I think part of the reason I wanted to leave this small menno-centric region had nothing to do with being Mennonite.
I think it might’ve been because of the shame of being known.
I cringed when people would recognize me and tell me that they knew who I was.
“Hey, you’re the one who…”
This projected identity would invariably hinge upon some embarrassing foible of mine, I was very sure of it:
You’re the one who smells faintly of barnyard
You’re the one who wears ugly clothes from Bi-Way
You’re the fat freckled brunette
You’re the one without older siblings to look out for you
You’re the one with a flat Mennonite accent
You’re the one whose nose is too big, and it’s always running (hello farmyard allergies)
You’re the one whose only social outlet is church… and even there, you have no friends
You’re the one with the annoyingly loud voice that hurts my ears
You’re the one who peed their pants in kindergarten
You see what I mean.
I wanted to outrun the identity others had formed for me… and as I grew older, it occurred to me that I certainly could. I could move away and tell people anything I wanted about myself, my story, my background. They wouldn’t have any memories to contest this, nor would they randomly stumble upon anyone who could contradict the narrative I was feeding them about who I really was.
When I moved to Banff as a 20-year-old, the temptation to reinvent myself was strong. I realized it was possible. I could tell these new friends from the other side of the world anything and they’d just have to believe me.
The sheer power of this realization knocked me off my feet. I had to think about it.
I climbed the diminutive Tunnel Mountain and sat there looking out over the Bow River below, pondering.
Did I really want to throw away my story, my roots, clodded with dirt and manure though they may be?
In an age when the internet was still in its infancy and before we all had smartphones and data, I could tell my new friends that no one back home understood me, you see. Just another cool, misunderstood youth in the ’90s. That narrative felt pretty good at first. It was so easy.
It didn’t land right for me. I was creating a disconnect, and I wasn’t interested in that. And so after just 8 months living in Banff (which at the time felt like a lifetime), I returned home. Ready to face the truth of who I was — including other people’s awkward memories of me and all that. Yeah sure, let’s go.
I just spent an evening reconnecting with someone whose story interweaves and overlaps with mine in a myriad of ways. This is what it is to be living in a small town for well over a decade. And by now I fully lean into it, saying, “Hey, do you remember 12 years ago when we barely knew each other but we went and did this thing and we had this conversation? It’s all coming back to me now — what do you remember of this?”
I’m no longer embarrassed. Suddenly, it’s become a pleasure to be known by certain people. To connect.
A word about my past — this past that I realized I could run from, I could deny — it was not a terrible past. It was not dark or abusive. Rather, my past was simply rootsy, there was a lack of wealth, I was sheltered, I was a wallflower, waiting to bloom into the future. Haunting the library. Unsure of how to become friends with my fellow females because I just had a wealth of brothers and if I had a problem with them I’d just kick ’em in the face but girls don’t work that way. I had no ability to talk to them in the friendshippy kind of way I read about in those cute fun little chapter books. One time, in 6th grade, I point-blank asked one of my classmates how to be a normal friend because I was trying to figure it out and just had no idea. As you might imagine, that conversation didn’t go well. It’s just something you have to kinda… evolve into, I guess.
Anyway, as time marches on, I see my past in a halcyon glow. I may have smelled like the barn but it means that at 6am I was milking cows with my don’t-give-a-shit grandma who’d march to the double-doors, swinging them wide open to reveal a stunning sunrise. She’d stop for a moment and stand there, taking it in. My dad would walk over and join her, leaning on the opposite door jamb, gazing at the wonder unfolding in the sky. I ceased my grudging barnwork for a second, my attention arrested by the silhouettes of my ancestors against the distant riot of colour that suddenly felt so close. The image seared itself upon my memory.
They are both gone now, my dad and my grandma. The farm too. But I’m still here for the time being, and I remember.
This too is part of my identity.
The searing beauty alongside farmyard drudgery.
This is where I come from. It’s all true.
Yes, I AM that one that smells like a dairy barn. I AM that one kid who peed their pants in kindergarten. I AM that one who sounds vaguely Mennonite when caught off-guard. I AM that kid who never lived up to the normal standard of beauty. And what’s wrong with any of this? I leaned into it and returned home, where at any moment I might run into someone who will say, “Hey, aren’t you the one who did this other random stupid thing that time?” And I will look them straight in the eye and say, “Yep. That was me. Here I am. What now?”