84: The Greatest Show on Earth

84: The Greatest Show on Earth

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

The Greatest Show on Earth

The real safety net of life is community, family and nature.

~Bryant McGill

A clown on stilts walked down the main street of the small New England town where I live. He was stopped short by a telephone wire strung between two low-lying buildings, which blocked his passage. The bystanders quieted, all eyes glued to the towering jester who then dipped at his waist, tipped his neck sideways and maneuvered underneath. Those gathered for the parade, one to honor hometown hero P.T. Barnum, burst into applause and appreciative hoots.

Tears welled in my eyes and caught me off guard. I instantly recovered but knew my emotional response wasn’t over the clown’s success. It was about the camaraderie of the crowd, the enthusiasm for our community, and the delight in sharing this celebration. At that exact moment I saw how this town was the first place I’d ever lived where I truly felt like I belonged, where I truly felt at home.

Fifteen years earlier, the loss of my job had forced my husband and me to move here with our two children. There was nothing scientific about our selection. We drew a bull’s-eye on a map and found a house we could afford on a single salary. The main street was quaint. The schools were adequate. We packed our belongings and prayed for the best.

Within a month of living here, however, a pattern emerged.

During a stop at the local children’s haircut salon my first week, I struck up a conversation with a mother waiting for her son. We discovered a mutual connection. She knew my neighbor, we had two acquaintances in common, and her son was in the same grade as my daughter.

A week later, as I waited for my daughter’s gymnastics class to end, I met another waiting mom. When she learned I was a newcomer to the area, she offered to show me around town. With our spare forty-five minutes until class ended, we loaded in her minivan and I got a tour. During the car ride, I learned her friend’s daughter was in the same first grade class as mine.

The next afternoon I registered for a library card. When I announced my address, the librarian happily informed me she and her husband had built the house back in the 1960s. In case I didn’t think the world I now existed in was small enough, two weeks later at a PTO meeting the library connection resurfaced. Introduced to another parent, she asked where I lived, then replied, “Oh, I grew up in that house. My parents built it.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “The woman at the library told me she’d built it.”

“Yup. That’s my mom.”

Every single one of these conversations made me feel surprisingly comfortable and connected in this new place… a necessary bolt in the cog of the community. I battled the coincidence versus destiny theory. It felt like destiny. My life here had snapped together as easily as two Lego pieces.

Over time, the pattern continued. Every corner I rounded, a simple hello would unveil a thin thread connecting me in some way to a person I’d never met before. How was it possible to land someplace quite at random and then feel more at home than in the place I was raised? Or, for that matter, any other place I’d ever lived before.

For the past fifteen years, I’ve witnessed as friends and neighbors gather to support one another with the enthusiasm of the citizens of Whoville on Christmas morning. We beam with pride for each other’s successes, whether it’s to witness the annual high school homecoming parade or to honor a two-hundred-year-old hero. We join together for support, whether for the tragedy of September 11th or the annual fundraiser honoring the legacy of a three-year-old resident who lost his life to cancer. We form a united front. We are there for our neighbors. We greet each other with smiles.

Moving here, I learned the meaning of the word community. It defined the difference between having a place to live versus what it means to truly be at home.

The tears in my eyes during the parade were really about what I’d gained in the years I’ve lived here. From day one, this town has embraced me as if I’d returned from a long journey. The feeling came full circle the night of the parade when my teenage daughter turned to me and said, “Mom, I hope someday I can raise my kids in a place like this.”

My town is set amidst other communities of more affluence. We often feel like a bit of an underdog. But its people are proud, salt-of-the-earth New Englanders who understand that our outreach to each other makes us stronger.

Earlier that same day, a bronze statue was dedicated to P.T. Barnum. An impersonator re-enacted the original speech the great showman had made at the age of seventy-one during his dedication of a bronze fountain he’d donated to the town in 1881. In the final words of Barnum’s speech, he offered his gift “as a small evidence of the love which I bear them and the respect which I feel for my successors, the present and future citizens of my native village.”

I’ll bet P.T. Barnum never dreamed that close to 130 years later his words would be recalled by the townsfolk or that the love he felt for this small place on our large planet would reach someone who shared his appreciation… me.

~Sharon Struth

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