On July 7, 2021, the day that two semis arrived at the ramshackle 1889 three-story home we’d purchased in Attica, Indiana (pop. 3,100), carrying all the belongings our family of seven had accumulated over the past 17 years, the family across the street—Randy, Ann, Susan, and Alex—showed up with a pan of homemade lasagna (all names are pseudonyms). A few hours later, their next-door neighbors, Brent (a teacher at the high school in town), Clarice, and Gemma, brought cookies. The couple in the house next to ours, Andy and Jessica (a young farmer and county extension worker), left a handwritten note with their phone number.
Elizabeth, a neighbor down the street whose husband has deep roots in the town, brought a tin of cookies and some Attica-themed stickers she’d made. The high school cross-country team, excited that they’d be getting two new runners (my sons Jacob and Tyler, then a sophomore and junior), came with Coach Susan, a kind, tough grandma who would prove able to motivate even my then-seventh-grader Isaiah, who is not a natural athlete, to run. They also brought the burly machines teacher and golf coach, Vern, and his super friendly, redheaded nephew Amos, who would later become a friend to Jacob and inspire him to join FFA.
You may recall that in July 2021, many of us thought the worst of the pandemic was behind us. At the time of the COVID outbreak, we were living in a suburb of St. Paul, where I was teaching high school English. I’d been accepted into a PhD program at Purdue University—an acceptance I would defer for a year because of the pandemic—but I still wasn’t sure I wanted to leave Minnesota, the only state where I’d ever resided year-round. My wife, however, was ready; she’d grown up in Texas and, even after 16 years of living in Minnesota, she still hadn’t acclimated to the cool, superficial friendliness known as Minnesota Nice.
We rode out the early months of the pandemic in relative isolation; we were more cautious than many in our circles, and when the first vaccines were announced, we rejoiced and got in line, even as some of our friends and relatives, to our bewilderment and grief, refused even to consider getting jabbed. So when we decided, in April 2021, to move to a small town a half hour’s drive from Purdue—a decision influenced almost solely by the cost of housing in the greater Lafayette area—we were nervous, especially since Isaiah, our youngest child, wasn’t quite old enough to get the COVID vaccine.
Would any of our neighbors be vaccinated? The numbers weren’t promising: only about half of the county had received at least one jab. But a few weeks later, we sat sipping sweet Indiana wine on Brent and Clarice’s front porch with the two of them and Randy and Ann as our kids, including Isaiah, played a board game together inside. We’d finally gotten the majority of our things put away and were starting to feel somewhat settled. We’d also learned that all four of them (and their children, thank the sweet Lord) were fully vaccinated.
Over the course of the last 21 months, we’ve gotten to know Brent and Clarice, Randy and Ann, Andy and Jessica, Elizabeth, and Coach Susan relatively well, and we’ve found more in common with them than I ever would have ever expected. And they’re not the only ones. There’s Ron and Summer, friends of Randy and Ann’s who have welcomed us into their circle. There’s Leah, the young mother who returned after college and is leading an effort to revitalize the decrepit main street.
And there’s Dan and Pamela, the semi-retired couple from Chicago who bought a beautiful old church and converted it to a bed and breakfast. Pamela’s a retired teacher; Dan, a former pastor, worked in Chicago for an organization that promotes economic and racial justice. Now he works part-time in HR for one of the town’s major employers, going to bat regularly for local workers who have struggled with addiction and homelessness. They’ve adorned the whole place with African and African American art and have a book on the coffee table celebrating Obama’s presidency. Partly, Dan told me, they want their Black friends and patrons to feel safe when they come.
Dan and Pamela have become especially good friends; we’ve put up visiting family members at their B&B, joined them and their ever-widening circle of friends for Christmas parties and historical society fundraisers, sipped amaretto sours on their patio with them while grieving wayward children and the state of American political discourse, and invited them over for late-night games of Mahjong. I have lunch twice a month with Dan and Doug, a mutual friend who owns a wedding venue just outside of town, and we play pickleball as often as we can at the park down the street from both of our houses or the old Armory building that we set up for the game a few months ago. But life has gotten a lot busier since we first arrived, and much of our busyness centers around Purdue, pulling us away from Attica. We don’t see as much of our neighbors as we did in those early months. Dan, Doug, and I are relatively recent transplants, and I’d guess none of us knows whether we’re going to put down permanent roots here. Still, I’m fonder of Attica than ever.
I’ve been continually surprised by this town, mostly in good ways. Small-town life isn’t for everyone, and not every small town, I’m sure, has the kind of richness of experience and thought I’ve found in Attica. I can see how some might be eager to leave and experience something new; and also how others might be happy to live here for the rest of their lives. And maybe some will go away, change, and come back years later to further enrich the community. Seems to me we need both kinds of people.
Ben Lathrop, a National Board Certified Teacher, is a second-year doctoral student in Curriculum & Instruction (English education emphasis) at Purdue University. After 18 years of living and teaching English and journalism in Minneapolis and St. Paul, he moved with his wife and five children to Attica, Indiana, where he lives in a drafty three-story historic home built in 1889 with his family and three cats. He enjoys reading and writing, making music, playing board games, discussing theology, and pickleball.