Everybody Dies Famous in a Small Town

“They say life is sweeter, behind the telephoto lens of fame. But ‘round here you get just as much attention cheering at the high school football game…”

Seymour, Tennessee in the late 1990s resembled more of an accident caused by Knoxville’s overgrowth than a planned town. When my mom and I moved there to re-join most of my extended family, I remember staring out the car windows at the solitary flashing red light and thinking I could almost hear the town founders saying, “Welp, we’ve got to get across these cow fields somehow,” and then building something along the lines of a highway. My cynicism for small town life — some dream my mom had sold us on while we sweated in our backyard carving out what would later become a garden — was only bolstered as I entered high school and told my algebra teacher “I don’t need to know any of this. I’m going to be famous. Someone can do math for me.”

My family told me often that one day, I’d appreciate the fact that everyone knew everyone where we were; that everyone watched out for each other. I thought they were crazy.

After a trip to New York City, I was sold. How can anyone want to live in a place like Seymour, Tennessee when there were places like New York? I resigned myself to the idea that the poor souls who settled anywhere south of Manhattan probably just never knew there was anything else. Ignorance to the rest of the wide world was their bliss — that must have been why they liked living there.

Anyone who knew me back then knew a few things:

1. I could sing. Like really, really sing. I could sing so well that two weeks before the last audition at Belmont University in Nashville I decided I’d give it a go, and was one of 14 students chosen out of over 700 to be an incoming freshman in the Musical Theatre program.
2. I was convinced I was going to be famous.
3. I couldn’t wait to leave Seymour. And I did.

At 17, I walked onto campus and never looked back. Over the course of my college years, friends and family back home would basically have to drag me to Seymour kicking and screaming to visit for any length of time. After graduation I lasted six weeks at home in my small town life before I bought a one-way ticket to New York City and never looked back.

Until I did.

Until I realized I was really, really good at my craft, yes. But so was everyone else there.

Until I realized the New York you visit is not the New York you live in.

Until I was sitting at a Starbucks in Times Square with a friend during the Great Recession of 2008, watching the marque for Young Frankenstein being taken down because of poor ticket sales, and lowered my coffee cup to tell her in horror, “If Mel Brooks can’t even make it here, what have we done?”

Faced with the hard cold reality that maybe I wasn’t meant to be famous after all, I moved back to Seymour. I wish I could say that I immediately embraced and appreciated small town life, but it took me about four more years to see what everyone had told me earlier. I was at Kroger with my then two- and four-year-old boys when my oldest ran away from me and I couldn’t find him. No, I wasn’t panicked. After all, my parents had worked at that same Kroger for about a decade when they were younger. I had gone to high school with half the staff. The other half used to give me free cookies when I was a toddler. Someone would find him, know him, recognize me, and we’d be reunited faster than we would had I dropped everything and started frantically searching for him. Sure enough, a little while later, he was returned to me, slobbery cookie in hand, by a family friend who still worked there after all these years.

Instances like this are, I guess, what my family was talking about all those years ago. The same people who left me feeling angered and violated for knowing every last detail of my life 20 years ago, now happily ask me about my grandparents because they heard that Mamaw’s Alzheimer’s was getting worse (and they hate that for her because they see less of her in Sunday School and she’s always been so kind). My anger at what I once thought was meddling has been replaced by a new sensation — I feel genuinely touched that my old neighbor or my bagger at checkout or that lady my dad knew in high school who owns a boutique even cares enough to remember us. I have a greater sense of security knowing that, in most places I am in my hometown, I will know someone who has known my family for generations.

The world is scary, I guess.

Probably no scarier than it was 50 years ago, but we are better connected now and it seems like everywhere we turn something bad has happened. I can’t say I’m ignorant to the world, as I once assumed everyone who found small town life endearing was, because I have seen a lot of it, but I can say that the familiarity of small town living calms the fears in my mama heart just a bit more than living in a city where I don’t have any sort of long-term connection to anyone. (Full disclosure: I live in North Knoxville now, about 30 minutes away, but my kids still go to a small private school in Seymour so I am in town quite a bit.)

My six-year-old is in class with a little girl; her mom and I were friends in high school. Our parents were friends. Our grandparents went to church together. See where I’m going here? Small towns can get a bad wrap for being behind the times and hokey, and I’m the first one to roll my eyes at narrow-minded comments from some, but beyond that, small towns are a network of familiarity; a safety net of everyone looking out for each other — you know, that village you’re told it takes to raise a child. And I know that no matter where you live, you can establish a network (shout out to the precious old man who ran the newsstand at the Grand Central Station terminal who sold me Vitamin Waters and asked about my dog on my way to work every day), but there is something really remarkable about people who have known each other for decades bumping into each other and catching up, and knowing that you’ve been let into a tight-knit community simply for no reason other than you’ve existed there for so long and have common ground with all its inhabitants…

I wore a flower crown when I got married a few years ago. The flowers came from my Nana’s old neighbor, who is a successful florist, who would later engineer the flowers for her funeral. I have a million stories just like this. Now that I’m older I see the importance of where I was raised. The same place I turned my nose up to for all of my childhood has nurtured me into my adulthood in ways that I never would have imagined in my youth.

So maybe you grew up in your own Seymour just like me. Or maybe you long for a Seymour to call home. (Or maybe you think this all sounds like a nightmare and can’t imagine a place like Seymour ever fitting you and your family.) But just like the song says, maybe I got my wish because, after all, “Whether you’re late for church or you’re stuck in jail — hey word’s gonna get around. Everybody dies famous in a small town.”

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