City Girl Goes Country
You can go home, again, I reckon.
It looks like something from a Hallmark movie,” my friend says as we drive down Main Street.
“It” is Rison, a small south Arkansas town in Cleveland County where my parents’ families landed in the 1800s. My roots run six generations deep in this county–the same place that gave the world Johnny Cash. He was born the same year my dad was: 1932.
My parents retired to Rison in the early 1990s. My dad died in 2009; my mom in 2017. They left me a house and a timber farm.
My dad joked to keep the house for when shit hits the fan. My mom’s advice: Keep it as a home base and travel. I rolled my eyes at both ideas.
“I will never live in Rison,” I replied repeatedly. “I’ve always been a city girl.”
Never say never. A global pandemic hits. Virus scares woman living in an apartment building. Country house needs renovating. Hello, Rison!
Yes, I left thriving downtown Little Rock to move to the quiet pastoral land of my ancestors. Some city friends call me crazy, but I love my little Green Acres-Mayberry-with-a-wee-hint-of-Ozark town.
People are polite and take life slower. A lot slower.
“Have a nice day” makes me smile. People who didn’t even know my parents take time to get to know me, especially at the Dollar General–the go-to place after school and church.
No one pushes you out of the way, sighs or taps their feet when you are struggling to retrieve your debit card. They simply strike up a conversation about “darn technology” and how things used to be easier when cash was king in the “good ol’ days.”
The postmaster learned my name and where I live quickly. If a person receives a package that won’t fit in a P.O. box, a yellow note card is placed in the box with the box number handwritten on it. No computer-generated memos here.
It’s throwback analog. That goes for gas pumps and water meters, too. The pumps aren’t digitized, and those annoying TV screens advertising products you don’t need are non-existent. Instead, people have conversations while pumping gas. Oh, and you pay after filling up.
If you live outside city limits, like I do, you read your own water meter, noting the numbers each month and hand-delivering the bill to the water company.
The Cleveland County sheriff’s deputies introduce themselves to new people in town quickly, and are happy to patrol homes if a family leaves on a trip or has a death in the family.
Trust still goes a long way in Rison. So does the printed word.
Wednesday afternoons are a big deal in Rison. That’s when The Cleveland County Herald, which was founded in 1888 and has been published nearly every week since, hits mailboxes and convenience store counters. When I was a little girl, my grandmother always had the Herald on her coffee table. My mom was a lifelong subscriber even when she lived away from Rison, and now I am, too.
Yes, people really do still read a real newspaper, and local news matters.
Have a flat tire? I had one recently and needed a pressure check. I called a relative who recommended the local Bumper to Bumper. “They’ll take care of you,” she said.
Sure enough, a kid — one of the politest I’ve met in years — checked all four tires, inflated them and charged nothing.
“We wouldn’t want you to have a flat out there, Miss Suzi,” the kid said with earnest concern. He knew my name because he took time to ask.
“I’ll definitely be back for an oil change,” I said.
I may possess an enchanted, almost Pollyanna, perspective about Rison, but I’m also a realist. Everything is not perfect. Streets need repairs. Downtown needs an injection of hip businesses. Some shady shenanigans happen behind closed doors. A coffee shop with espresso would be a good start. So would faster Internet.
Rison has seen better days. The population is dwindling. In 2010, the population was 1,344. It’s now less than 1,000. My dad always joked that the population always hovered around 1,300, because every time a baby was born a man left town.
These days more men are leaving town than babies being born.
A town’s population shrinking is never good. State and federal dollars for programs like Head Start and Medicaid decline. Infrastructure suffers because tax revenue decreases. A city can deteriorate rapidly with a lot less money. That’s why it’s critical to support local businesses, even if it’s just an oil change.
But I’m not giving up hope. I’m too charmed to do so. A calming joy exists in living in a place where your ancestors built their houses from the ground up, your mom was a high school cheerleader, your dad plowed cotton, and all of your loved ones are buried.
Rison is a place I have always loved, but even more so now that I am a part of its community. I just wish I could get a strong espresso.
A native of Pine Bluff, Suzi Parker is an award-winning South Arkansas-based investigative journalist, author and social media strategist. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, The Daily Caller, The Economist, Salon, The New York Times Magazine, Town & Country and many other regional and national websites. She has been the Arkansas correspondent for the Dallas Morning News and Reuters. She has appeared on national and international TV shows including ” The Dr. Phil Show” discussing her book “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt,” which will soon return in print.