6 November 2019
by Charles Croucher
When the internet was in its infancy, we used to joke that the only information superhighway we needed ran through Nan’s phone.
My grandmother, a telephonist during the middle decades of last century, still wielded her rotary phone like a professional and was constantly up to date with the happenings of family, friends and the entire town.
This was all made much easier by the entire town being either family or friends of my grandmother.
While this may seem gossipy – and on occasion was – the heart of it was sharing the experience of a town like Branxton.
If people succeeded or someone had a baby, we knew about it through Nan and could celebrate with them.
If people failed or someone had died, we knew about it through Nan and fresh batches of scones, slices or grammar pie were hastily dispatched to ease the pain.
This can only happen in small towns.
You often hear “it takes a village to raise a child”, I get the feeling our village took this more literally than most.
It was the town where you knew the police officer (and there was only one) by name.
It was the town where the doctor was on constant call and the hairdresser played counsellor.
It was the town where sports, not calendars, marked the change of seasons.
And yes, it was the town with two cemeteries and no hospital.
It’s always surprising how smaller towns have bigger impacts on identity.
It becomes part of the fabric, the make-up of a person.
A smaller town makes it so much harder to think of anywhere else as home.
Grow up in place like Branxton and it stays with you.
Not just as the word that was plastered across polo shirts, swimming caps and school report cards, but passports, passwords and passing thoughts.
It took me a long time to get used to seemingly normal things like locking front doors and only politely saying hi to neighbours rather than inviting myself in.
When so many pivotal moments happen in one place it’s impossible to forget. I had my 21st birthday in the same hall my parents celebrated their wedding. The local bottle shop announced my brother’s birth on their sign.
The local paper gave a 17-year-old a column.
This doesn’t happen in other places.
But looking at a any place through rose-coloured glasses and the red flags just look like flags. A smaller town must also make it harder for people to feel like they can escape.
I’m sure the network of Nans must have felt suffocating for some.
There were only five roads out of town and the train didn’t come that often.
As people struggled through the mining strike, struggled through drought or just struggled, the extra eyes were not always welcomed.
It’s a point worth noting, as time separates recollection from reality. But it also feels character building.
Resilience – a word that gets thrown around with some air of mythology these days – becomes second nature.
It makes apathy impossible and empathy impossible to avoid.
When you see houses from your town, churches from your town, even simple street lights from your town it evokes memories.
They are the places we grew up, the homes we hung out in, the cars that took us all over the region.
It’s the church that held weddings and funerals and christenings and a priest that played upon the generosity of the community.
Looking at those places brings memories that turned into stories that probably turned into exaggerated fables back to life.
Sure, physically you can only see the pieces, anyone that grew up in a small town can hear and feel and taste those pictures as well.
Hear the music, the coal trains and the accents in the voices of people long gone.
Feel the warmth of summer, the sunburn and the dry winds that would blow through every Christmas.
Taste the baking, the Chinese restaurants and the eight-course of afternoon tea even though you said you’d had enough three courses ago.
The memories are vivid and visceral.
I often wonder if people who grew up in the city, grew up locking their doors and grew up not knowing everyone in their school or town, feel the same.
And I wonder how Nan’s network would go in modern times.
Would the phone calls or bingo games or Friday night raffles still carry the same currency when so much of life is being played out online?
Would she understand an era where people send friend requests rather than sending friends dinner invitations?
Filters go further when you don’t see people every day and the conversations Mum had in the supermarket were so, so, so much longer than a tweet.
It may be the ultimate, enduring legacy of growing up in a small town.
It makes you honest.
Country folk are often said to “not take any shit”.
They tend not to dish it out as well, there simply wouldn’t be any point.
It’s a long way removed from the faster paced, faster changing, computer driven communications we can all fall prey to these days.
Conversations over the fence or over cards or over dinner carry more weight than those over the internet. Like the memories, they become tangible.
It’s hard to pick whether the small towns keep people honest or it’s people’s honesty that keeps towns small.
Regardless, I’m thankful.
I’m thankful for those memories, thankful for the network of nans, and I’m thankful that Branxton will always be my home town.
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