The Backbone of the American Dream

If you’d asked me as a teenager, I’d have told you for sure I’d be getting out of here. That there’s no way at 33 years old I’d be living in my hometown where the biggest attraction is the Baseball Hall of Fame, 40 miles away. That I’d be raising a family not two minutes from where I grew up and an hour from a city that only makes national news when its basketball team plays in the Final Four. 

I’d have told you I wanted more. A bigger house in a brand-spanking new development, maybe near a major metropolitan area with bigger and better job opportunities.

But looking back I’m not sure if this was me talking, or the echo of so many voices around me saying that’s what I should do, that’s what I should want or that’s what would make me happy. And as I took my daughter for a walk through our quiet development tucked among clusters of 100 year old trees, it became clear that it was almost certainly the latter.

The sun is shining and birds are chirping. Dots of pink and yellow and purple paint the foreground amidst canopies of blossoming bushes. Spring breathes life into our little neighborhood.

It smells like freedom and fresh-cut grass.

A contribution to post WWII suburbanization, there’s a sense of history and work ethic here, and it’s palpable. The houses are imperfect with chipped paint or dented siding. Some are older cape cods and ranches; some newer, larger colonials; a few small brick cottages scattered throughout. They’re far from the “ticky tacky little boxes” of Melvina Reynolds’s 1962 satire on suburbia—far from shoddy or cookie cutter—all of them physical structures of craftsmanship and strength, beautifully reflective of the hands that built them and each owner’s individual pursuit of the American Dream.

The first people who built lives in quaint suburban neighborhoods like these poured out their blood and sweat and tears so that their children could have better lives.

My grandparents’ childhoods were poverty stricken. Their immigrant families had flocked to this country for the promise of work or freedom from oppression. And with a whole lot of grit and determination they built lives that were comfortable—each subsequent generation starting out a little better off than the last.

I had the pleasure of getting to know the previous owner of our home. She shared with me her family’s story, and some old photos of the house that her parents proudly built as the first and only home they shared together. One photograph shows her as a child held in the framework of the original kitchen window with her father, a wounded war veteran whose fortitude is an inspiration—like that of my father and grandfather and all the brave men who risked their lives for us.

So many stories like these—stories of hardship and hope—are woven into this backdrop. You can feel it in the air—the reality that nothing came easy for the past generations, and that those who are here now work hard every day to maintain what their predecessors carved out for them. 

Beams of lumber lean up against houses and piles of brick pavers lay scattered on lawns—evidence of DIY projects unfolding slowly as they’re squeezed in between family errands and hectic work schedules. Pride of ownership radiates from every rooftop. 

Some people say that undeserving things come too easily to those who don’t work hard. Some insist those who work hard never get what they deserve.

Both can be true, giving me an ever-deepening appreciation for places like this. These sweet spots where tough choices and sacrifice have paid off—where money isn’t spent frivolously and materialism rarely manifests because appreciation is far too abounding. Where there are few thoughts of entitlement and little is taken for granted.

The pursuit of happiness.

The destination of that third one looks different to everyone, and it doesn’t always include the suburbs and a white picket fence

But that’s the beauty of choice in this land of opportunity, and those who have unlocked their unique version of happiness have this in common—they never abandoned determination, hope, humility, and most importantly, gratitude.

Thanks to the sacrifices of those before us, our generation still has freedom. We have possibilities. We have choices.

For our family, choosing to plant our roots where the soil is already saturated with the values we hold dear helps us to never lose sight of that.

A special thanks to the previous owner of our home for sharing her family story and photos.

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