Why I loved Modesto

Atti at the park

Modesto gets a bad rap. My own father-in-law hates it and calls it a “dirty little town.” Whenever I’m travelling and say where I’m from I’ll get pity in return. There’s even an extended rant about how bad it is by a comedian I really like. But I loved it.

The day I took this picture of Atticus, we had decided to have a family picnic at a nearby park. It was one of the rare days when we were all home together and had the energy to tackle an outing, so we packed up toys and our giant picnic blanket, stopped for sandwiches, and enjoyed being outside together.

Modesto is in a valley, and when the sky is blue it is electric blue and goes on forever. I’ve never been to Montana, but I feel like I understand “Big Sky Country” from living here. Bright blue skies and shocking green grass, broken up by the nut and fruit orchards or grape vineyards. If this place is a dirty little town, it’s only because dirt is necessary for things to grow.

On this day we were enjoying the perfect weather and watching as another family played nearby. It didn’t take long before the grandmother struck up a conversation, asking us about Atti and where he went to school, telling us her history as an aide in an elementary school, and offering us her hard-won wisdom in how to advocate for children with disabilites. That’s something I’ve always been able to count on here. The people.

There’s something about living in an agricultural community that makes people connected in ways I’ve never experienced anywhere else. When everyone is a farmer, their livelihood depends on one another – helping out during harvests, loaning materials, offering their expertise, pitching in. And that spirit seems to have carried over even when the farms aren’t the main employers anymore. If someone can help, they often do. And I just haven’t found that other places. Here cashiers will ask for my phone number so they can bring me plant cuttings. Neighbors will bring me vintage blue mason jars because they know I bottle. Teachers will send Atti home with lemons and blackberries from their garden.

Modesto certainly has its problems. The economy has been hard, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for education, and we have the rash of problems you’d expect from a place dealing with poverty – obesity, crime, drug addiction. But we also have roots. Having lived so many places around the country, and so many places where everybody was from somewhere else, it was a revelation to come to a place where people have lived here for generations. Where they return to run family businesses. Where the church pews are lined every week with parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. This isn’t the only place that fits that description, I have a feeling I’m going to find that same thing in Placerville, but Modesto was the first place that offered it to me, and for that it will always have my heart.

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