A River Runs through Manchester and Me

By Rachel Reeser

The Conewago Creek splits Manchester right in two. Its knee-deep water is easily crossed by wading through using the bridge that spans it above. People do so every day–to go to work, school, the store–but, without fail, they always return home to their side come nightfall. The physical barrier the creek creates doesn’t pose much of a problem, but nonetheless it represents something bigger at play.

To the south of the creek lies Manchester proper, the main thoroughfare lined by streetlights and banners, landscaped with full oak trees and flowers. There’s a lovely park in the square, where the giant pine is lit up for the holidays, just up the road from the grocery store and the cafe favored by the locals. The school is a few blocks away, surrounded by modest but welcoming homes with freshly mowed lawns and clean coats of paint. It’s a picturesque image of small-town America with its peaceful suburbs and white picket fences. Roads lead out of town like spokes on a wheel, offering to take one anywhere else if they so wish.

I grew up on the north side, more commonly known by the locals as the  “wrong side of the creek.” Here, the roads are lined with only  things of nature , for fear  that the yearly flooding will destroy everything in its path. Up until about a decade ago, some of the roads were still paved with dirt or gravel. The homes range from rundown old farmhouses to mobile homes to ramshackle little bungalows, with lawns slightly overgrown with long grasses and wildflowers. The only amenity is a little shop that sells groceries at a premium that is accompanied by an old church next door. Most of the people on our side have been there for generations, living and dying within a mile of where they were born. My own family has been in the area for nearly 300 years, passing the homestead down until we could no longer afford it. There’s only one road that leads you nowhere, with narrow lanes shooting off to remote locales connecting to it like arteries. Of course, there’s also the bridge, but few dare to cross it for anything more than an errand.

I crossed the bridge a long time ago, took a road out of town, and never returned. When I looked back over my shoulder, it became clear to me that going back was impossible. The r’s have slipped out of my “washes,” the Deitsch words I grew up with have largely vanished from my vocabulary, replaced by terms that label me as “snobbish” or “uppity” by those I grew up with. My clothes are no longer hand-me-downs from older cousins or siblings, no longer made from sturdy material ideal for work or play outside. I can’t slip into conversations come holidays about persisting small-town gossip, such as age-old land disputes or who married who from which families. I have everything I ever wanted: education, opportunity, exposure to different people and places. I have everything I ever wanted, but a part of me still mourns for what I’ve left behind, what shaped me in my youth and where my family still resides.

The Conewago Creek meanders through Manchester, carving it and its people in two. It should be simple to cross, its shallow waters calm and welcoming, the bridge above sturdy. But most of us won’t toe that line, content to just exist as we are and have been for generations. We don’t cross for fear of what’s to come and for fear of what we’d leave behind.

Rachel is a political science and policy studies major slated to graduate in 2022. In her free time, she can be found doing embroidery or cuddling her elderly housecat.