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.

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.

Later that day we took sandwiches and cool drinks and drove to the Cimarron River - for this was the day that the arrival of the wagon train from Kansas would be reenacted. Descendants of early pioneers had begun their trek in Caldwell, Kansas, with over 100 wagons and followed the trail their ancestors did in 1899 to the banks of Guthrie's Cimarron.

The next day, 89er's Day, I walked with one of my cousins and her husband to Central Grade School, where we'd all spent our first six years of school. The red brick building was the same. Peeking through the glass of the front door, or peering through the fence at the playground, I almost felt that if I walked in, somehow we would all be back in time.

Later that day we sat on the steps of the old yellow brick Carnegie Library with its white pillars (now part of a museum) to watch the parade. And then we walked down the main street, Oklahoma Avenue. It felt as if I were on a movie set, one I had left when I moved away, and now I had returned.

At day's end we ate and "visited" with other relatives, near-relatives, and friends. "Visiting" is what you do in a town like Guthrie, where taking time to talk is still considered an important pastime, a respected preoccupation. I was aware of how ever-present my story and my family's still was. Once you live in a town like Guthrie, you are always part of the community, for better or for worse. Your story is knit into the fabric of the drama of the town.

But the trip, I thought, wouldn't be complete without a few hours by myself to explore the streets and the houses where I'd lived.

So the next day, I drove to the west side of town again, to look once more at the last Guthrie house where my family lived. Walking down the alley, I noticed the back fence was gone, but the playhouse where we had spent a lifetime of child-sized hours still looked the same. My dad had built a brick barbeque one summer in that yard and written all our names in the connecting cement. That must have been the spring before the divorce. But now the barbeque, half broken down, had been overtaken by weeds. A co ttonwood tree still stood. Here I'd spent hours swinging, as small puffs of cotton blew all around me.

Before preparing for a morning flight back to California, I decided to stop by the house we'd lived in when I was probably three to nine years old. My brother and I had sat on the gray stone retaining wall many times as we watched the high school band practicing on the street in front.

I walked away from the house and around the corner, down another alley to look at a house that had once belonged to my grandparents.

I stood lost in thought when a gray-haired woman came around the side of the white two story dwelling. "I saw you walking down the alley," she said. The big-city defensive part of me felt she was accusing me of something. But the small-town child in me still knew that she was just wondering.

And I told her I had once lived in a house around the corner, and that my grandparents had lived here.

"What were their names?" she asked, unsmiling. When I told her, she beamed. She had known my grandparents. She knew of my uncles. She had met my mother.

And, she lived in the house now.

"Do you want to come in," she said?

"Oh, no," I started to say. Then, "Yes, I would."

The floral print wallpaper and brown wooden doorframes seemed the same, but the rooms looked smaller, as they seem to in all childhood houses. I almost felt I could see my grandfather in his chair next to the radio, and my grandmother bustling around in her apron, picking up, arranging flowers, taking down games for her grandchildren to play.

I could see my mother, too, standing in the back doorway, as if she had just stepped in to say "hi" to her "folks." The ghosts gathering in my imagination were a loving presence.

I breathed in the past, and when I left the woman said, "Now if you come back to town, just come here, and you can come inside anytime you like."

As I stepped outside and glanced back at the white wooden home and the large, leafy maple tree that gently brushed against it, I wondered if this was what I was looking for - to actually be let back in, to somehow reconnect with the childhood of my memory? At that moment the past and the present seemed to meet.

I had come back to find what my mother had left, what we'd lost, and found it almost exactly as we had left it.

It was and always will be there, in the brick streets, the sandstone buildings, the Victorian houses, and the knowing looks in people's eyes.

It's not that you can't go home again, I thought, but rather that in some ways you really can't ever leave.

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