Ducks, children, and a nuclear plant

There they sit, three generations of women, with their pony in the backyard and a three-year-old chestnut gelding in the side yard - all of them in the shadow of a nuclear power plant's cooling tower - waiting for a blacksmith to come by.

Between them, Rebecca West, her daughter Diane Mofford, and her 18-month-old granddaughter Valerie have seen this little town metamorphose from a rural village to a thriving backyard for a new nuclear power station, to a more settled community living in the wake of the plant's closing.

The kind of change that touches so many American small towns has come pushing through this place in recent times.

For Rebecca West, it's been a bittersweet mixture of progress, a parting with a precious way of life and a realization that, as the French say, ''Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.''

Her own little stake in small-town life hasn't been altered much. She's the only one in town, for instance, who can still keep horses on her property, because of a ''grandfather clause'' in the town ordinance. But she points to various other ways in which things have changed here.

Like the family living ''down in the center of town, who used to have a cow. Zoning did away with all that. ... When the plant was going, the town used tax money to pave alleys, put parks in. ... It was booming around here. You'd have to wait in line at the store.''

Now things are quieter - as quiet as they can be for a woman who runs a machine in a metalworking shop and loves ''the machine shop work.''

Her husband, Larry West - who commutes 80 miles round trip to a job as supervisor in a sales and order department near Cincinnati - comes out in carpenter's apron, with a pencil behind his ear, to eavesdrop for a moment. He offers the opinion that the town was named after Ma's Cow and ''had nothing to do with the place in Russia.'' Then he disappears around the corner of the pretty blue and white house they have built and added onto with their own labor.

The Wests' daughter felt the currents of change in her own life when the tiny local school closed up and she was bused to a larger school.

''I felt lost in the big school,'' she remembers. ''Here all the teachers knew you without looking at your records. I wasn't bored here. I had the pony to ride. I could play with the neighborhood kids.''

Her own daughter occupies the sandbox nearby, companioned by a pair of ducks. ''Mom makes sure my daughter has things to do, while we talk,'' she comments quietly, referring to frequent trips to visit from her home a few miles out of town.

''To me, this is still the only place to raise kids,'' Mrs. West says, with the finality of someone with no intention of being moved by the currents of change.

''I'm a farm girl, grew up just outside of Moscow. We had nine acres. When I was a young girl in high school, we'd go into Cincinnati to shop. I couldn't wait to get home. I just hated it.

''You just feel a difference in the atmosphere.''

Were it not for the looming presence of the cooling towers, the town around her could provide the perfect setting for an Andy Hardy movie or an Emily Dickinson poem. Snug lawns hug up against tidy little houses crowded with trees and summer foliage.

As we talk, Larry West mows a steep rake in the lawn by attaching a rope to the lawn mower, letting it down the hill, then pulling it slowly back up.

''Right now, they're asking my husband to move to Florida with his company,'' Mrs. West says. ''And we don't want to go. My mom's here. She's 79. My dad's 79. We've got grandkids.

''Shoot, that's just too far from home.''

Last of a series

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