10/09/2013 07:47 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Love Letters: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

Madeline Felix is currently finishing her MFA in Writing at Columbia University, where she is also the recipient of a Creative Writing Teaching Fellowship. Previously, she lived in Vietnam as a U.S. Fulbright Grantee and worked on Broadway in theatrical producing. She's not quite sure where she'll end up.

Dear Lancaster County,

If a stranger were to ask me about my heritage, I might reply that I'm an amalgamation of Pennsylvania Dutch puritanical restraint and Irish Catholic exuberance: the product of farmers and coal miners. Another way to say this is that I come from you, Lancaster County. I was raised in one of your small towns on a street called Chocolate Avenue. And while I've been gone for nine years, sometimes I still catch myself calling you home.

To tourists, you mean other things: smorgasbord buffets, Amish buggy rides, plain & fancy, Dutch Wonderland, and outlet malls. But to me you will always be barn parties after Friday night football games, canned red beet eggs, and my mother sending me down the street with a loaf of Friendship Bread to welcome a new neighbor. You are capture-the-flag in cornfields and cow-crossings on the way to school. You're the smell of brownies when it rains because the chocolate factory is just around the corner, and the moisture in the air holds the scent. Of course, you're also the smell of chicken shit when the farmers fertilize their fields in spring.

People from the outside think my childhood with you sounds idyllic, and in some ways I guess it was. Hell, the name of my hometown was "Mount Joy," and I used to ride my bike to the small hill down the lane just to suck on the wild honeysuckle. In the summer, my mom bought our produce from a roadside stand run by a little Amish girl whose first language was Pennsylvania Dutch. I didn't know sweet corn could grow any color besides white or taste anything other than perfect. My father was my high school principal, my mother taught at my middle school, all the kids in my family were freckle-faced and dimple-cheeked, and I don't think I ever went anywhere--swim meet, grocery store, post-office, shopping mall--without seeing someone I knew or someone who knew me.

When I was 18, I left you for New York City. Truth was, I'd had enough. I didn't like that everyone knew my name, or even that so many people looked alike. My politics were turning blue when everyone else's seemed fire-engine-red, and I didn't want to end up like those small-town soccer moms who gossiped behind each other's backs and still talked about their senior prom. I thought there must be more out there. In some ways, I know I was right.

But do you remember that town hall meeting in 2005, when I was home from college for summer break? Someone had burned down Risser Mill's covered bridge and the community was deciding whether or not to rebuild it. I had been asked to speak as a "young person" on behalf of those who favored rebuilding. I didn't know what I would say, but I listened to the others who spoke before me. One woman told the story of her first kiss under the bridge. A neighboring farmer said he hated that bridge; it was a pain in the ass to get across in his tractor. Another man said his brother had died near the bridge during a flood, but he still thought they should rebuild because it was a symbol of our heritage and community. By the time it came my turn to speak, I was holding back tears, overwhelmed by history, love, and the sadness of loss. I muddled through some explanation about this place making me who I am, and covered bridges being part of this place, and, thus, covered bridges making me who I am. It was not my finest public speaking effort, but afterwards a local farmer told me that a baby alpaca with dark wavy hair like mine had recently been born on her farm. "Maybe we'll name her after you," she said.

Still, I'm not sure if I'll ever come back to you. You're part of me, but you're not the only part anymore. I now love living in a big diverse city. I like going to museums and Broadway plays and ordering Thai food after 10:00PM. I like listening to the jumble of languages on the subway and knowing that all of the world's religions can live on the same block. But I must admit that I breathe a little deeper when I see your rolling cornfields through the Amtrak window on the way to visit my folks.

So I've got to ask, Lancaster County: can I still call you home?