A Local State of Mind

“Where are you from?” he asked as I mingled at a social gathering where I hardly knew anyone. Why couldn’t I answer this simple get-to-know-you-better kind of question? I confessed that I’d lived in many places; when he expressed an interest in knowing more I ran through the list in a matter of fact way.

“I was born in Oshkosh but we moved every time my Dad got a promotion. I went through high school in Fond du Lac to college in Oshkosh. After graduating, I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, then to Milwaukee for graduate school and lived in Pewaukee, Brown Deer and Shorewood until I moved to Cedarburg. After that I moved to Eagle River and finally to Wauwatosa. So, I really don’t know where I’m from.”

We had a good laugh but this made me think hard. I’d lived in all these places but didn’t feel I was “from” any of them. I’d read writer Tom Mongard’s essays about what it means to be local and what local really is. He states that “local” is often a term of disparagement meaning second-rate or primitive, and how transplants are never privy to the secret codes, remaining outsiders even after decades. I know this feeling well. I’ve lived it.

The first place where I was aware of my otherness was in Fond du Lac. My father being a policeman set us apart from everyone. We became accustomed to being left out of neighborhood parties. And while everyone around me was getting married and starting a family, I was off to college. I felt paralyzed in that small town.

College days in Oshkosh was my first realization of locals, only we called them “townies.” And we were the disparagers. I’m chagrined now at how we frequented local taverns and poked fun at the locals and their common ways.

But moving to the UP was a culture shock. Here, you were either Finish, Italian or nothing. If someone didn’t know who your grandmother was, they wouldn’t’ talk to you. Word on the street was that I and my husband who owned a construction business were rich. So why was I working and taking a job away from a worthy local. All of our friends were other transplants.

After a series of short term residences during grand school, Cedarburg, a bedroom community north of Milwaukee, became home. Here a neighbor called the police to complain that my husband’s antique truck that was parked in our yard was an abandoned eyesore and she wanted it removed. Another neighbor threatened to call the police when we cleared brush at our lot line. We were destroying their woods, she claimed.

I was ready to be and not surprised to be an outsider in Eagle River. How naïve to think we’d be included into a Sunday morning breakfast group that had been going on for thirty years. No surprise that my book club was exclusively people who’d moved there from someplace else.

Wauwatosa is a small village in the middle of a big city. Why was I surprised that locals were here too. Many residents of my apartment building have lived in Wauwatosa their whole lives. First in a home while married and then in an apartment as a widow. Two women I know here have been friends since kindergarten.

Since moving back to the Milwaukee area and to Wauwatosa, I’ve reconnected with nearly every old friend I’d accumulated during my grad school and work life. It looks like I’ve rejoined my old local community. But my local community is just a bit larger than some of those I’ve experienced in the past. I regularly see Jane in Shorewood for a trip to the art museum. Lunch at the east side’s Beans and Barley with Julie from Whitefish Bay. Party at Betty’s in Waukesha. Mary Ann in Elm Grove. Cathy, my high school best friend in Watertown.

I‘ve known lots of locals but have never wanted to be one. Hey, that’s not true. I’ve always wanted to belong. I just didn’t want to be part of that oh, so common, closed minded, local mentality. Again Tom Montag talks about a place where, though he has lived for thirty years, he is still considered an outsider. And it’s something he and I must accept.

If these varied experiences have taught me anything it’s how to be comfortable where I don’t quite belong. How to be myself and allow others to be themselves. I especially appreciate it when I’m with my own kind and the flow is just right as I carry on with old friends and new. Being local is truly a state of mind.






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