Required Reading in a Pandemic

Reading Bette Carrothers’ online “Our Town” column from New Baltimore, Michigan every Sunday night has become one of my favorite pandemic pastimes.

The 85-year-old Carrothers writes about such seemingly mundane topics as yard sales, how Memorial Day ceremonies were observed (“with reverence”), and small-town concerns, such as a family searching for a missing memorial bench they purchased in honor of their mother. She likes to end her work with an aphorism, such as “what other people think of you is none of your business.”

Her homespun writing is a soothing antidote to these dark times.

She reminds me of Verlyn Klinkenborg, who wrote The Rural Life column in the New York Times for 16 years from his small farm in upstate New York. Instead of politics and weighty subjects, Klinkenborg turned his attention to animals, pets, plants and Fourth of July parades. In his farewell column in 2013, he said he sat down to write in the “sure knowledge that there was always something worth noticing and that there were nearly always words to suit it.”

I also find it touching that Carrothers’ column bears the name of one of the seminal plays in American history, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a staple of high-school drama clubs because it requires no curtain and no scenery.

Set in fictional Grover’s Corners, Our Town is the story of the Gibbs and Webb families, and symbolizes “ordinary people who make the human race seem worth preserving,” according to one literary critic. The play is noteworthy for its Stage Manager, a narrator who guides the audience through the play.

Grover’s Corners could be Carrothers’ New Baltimore, a town of about 12,000 on scenic Anchor Bay. I lived in New Baltimore on Main Street in the late 1970s as a newlywed and a young mother. Naturally, Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 novel Main Street, which satirized small town life, was required reading for me.

Satire, however, does not appear to interest Carrothers, who told me in an email exchange in March that “I am not really a writer, but a lover of Our Town and one who wants to support the events and ‘happenings’ that occur.” She said she finds it “stimulating to keep busy in this way,” and said “I have much to give and do not plan on being a couch potato just yet. I love life and being around positive people who work hard and laugh a lot.”

A former elementary school music teacher, Carrothers still directs two adult choirs in her town, First Congregational Church and the New Baltimore Interfaith Choir. She has been guiding both for more than 50 years, along with being the treasurer of the New Baltimore Historical Society.

Her drive and energy level have earned her a spot on my personal list of role models such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the actress Dame Judi Dench, older women who defy the double whammy of ageism and sexism and keep at their careers.

bette carrothers and paulI had the chance to meet Carrothers at a meeting of the New Baltimore Historical Society earlier this year, when my husband Paul was invited to come and tell some stories about growing up in the town. He played in local rock bands, such as Powerhouse and No Fault, and edited the local newspaper, the Anchor Bay Beacon. He also was in charge of the stage lighting when his high-school drama club performed Our Town. Carrothers was his beloved music teacher in the second grade, and they had a touching reunion before the event.

She may be too modest to call herself “a writer,” but she is one of the remaining chroniclers of small-town life in America as the coverage of local news continues to wither, a narrator just off to the side, something akin to the Stage Manager in Wilder’s great work.

Photo: Bette Carrothers and Paul Lienert at the New Baltimore Historical Society meeting, January 16, 2020.

 

 

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