RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

They're Home for the Holidays

Here in Missouri, November usually means about 40 percent sunny days, according to the TV weatherman. In 1999, we've had 91 percent sunshine, making us all uneasy. "It's spooky to see so much sun when the days are so short," said one friend.

The critters around our place agree, pacing restlessly in the fields. One of our cows took to bawling one afternoon and didn't quit for two days. I checked her time and again, but nothing was wrong. She was just missing someone -- or the rainy cold.

Finally, it's beginning to crisp up and feel like autumn. In anticipation of the holidays, I've been trying this pronouncement on friends anxious to get their grown kids home. "We must re-examine the policy," I tell them, "of educating kids for jobs that send them far away."

And here's what my friends say, "No kidding. Right on."

We're not raising our kids to take over the family business or to become responsible members of our home communities. We don't teach the interesting details of our history or local traditions. We don't value local apprenticeship in our traditional arts. At the same time, we stoke the expectations of our brightest and best with a steady dose of TV programs and movies that take place in some other place -- like glamorous L.A. or genteel Providence or high-rise Chicago.

We celebrate when a kid makes it at Microsoft or IBM, or lands a place in pilot school. "It's what she/he always wanted," we say. And we're not lying, but we forget that we're the ones that bent the twigs that became the trees of our next generation.

We're raising them to buy into lives that look exciting, and to leave our fragile and unpredictable hometowns. We're educating them to run multi-national corporations and disdain the sustainable family farms, community banks, and independent businesses that made our neighborhoods work.

Then, as our kids become established in careers, they move into faux villages built on once-useful farmland and forests. In that suburban sprawl, they raise another generation that lusts after life in the TV box.

TV locales and people always seem smarter and neater than home, and that makes for problems. While TV places can exist in an adrenaline haze forever, real neighborhoods decline into ghost towns.

Here in Missouri, every county has its share of once-vigorous towns and leafy urban neighborhoods now abandoned or nearly so. The better located city spots morph into rows of stores selling antiques and collectibles. Country towns become gentrified weekend villages too expensive for the old residents, or cheesy tourist traps staffed by traders in bicentennial clothing who create a never-ending pageant of historic preservation.

Of course, today's shopping goes on at the box store or the mall, so it's not surprising that neighborhood centers are dying. But the tragedy is that when our kids get established in the sitcom places, they find themselves hungry for community. At the same time, the old communities are dying. The children return on holidays, amazed to see their homes crumbled and their parents dependent on public social services.

Keeping the old communities alive is more sustainable and thrifty than letting them decay, and demonstrates that we care about the resources that go into buildings. Demolishing brick buildings means more clay will be mined to replace the old ones. Tearing out lumber means more trees will be cut. And so forth.

One attempt to restore an entire town is going on in Kansas, where Wes Jackson's Land Institute has purchased public buildings and homes in a rural town called Matfield Green. To re-people the town, they've invited newcomers from urban places. From school square dances to gardening, the city folks try to master traditions that were almost dead, even to the older Matfield Green citizens.

I have met some of the residents, and I admire them greatly. Some old-timers are delighted to see the town come back; others prefer their memories of how things used to be. The newcomers mangle some of the old traditions, but improve others.

For example, there are varied opinions of how the Matfield Green church should be decorated to celebrate the seasons. Some want to bring seasonal greenery and plants into the sanctuary. Others see this as wasteful. A little thing, you might believe, but the kind of detail that makes or breaks understanding.

These kind of details can become such important symbols of our notions of right and wrong that they completely overwhelm good sense, but they can also turn into compromises that mark the maturity of a place.

It will take compromise and maturity to keep Matfield Green thriving, but it will take economics, too. The Land Institute has used the old school as a conference center, and some of the homes are Bed and Breakfast establishments. The pioneers hope they'll have a viable town to pass on to the next generation.

When you believe there's something worth passing on, you have a stake in the future -- everyone's future. In my neighborhood, one elderly, childless woman says, "Having no children, you have lots of children," meaning that as an unencumbered adult she was involved with all the kids. With no heirs, she has passed her life savings to youth programs and scholarships that will be part of the community forever.

The ideal situation for any place is to keep youngsters in the community. Look around where you live. Chances are, the most successful family businesses are those where several generations work together. Older generations watch and teach the young ones. The twenty-somethings suffuse a place with energy, forcing the elders to accept new ideas.

America's oldest business is the eleventh-generation Tuttle Farm in New Hampshire. Over its 350-year history, each generation has brought something new to the place. The first greenhouse in the neighborhood, and the first gourmet cheeses were Tuttle innovations. They still farm their 240 acres with pumpkins and corn, but today, their major business is retail, selling fancy products directly to consumers from a farmstand that has evolved into a big general store.

Only ten percent of family businesses make it to the third generation, so there's no simple formula for success. A million things can go wrong. A highway can come through, destroying the best fields, or a highway can bypass the place by miles, leaving it inaccessible to traffic. Or the brightest kids can leave home.

So, your kids are coming home for the holidays -- your kids, your neighbors, your nieces and nephews. Make them welcome. Teach them something about your place. Figure out how they can stay.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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