I was 10-years-old and life unfolded like laundry on a line. We were sheets baked in the wind, our dreams heavy like wet, pilling blankets pinned to wire. I was pulled taut between two poles, my mother, my father. Fastened in 15 different places — to shame and hope, secrets and fear. But, also to God, for I knew no other way. And, nothing mechanical would ever shrink me from Him. Nothing at all. Certainly not the dust of that Arkansas summer. Not dust that soiled me bored and homeless.
In May 1978, my father decided to move our family from the relative security of our West Texas parsonage to Arkansas. “We’re going sight unseen,” he said. And, he packed up everything we owned including our dogs, Chester and Daisy, and headed northeast to Fort Smith.
He lined up a place for us to stay, but it didn’t work out, and with little money and no place to live we were in a fix. After staying at the Salvation Army, we were invited to sleep in the camper trailer of strangers who, like us, were Nazarene.
At night, I looked through the tiny windows of the trailer up to the pretty house where the strangers lived. We disgusted them and I swelled with shame like the swollen cans of vegetables that were lost in the back of our empty cupboard. I felt their wrath in the southern June Bugs that beat against the trailer at night. They beat against our sanity. Rusty, crunchy June bugs that flew into the tangles of my hair. I was just a young girl, but if I’d had a shotgun I would have shot them all to hell.
During the day, the heat handcuffed us. We cooled off by driving around the streets of Fort Smith with the windows rolled down. We’d pick up speed and let the wind blow back our hair.
We could have found shade trees at parks. Thrown down blankets, lost ourselves in books. But, in the midst of a crisis it’s hard to be still. So we fought and railed against the June bugs and the roasting sun. When we were exhausted we turned out the lights and went to sleep and in the dark I prayed for God to give my father his dream and take away my mother’s sadness.
But, our dogs.
Daisy and Chester were mother and son. We took them with us to Arkansas with — I kid you not — an entire litter of puppies. With tacit approval from somebody, we kept this fancy troop of canines inside an old shed behind an HVAC store that was located on a busy boulevard. It was built to look like a rustic cabin. Some kind of military outpost or hillbilly branding, I suppose.
Several times a day we stopped by to check on them. And, then one evening we pulled into the parking lot and the dogs were all lined up on the porch. They’d busted out of the shed and were watching the traffic zoom by. The only thing they were missing was a banjo!
Eventually, we moved into an old hotel above the Western Auto on a town square about 40 miles east of Fort Smith. I have no idea where the dogs stayed during this time, but eventually, we were all back together again in a new parsonage. I even got to keep one of the puppies. My dad named him Biffo.
And, my dad got his dream. He was back in the pulpit preaching every Sunday. His salary was $37.50 a week. That fall, I turned 11 and started the 6th grade. Mary, my Sunday School teacher, told me God knew my thoughts, so I prayed every day He would wash my mind white as snow.
The Summer of 1978 was filled with mercy. The night we arrived at the Salvation Army, the family quarters were unoccupied, which meant I got to sleep in the same room as my father. This meant everything to me. The woman who showed us to our room was nice, and I thank God for her even now. And, for the cot that was so clean and the tile floor that was so cool. As I drifted off to sleep, the street lights shined through the old metal-paned windows and made shadows on the cinder block walls. It was quiet and the Divine was there and I feared no evil.
That summer, our hopes boiled in the sun, but on the Fourth of July, a package of bottle rockets and a box of sparklers appeared. We lit them in the street outside the trailer and they colored the night sky. My adolescence was postponed for another day, and even now, my dreams have never died.
All the above pictures of Oklahoma wildflowers and blackberries were taken at Sorghum Mills Blackberry Farm north of Oklahoma City.
Pictured right is my oldest daughter striking a fun pose outside the Leaning Tower in Pisa, Italy. She returned from a trip to Europe on Sunday. May your dreams never die, Juliette, for I know you want to see the world, and I want you to see it!