There is nothing truly remarkable about a picnic table. The reliability of its wooden base is often eclipsed by the ungraceful way in which you have to twist and turn your body to fit next to it. Yet for all their ordinariness, there is peace in the carefree way my friends and I manage to squeeze and contort our bodies around one in my hometown. Hands covered in melted butter, Old Bay, and crab shells, one of my favorite places to find myself seated is around the table in my friends’ backyard.
Niki and Craig have opened their home to our friends for as long as my adult self can remember. Every trip home for us wayward travelers always culminates in at least one time where we can all be together—old friends, children, and often, chickens—just to be for a little while. Even when we don’t plan for it, Niki and Craig magically manage to pull together meals to feed every one of us, including those who may wander into the yard on a quick errand or just to say hello.
While there is nothing architecturally grand that stands out about their modest 3 bedroom house, they have the type of home I dream of. Priceless works of art do not line their walls, and their cupboards contain more homemade than gourmet. But the envy-worthy thing they do have is this atmosphere, one that says come on in, and that makes the chaos that often accompanies the gatherings we plan easy to overlook.
It is no secret that rural America faces significant challenges. Limited economic opportunities, under-resourced school systems, and geographic distances often lead to pockets of struggle in these areas. Current attention focused on “local” movements helps, but in a place like my hometown, its citizens are left facing a rise in property costs as sprawl encroaches and the stagnation of upwardly mobile career opportunities. Undeniably, the months when urbanites flee the hustle of the city to find reprieve on the banks of the river boosts local business, but those summer months turn into winter realities, and visitors are too busy staying warm to want to travel an hour out of their way.
Yet for the many challenges small towns face, there is one thing that they execute with perfection: a sense of community. In a small town, there is this fundamental element of support that seems to be baked into the pies the church ladies serve on Sunday afternoons. It doesn’t matter if your family has been there for centuries or if you moved there last week, neighbors help neighbors because that’s just what you do in a town where everyone knows everyone (and, sometimes, everyone’s business).
A year ago, my hometown experienced an unprecedented outbreak of severe weather, which culminated in an F-3 touchdown that devastated homes and families and the routineness of everyday life there. Those of us on the outside, too far away to get there, were left feeling helpless as terrifying reports of flattened homes and people trapped came flooding in. Phone calls, texts, and shared news feeds did little to soothe the innate pull in our souls to drop everything and get home—because that is precisely what it is even when we haven’t lived there in years.
For those of us who grew up in the small towns dotting America’s vast land mass, we get it. We may have run far and fast, and maybe we aspired for bigger and different; however, at the heart of who we are, we belong to the towns that raised us. Our personal paths may take us across foreign borders or to the opposite coast line, yet we remain molded by the unique experience of growing up in the middle of nowhere. And in that place with far more fields than stoplights, we draw upon the values we learned to help us make those big life leaps while never losing sight of who and what we are at our core.
In Tappahannock’s moment of greatest need, familiar faces and complete strangers came together to find a way out of the rubble and debris. The selfless actions of so many did more than just provide immediate help to those in the storm’s direct path; they helped to ease the pain of being so far from home for those of us on the outside watching what was happening within.
In the days after the storm, Niki managed to keep us updated with hurried texts and shared footage of interviews and inventory of the items that poured into the temporary outpost she and Craig helped set up. It came as no surprise to any of our friends when she texted to say that they were helping lead support efforts in the aftermath.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Niki complain that her house is too small. Usually, these words are cushioned between curses and shouted over the squeals of countless children and the slamming of the back door as Craig carries yet another tray or casserole dish out to the garage. And while they are rushing around, conductors of their backyard orchestras, they manage to fit one more—and then another—seat around that unassuming picnic table, the one where we are always welcome.