Commentary: 'You're The Future Of This Town'

Mar 10, 2015

My daughter registered to vote for the first time before last year’s Town Meeting. The Supervisors of the Checklist made an appropriate fuss.

Special thanks to Bev Norton for additional photography. You can find her photos here.

One of them looked at her, beaming, and said, “You are the future of this town.”

She didn’t say “of this country,” or even “of New Hampshire.”

This was a statement more fiercely local than that. It would be fine with these women if my daughter aspired to the United States Senate. I’m sure they’d cheer her on. But what they really want is for her to be on the town board of selectmen.

The Pillsbury Free Library in Warner
Credit Bev Norton via Flickr CC

A couple weeks earlier, at the start of sugaring season, Warner’s longtime road agent came to the house. He was running for selectman, and hoping for our votes.

We talked about the proposed new fire station. And Allan  — whom Fiona had known all her life — told my daughter that we would figure out now what Warner needed for the fire station, and that it would be up to her and his nephew Rhett and their generation to figure out, 20 years from now, what the town would need then.

He made clear his expectation that she and Rhett would come back from college, live in Warner, and invest themselves in town affairs. He also made it clear that he expected to see her at Town Meeting.

This is a powerful set of statements for a young person to hear from the elders in her community. This was not a set of statements that I ever heard, growing up in another small New England town. My generation was supposed to strike out, to go west, or at least somewhere else.

Never mind that we were already in a great town.  

Detail of Warner's New England architecture
Credit Bev Norton via Flickr CC

Maybe Warner is old-fashioned this way. But if this deep, generational connection to community is old-fashioned, it had better become new-fashioned pretty fast.

New Hampshire's population is aging, and we’ve got a big demographic bubble careening toward retirement. New Hampshire genuinely needs Fiona and Rhett’s generation, armed with their college degrees, to live here, and work here, and be invested in our communities.

And we need to make very sure there are ways for them to make a living here — or there will be a growing number of empty chairs at Town Meeting.

New Hampshire has been here before. After the Civil War, people abandoned New Hampshire farms in droves.

The idea of “old home days” was dreamt up, in fact, by New Hampshire governor Frank West Rollins in 1899 — a desperate contrivance to get people to come back. When the elders in Fiona’s community made their expectations clear, they were being brilliantly preemptive.

And this works both ways. Yes, an aging New Hampshire needs Fiona’s generation.

But they also need us. Now, maybe more than ever, coming home just makes economic sense.

For too long, coming home, I mean literally to the family homestead, has been seen as something shameful. “Oh, so-and-so has moved back home...” was said, kind of like you might say “oh, so-and-so is on parole.”

What the hell is that? Coming home is not a surrender or a defeat, it’s a strategic advance. College costs have skyrocketed, and New Hampshire’s college students have the highest debt load in the country.

Maybe I’m just howling from an empty nest here, but who, just out of college, can afford her own household these days, and why is that uniformly expected, anyway? (After this past winter, do we really all want separate roofs to shovel? REALLY?)

The Dalton covered bridge in Warner
Credit C Hanchey via Flickr CC

My daughter, to her great horror, will miss Town Meeting this year. She is across the river at college in Vermont. While my neighbors knit to keep their hands busy during debates over warrant articles, I’ll be texting Fiona with updates from the town hall balcony. She’ll want to know about the fire station, and the library maintenance fund, and the proposed traffic circle. She really will.

And when she comes back, her return will be celebrated.

We throw graduation parties to ship kids off. I think we need a new set of parties — to celebrate their coming home. So Fiona, and Rhett, and Sayre at Atticus and Dorothy and Emily and Colin and Klare — by all means, go. Go to college, go do City Year, go work in Italy, go test-drive New York. But come back. When you do, we’ll hire a brass band and throw you a parade.

You are the future of this town.