I went to high school in Worcester, in one of the five public schools there. My graduating class had more than 300 students in it. I lived in the heart of the city, and I could walk to the mall. There were lots of job options for teenagers, and at one time I actually had 3 part-time jobs. We had our choices of movie theaters that played every new release out there, a multitude of restaurants for any kind of food we wanted, a roller skating rink, an under 21 dance club, 3 bowling alleys and the usual array of hang-outs. There was a lot to do for a teen on a weekend night, and we didn't have to drive far to find it.
I moved to the small town of Winchendon in 2000 with my 8 yr old son and my 3 wk old son. My husband and I built a house here and built a home for our family. It took some adjusting. When we were building our house in the woods, there was a large field across the street where you could see wildlife. It was nothing unusual to have groups of turkeys walk through our yard at times. And I can remember one fall day calling my dad and saying, "Hey, this is just like Worcester. There's a man walking up my street carrying a gun." Of course here this man was a gun-toting hunter dressed in camouflage and orange. I can remember the time I was sitting watching TV, and heard a crash that was loud enough to knock a shelf off my living room wall. I went outside to investigate, and found a hawk lying in the grass that clearly had crashed into my house. Yes, I live in the boonies.
I've heard the Winchendon jokes, I've heard my town referred to as Winchentucky, I've heard that the toothbrush was invented in Winchendon because otherwise it would be called the teethbrush, I've heard the farm animal jokes, and I've laughed along. It is here that I learned that a Jack and Jill shower wasn't just a bridal shower for friends and family of the bride and groom, but instead tickets were sold, and anyone could buy tickets and go to the Jack and Jill whether you knew the bride and groom or not because it was just a big party with the proceeds going to the couple.
We don't have a movie theater in town, and until just recently we didn't have a bowling alley. We don't have a dance club, and all of the restaurants in town stop serving food at 9. Our McDonald's is called McDonald's Cafe because it is smaller than other McDonald's, and so I guess even though it serves everything that a regular McDonald's does, it is a cafe and not a "restaurant". There aren't many job opportunities in town for our teenagers, and many of them cross the line into NH and work at the local Market Basket and Hannaford grocery stores. Because our town is so spread out, our teens can't walk to each other's houses and my children have friends who live 20 minutes away, though still in town.
But what we do have is community spirit. We take care of our own, much like a family does. We are a tight-knit community. Our Friday night football games are packed, not only with parents of players and students, but with other adults in town who enjoy the game and enjoy the Friday night lights. I can go to the pharmacy, the bank, the dentist's office, the doctor's office, the pizza place, and I almost always know someone there. Everyone knows everyone or knows someone who knows someone or worked with someone or is related to someone, and living in Winchendon is like belonging to a family.
I first felt this "family tie" when I went out with friends the night before Thanksgiving the year that my son was a senior in high school and playing football. It was the night before the big game, and while out, I was told that there was a tradition Thanksgiving Eve where the cheerleaders, in the middle of the night, would come to the houses of the senior football players and decorate their front door. I couldn't wait to go home. I wanted to stay up and wait for them. It was like Christmas Eve, and I was waiting for Santa. My husband went to sleep, but not me. I waited and waited, sitting up excited in my bed. Around 2 AM, I heard them, giggling and talking on my front steps. I could barely contain myself until they left. The minute they pulled out of the driveway, I whipped open my front door, and sure enough, it was covered in a piece of paper the length of the door, decorated in blue paint with white lettering with my son's name and number in glitter. I smiled amid my tears of pride, pride for my son, and pride for his school, and this town with its wonderful tradition of making my son feel special for his last game of the season. Those cheerleaders don't know what their small gesture, their carrying out of the tradition, meant to me.
Friday night one of this year's graduating class of less than 100 students was killed tragically in a car accident after another driver crossed the center line and struck his vehicle head-on while he drove home from his job at Market Basket. I didn't know him personally, but as the connections go in this small town, my son knew him, my son worked with him, and I know many others who knew Joe. I can't log onto Facebook without seeing posts from teens and adults who are mourning and grieving and wondering why this had to happen to their classmate, their co-worker, their friend, and they miss him.
Yesterday I read his obituary and thought to myself what a bummer it was that his funeral was going to be held in Lowell Thursday morning. Not only is Lowell over an hour away, but the funeral was going to be held on a school day. Today, I came home from work and checked my answering machine. There was one message, a message from the school superintendent, a message that went to all parents through our school's Global Connect system.
It brought tears to my eyes as I listened to her inform us parents of the calling hours for Joe. She then went on to say that during the calling hours tomorrow, the school cafeteria will be open with refreshments as a place where the students can gather together. Further, although the funeral is being held in Lowell on Thursday morning, the town is supplying buses for those students who would like to attend, and free bag lunches will also be provided for those students. What an amazing tribute not only to Joe, but to our town that they care so much about our students, our teenagers, that they are reaching out to them and saying, "We get it, and we are here for you and will help you remember your friend."
Say what you will about Winchendon, but I am proud to live here, in a community where we come together, we celebrate as one, we grieve as one, and we support each other.