and total strangers whose only connection to us was as “neighbor” brought us food, took our older kids for the day, bought school supplies for our son when we just plain forgot. These folks were black and white, working class, middle class and rich. Everyone pitched in.
I can tell you, if we’d stayed in San Francisco, where we were living before moving to the Charlottesville area, we would’ve had a much harder time. Friends would have certainly come to our aid, but neighbors? Some of our neighbors there couldn’t even be bothered to move our wet clothes into the dryer from our communal washing machine. They just plopped them on the floor. Many of them didn’t say hello when they saw us on the street. Just a nod, if it so happened that our eyes chanced to meet. I’m not saying there aren’t great neighbors in a big city — I’ve had plenty — I’m just saying that there’s a code in less populated places. When you know someone’s hurting, you step up.
All that said, New York was hands down the winner for these girls. I knew it would be. But I’m good with the way things turned out. This experience, right down to its essence was less about activities than about love and families and two girls trying to figure out how to be in the world. For both the country and city mouse, each week provided a stratigraphic layer that will settle with time, and reveal itself as they age, teaching both girls about place and people. About themselves. And that’s what it was all about all along when we adults cooked up this scheme.
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