Friday, January 18, 2013

Factory Town

Early on in our marriage, my husband changed jobs. This meant a move from a lovely suburb to a small factory town. Dick was not going to work for the factory, but the location of the town was in the center of his territory. So we visited the town to find a house to rent for our small family, Dick, our 2+ year old son John, baby daughter Mary, and me.

The only realtor in town took us immediately to a large house. There was a porch with a swing and a glassed-in side porch. A lovely garden/lawn in back went down a long way to the river’s edge. In the summer sunlight it was perfect. The rent was shockingly low and so we agreed to take it. We should have wondered about that low rent.

The first floor consisted of a large living room, bigger dining room, huge kitchen with breakfast room that over-looked the river, and a room we turned into a playroom. Four good-sized bedrooms and a large bathroom were on the second floor. There was an attic and a basement, which we never even peeked into. It was perfect.

One interesting feature was a large grate in the floor between the living and dining rooms. There were also small grates in the corners of the ceilings, openings to all the rooms upstairs. I called the realtor and asked about them. “It’s a pipeless furnace,” he said. I thanked him and hung up. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it was July and there was no need of a furnace of any kind.

The milkman came to the door and introduced himself. We set up a schedule. “Oh,” he said, “The herd got into some wild onion the other day. Just in case you notice.” Wow. Personal knowledge about the cows that produced our milk. The following day the “Egg & Chicken Lady” came by. Fresh eggs weekly and dressed chickens available by order. I could tell by her accent she wasn’t local. “Nope. New Jersey.” She and her husband had “pulled up stakes and left the town of their birth.” The first day I served our son eggs, he noticed the taste was different. “Yes,” I said. “These are really fresh.” I decided I was going to like living in this little town.

Two blocks away was a small grocery store. The owner was cheerful and already knew who I was. News traveled fast in this town. He even knew about my husband’s job. Wow. Friendly people. I asked where the lettuce was. “You’ll have to go to Beaver Dam for that,” he said, “to the super market. I only carry staples plus the canned things and some steaks. I can order for you. I do for your neighbor all the time.” Ah yes, my neighbor. I think she was the leader of the grapevine news system they had going locally. She knew everybody and everything. When we first met, she’d let me know that this was a factory town and we were new comers—outsiders.

We decided to go to church, always a good way to meet people. The third week, an elderly woman approached me. “Are you the young Mrs. Maxwell?” I said I was. “Well, if you’d wear the same hat two weeks in a row, maybe a body’d recognize you.”

It didn’t take long to figure out this was a factory town, a ONE factory town and if you didn’t work for the factory you didn’t belong. We had to find friends among the other outcasts, and we did. We were six couples and we were social. Our little weekly newspaper made a point of writing up our small bi-weekly dinner parties. The reporter was particularly impressed that we played charades.

And then the winter came. Many degrees below zero and three feet of snow. It didn’t take too long to figure out how a pipeless furnace works. It’s based on heat rising. The oil-burning furnace in the basement efficiently spewed out heat, which then worked its way up through the house. But it was a BIG house. Sleeping in a cold bedroom may be healthy, but I put my baby daughter to bed wearing a cap and mittens. I was training my son, and I remember placing him on the toilet seat. He immediately jumped off, “Done!” I finally put a little “nursery chair” in a closet off the kitchen. I loved hot baths, but as I got out of the tub, my body steamed in the cold air. This was elegant, but primitive living as far as I was concerned. (And yet no one got sick that cold winter.) I ran the oven with the door open, closed all four doors to the rest of the house, and heated the kitchen. And that’s where we spent most of our time, in this large friendly, warm room. But back to the evening when we played charades. We had only one bathroom in the house and it was upstairs. One of the guests excused himself from the game and went upstairs. We could hear him going up. Step…step…step. After a few minutes we heard steps racing down. Stepstepstepstep. He entered the living room. “Well,” he said, “here comes old icy fingers.”

The snow that winter was so deep and piled so high it hid the children as they walked to school. Baby Mary napped, wrapped up warmly on the glassed-in porch. John played in the snow. No matter how fierce the weather, we managed to get together with our friends. After all, the town was so small you could walk to everything. And in the spring, the birds came to the wetlands. We got a call at 2:00 in the morning from our friend who was in charge of the wetlands. “Trumpeter swans,” was all he said. We got out of bed, bundled up, and drove out. Breathtaking. One night, Canada geese were lost in a heavy river fog over our house. I stood on the lawn and watched. They were so low I felt I could reach up and touch them.

And then the call my husband had been waiting for came. Another job, better, and back to the suburb we had loved. I had mixed feelings as I packed. Part of me had loved this little town and our “outsider” friends. But I had not liked the feelings of being shunned. There was never anything overt, anything you could deal with directly. It was subtle, polite, shadowy. I shiver as I think of it. What drove them into their protective forts? What had they feared?

It’s in our DNA. Saved our hides, that fear back then. When Joe Caveman stepped outside and saw that big yellow and black creature, if he didn’t fight or flee, he got eaten. But just as Joe Caveman evolved into a more hairless creature who uses a cellphone and laptop, I am trusting/hoping that we can evolve into creatures who operate more on empathy than fear. And I think there’s some hope. I went to the web to check out the little town where we’d lived with the pipeless furnace. The factory is gone, no longer manufacturing those plows, but the little town has not just survived; it has flourished, nicely evolved and opened its doors and its heart to others. There is hope.


  1. Ruth, this has a timeless message for all of us about opening our hearts to those who are different in some way. But I also love this piece as part of the legacy you are leaving, particularly for your family. These are the kind of stories we all wish we knew from our family members who are no longer with us.

  2. I too have felt the pain of being shunned when I first came to the U.S., a non-English speaking foreigner. One lesson I've learned over the years is that people huddle in groups within their comfort zones where they are more likely to be accepted. In a way, they too fear being shunned by those not like themselves. No excuse for prejudice and bigotry, which have other factors involved too, but it sure helps to find that common human connection.