Home Was Right Where She Left It
IT'S the faces I remember most when I think of that hot summer night - my relatives standing on the brick platform of Guthrie's Santa Fe station as we boarded the train to leave the small Oklahoma town. We were going to the promised land of California.Skip to next paragraph
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My parents had just divorced, an event not so common in the early '50s and not common at all in this rather Victorian town. My mother wanted a new life, a new beginning, so she was taking my 12-year-old brother and me to California. We were going after the California dream - oranges, palm trees, frothy waves, and movie stars.
The train gushed white steam, clouding familiar faces as I peered out the thick glass window: my grandmother with her pink cheeks, a sweet-looking prim smile to hold back her feelings, her gray hair rolled gently around the edge of her face, her hands clutching each other nervously in front of her flowered dress; and my blind grandfather with his round face, bald head, and dark glasses, standing there looking somehow proud in his lightweight suit, his hands resting on his white cane. Beside them were my six uncles and aunts, in all their various heights, in shirt sleeves and summer dresses, looking a little sad. One uncle had even brought some vitamins and a little extra money for my mother.
The faces began to seem dreamlike as the veil of steam rose and obliterated my view and the train began its journey west.
I was 13 then, and decades later I returned to the heat, the wind, and the close ambiance of the small town. My quest was twofold: The writer in me thought the historical aspect would be an interesting story, but another part of me wanted to relive that point when childhood ended so abruptly and be in touch again with what we'd left behind - the landscape, the vivid red dirt, the buildings, houses, and people, the way the air felt, and how the wind blew.
As soon as the plane landed in Dallas and I'd made the connecting flight to Oklahoma City, I sensed a different atmosphere - slight Southern accents - and a man actually helped me take off my cardigan sweater. Another offered to put my flight bag in the overhead storage area. In general, people seemed to talk more to each other than they did in my home of San Diego. Or was it my imagination?
Going back began to feel like visiting another country.
I had especially wanted to go back on this particular long weekend because it was the annual celebration of the Great Land Run - 89er's Day - which is held on the Saturday closest to April 22. It had always been a special holiday for me as a child. Each year I'd watch the parade, go to the carnival, and wear appropriate "cowgirl" duds - a bandanna scarf or a wide-brimmed straw hat.
The history of 89er's Day was the history of the town. Guthrie had sprung up overnight on April 22, 1889, when the unassigned lands of central Oklahoma (2.2 million acres were originally part of Indian territory) were opened to settlers as a result of a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison.
I'd often heard the story of the Great Run - how the settlers began lining up days in advance. Then with a gunshot at noon, more than 50,000 people on horseback, in wagons, even on foot and bicycle, streamed into the territory and staked claims in areas that are now the towns of Guthrie, Kingfisher, El Reno, Stillwater, Oklahoma City, and Norman. Guthrie had a tent-city population of 12,000 to 15,000 that first night.
Each year since 1890 (excluding the period between 1910-1929), Guthrie folks have staged this annual celebration. During the festivities, townspeople dress in Victorian dress or cowboy attire, put on a rousing rodeo and carnival, hold a contest for the longest beard, present a performance at a historic vaudeville theatre, and stage the state's largest parade.
In Oklahoma City I rented a car and then drove the 30 miles to Guthrie. The town has an abundance of trees - elm, maple, sweet gum, and oak - and the smaller spiraea trees were laden with white blossoms.
As I drove once again on the familiar wide brick streets, it felt as though something that had once left me re-entered, silently. Before long I found my aunt's house, where I had been invited to stay. Aunt Mildred was in her 70s, but with her trim figure, brown hair, and smooth skin, she looked much younger. Maybe time really had stood still for me, I thought for an instant.
As we talked and had a Coke to ward off the heat, I sank back into the sounds of almost-forgotten names, the familiar choices of words. The weather, the air, and the scent of the place spoke to something nameless inside me.
The next morning, we drove through town to see the landmarks I remembered - the red sandstone buildings of downtown, my father's law office, and the drugstore we all frequented. Then we crossed the rickety wooden bridge over the brown and red Cottonwood Creek to the west side of town to see the hospital where my grandmother had once worked.