You’ve heard the saying “big fish in a small pond,” but I believe there should be one that says “new fish in an old pond.” I grew up in a small town on the Mississippi/Louisiana border where I was related to a good portion of the county. Everybody knew everybody because everybody was “from” there. I went to college and took a post-grad job a mere 60 miles away, so up until I got married I had never really gone more than a week or two without seeing my family and visiting my hometown. That small town was only a short drive from New Orleans or the Mississippi Gulf Coast, so even though we were small we still had plenty of opportunities for big city exploration.
When Josh, my then fiancé, now husband, got the opportunity to run an oil and gas project in a very small Pennsylvania town, we jumped at it. The day our honeymoon was over, we drove from Boston to Wellsboro, PA and began what we thought would be a few-months-long project. When I say this town was small, I mean you had to drive 30 minutes to find a Wal-Mart. I mean I could walk from work to the grocery store to every restaurant in town and be back home in 30 minutes or less. The local department store was owned by the same family that owned the local hotel and movie theater just across the street. It. Was. Tiny.
Wellsboro was a town where everybody knew everybody because everybody was “from” there…. except for me. I didn’t know a soul besides my brand new husband, and I soon realized I didn’t know how to make a friend. I’d always been friends with people I’d grown up with. I’d also never experienced a true Northern Winter, so by March I was pretty much miserable. I was lonely and cold and everything was dreary and gray. Josh said I was being silly, that I’d love that place one day, but I cried a lot that winter, because I just wanted to go HOME.
Then something happened. One morning while getting breakfast at the local bagel shop, a lady named Deb tapped me on the shoulder. She’d seen us at church a few times and wondered if we had plans for lunch on Easter Sunday. She said she remembered her first holiday away from family during her husband’s residency in medical school and just how lonely and awful it was, and she didn’t want us to have to spend a holiday alone. We accepted her kind invitation and had a very nice Easter lunch with her family. I realized that perhaps I had been closed minded, that maybe folk in this small town were just like folks in my small town growing up: used to the way things are. That maybe it was a little intimidating for this new, young couple to blow into town and expect to make fast friends. I started stepping outside my comfort zone to inquire about the people around me, using the “you’re not from around here” my accent always drew to start new conversations. Local restaurant owners started recognizing us and said hello when we walked in their businesses. We were invited to cookouts with other families from our church. I joined a ladies’ Bible study group and got to really connect to other women in different phases of life. We eventually transformed from visitors to locals.
Four and a half years later, we stopped by that same bagel shop for breakfast as we started our journey back to Mississippi. The owner, Sue, hugged us and cried with us as she gave us a framed photograph of the town green for our home down south. That few months project wound up lasting years, and led us to friendships that will last a lifetime. We’ve traveled back for weddings, we frequently check Google Maps to make sure Josh’s truck is still parked in front of our old house, and we hope to have a second home there someday. But the piece of wisdom I’ve cherished the most from that time spent in Wellsboro is this: people are just people everywhere you go. It’s hard being new, and I hope to do all I can to make it a little easier on those new folks I encounter. And maybe Josh was right after all, now I love that little town more than I ever thought possible.
Emily Nowell is co-owner and VP Operations of Laurel Mercantile Co. She and her husband, Josh, are oil and gas professionals and real estate investors who have traded life on the road to spend their days wrangling a small herd of little Nowells while working to restore several historic commercial buildings in Downtown Laurel, MS in their “free time” between oil and gas projects.