Home, for me, has always been Westmoreland, New York.
A small town where you graduated with the same kids you started kindergarten with and almost every face in town was a familiar one. A town where you couldn’t get away with anything because every parent knew each other and your teachers taught your siblings, cousins and even your parents before you. A town where it wasn’t uncommon to get stuck driving behind a tractor, or to stop for a herd of cows or loose chickens crossing the road.
There have been times when I’ve loved my town and times when I’ve hated it. I think everybody, at some point growing up, thinks to themselves, “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
I have always been a homebody, close with my family and a big fan of small-town life. When it came time to leave for college, I chose a small school only 40 minutes away. To my surprise (but nobody else’s), I hated it. Two weeks into the semester I couldn’t wait to get out, and when I transferred to UAlbany the following year, it was the best decision I could have made.
My perception of small-town life suddenly changed. For the career I wanted at the time, I knew I’d have to live in or near a city, and for the first time that’s what I wanted. I wanted lots of people and things to do and to be far away from the only place I had ever really known.
During my senior year of college, I swore I wouldn’t return home. I applied for jobs all over the country and was willing to accept any one of them if it meant I would be out on my own, in a new place. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted, I just knew I couldn’t go home. It was a fear I had, a fear I think many people in my town have.
If I go home, I’ll be stuck. I’ll never leave. I’ll be unhappy.
These thoughts were a chorus in my head as graduation drew nearer, and my friends’ and classmates’ worries about returning home just fueled my own resistance to it.
As fate would have it, I ended up accepting a job at the local paper and moving back home. I was genuinely interested in the job and I was excited for it, but I was still terrified. I was doing exactly what I swore I wouldn’t do, and I worried that I would be miserable and regret it.
I’ve never been happier to be wrong.
My job has made me so much more aware of the local community and everything this area has to offer, and coming back after being away has made me realize how much I missed. I’ve never appreciated Central New York more than I do now. The people that I once thought were “stuck” are the people I now admire for staying here through hard times, and for being the ones that are trying to revive it again.
I drive down roads with open fields and farmlands that I’ve passed a thousand times and it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time. The part of me that once craved city skylines and busy sidewalks now appreciates the quiet, slow-paced atmosphere and the friendly, familiar faces around me.
Instead of seeing it as a dead-end area with little opportunities, I see the potential this community has and find myself wanting to be a part of it. I see the local businesses and community-minded people with so much pride for where they’re from, and it’s heartwarming.
I’ll admit, there are still times when wonder if I should leave because I worry that I’ll be missing out on opportunities if I don’t.
But that’s the thing – my desire to leave has always been driven by a worry that I should, rather than because I actually want to.
When I decided I would move away from home, it was because I thought I needed to. I was worried about what people would say and think if I returned, and I was afraid of potential missed opportunities elsewhere. I was afraid to be labeled as “stuck,” just like I had labeled so many others before me. I was afraid I’d be married with children by my early 20s like everybody else seemed to be (which is okay, but not what I want), and living down the road from my family forever.
But a hometown doesn’t have to be the stifling, restrictive force that everybody believes it is growing up. This place was home for me until I was 18 and ready to leave for college and begin the next phase of my life, and I’ve realized that it can also be home for me during this new, present phase of my life.
My career goals are what initially fueled my desire to leave, and yet I’ve begun my career in the one place I believed it could never happen. I’m one of the lucky ones.
I am home, and I am happy. I have days where I worry about the future so much it makes me crazy, and the question always on mind seems to be, what next? But when I’m able to silence my worries, I’m overwhelmed with how happy I am with my life and where I’m currently spending it.
I have no idea where I’ll be in ten years, or five years, or even next year. I plan to move out by spring, and I’m not sure where I’ll go. But as long as Central New York still feels like home, I won’t be going far.
Every day I find something new that seems to be saying to me, welcome home, and I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.