(Fifteenth in a series.)

Mary Lee and I had grown up in Philly and the suburbs of Chicago, but we knew nothing about small towns. If we were traveling somewhere in the evening and drove through a village at twilight, we’d look at the little homes with warm lights glowing from their front windows and comment how peaceful it all must be. Sometimes we’d even say we wished we lived there.

During seminary, we’d become friends with Robert and Phama Woodyard. We lived on the same floor in married student housing and we’d been assigned to the same advisee group. As we prepared to leave, Robert and I had both received calls to serve churches in the Presbyterian Church (USA) out in Wisconsin. Shortly before moving, Mary Lee and I were invited to Robert and Phama’s for pizza. Phama had grown up in a small Mennonite community in rural Ohio. During dinner, knowing Mary Lee and I were headed to a town of 1,500. Phama said, “You know, in a small town everybody knows everything about you.”


It was a warning, but I thought, “What’s there to hide?” We had taken a trip out to Wisconsin for an interview and weekend with the Search Committee. They’d shown us the tiny manse at the center of town, just a block south of the business district (mostly bars), and we’d thought it picturesque. Our mailing address would be the prestigious 107 South Main Street. Now we’d received our call and been examined and approved by the presbytery for ordination, so it was time to pack up and leave Boston.

Our little family drove our little VW Rabbit out to Wisconsin and met the Bekin movers at the manse Friday morning. We had very little furniture, so the movers were gone by early afternoon. My first worship services were that Sunday and, wanting to be ready to begin my sermon prep right away Saturday morning, I decided to set up my library before I went to bed. Hours later, Mary Lee and the kids were long asleep while I was still at it carrying boxes of books across the backyard to the church, unpacking and setting them up in the bookshelves of the pastor’s office.

It had turned into the wee hours of Saturday morning when, returning to the house for the next box, I came around the back corner of the manse and found two policemen standing on the top of the stairway shining their flashlights into the house through our kitchen windows. Their squad car sat in the driveway with the engine running.

Surprised, I said “Hi,” then “can I help you?”

“We got a call that something was going on over here,” they said.

Identifying myself as the new pastor of the Presbyterian church next door, I explained I was moving my books into the pastor’s office. Assuring them everything was okay, it was clear my explanation hadn’t satisfied them because they kept shining their flashlights on me, then through our kitchen windows and around the interior of our house.

So I repeated myself: I was the new pastor and was moving my books into the pastor’s office at the church next door. This time, feeling the need to explain my apparently irregular behavior, I added this self-justification: “I’m moving my books late at night because I want to get a jump on sermon preparation tomorrow morning.” Said it chipper like.

The policemen responded to this second explanation by telling me they’d had a call that lights were on in the parsonage. They pointed out it was rather late for lights to be on in the parsonage. Didn’t I agree?

“Yes,” I admitted. (They had me there.) But again I tried to reassure them: “This is just a one-off thing. Normally I won’t be moving boxes in the middle of the night.”

That seemed to mollify them, but as they walked down the stoop stairs to their squad car, they provided some thoughtful advice: “Well, if you’re going to be up late again, it might be good to give the sheriff’s office a call. Just to let us know nothing’s wrong.”

As they pulled out of our driveway, it came to me that this was what Phama had tried to warn us of. In a small town, everyone knows everything about you.

After that night, when I got my son out of bed to use the bathroom, I was careful not to turn on the lights. Who wanted the county deputies knocking on the door and asking why our bathroom light was on so late at night? If I turned on the lights, I’d have to explain my wife and I were having trouble with our son wetting his bed. Then maybe they’d give us advice about this battery driven buzzer you could attach to his underwear that would let out a shrieking sound if it got wet and the sound would make the parents wet their bed while leaving the little boy scared half to death. But we already knew about that buzzer and it hadn’t worked, so then maybe they’d have another suggestion and pretty soon Mabel next door would open her window and join the discussion, saying one of hers had been a bed-wetter, too, and we shouldn’t let our son drink after dinner…

Those years in rural Wisconsin, we used the U.S. Postal Service to send out an annual Valentine’s Letter to our friends and loved ones, and each year Mary Lee started the letter with a story that began, “You know you live in a small town when…”

One of them was, “You don’t have to use your blinkers because everyone already knows where your’e going.”

(Fifteenth in a series.)

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