When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.
–James M. Black, 1893
I spent most of my junior high years in East Texas where my father pastored a small Nazarene church. It is the time in my life I revisit most often in my memories. East Texas was full of wildly ambitious people and rich and lasting traditions. From the annual Yamboree Festival replete with yam-this and yam-that to the shoulder-to-knee ribbon-clad mums girls wore to the annual Football homecoming game, I often wish my children had Texas-size teen years.
I suppose we have their own traditions here in Oklahoma, but I can’t help but feel they pale in comparison. That’s how it was for me the year I turned 14 and my parents moved from Texas to Southeast Kansas. It didn’t seem like we were moving too far away at the time, but as I rode next to my dad in the U-Haul truck, the pageantry of the Lone Star State faded quickly behind us. We chugged and slogged onto Oklahoma and then the cold and endless Kansas prairie.
Nothing was ever quite the same.
During our years in Texas (and this was the case for all our years), we lived in absolute poverty. Nevertheless, every single day held magic for me. Much of my hope was inspired by the young girls around me, my Gen-X contemporaries. This included Teri, who would be crowned Queen of the Yamboree four years after I moved away. She, along with several others, deserve part of the credit and blame for becoming the hard-driving adolescent I was. I was intensely ambitious in my quest to overcome my station in life.
The Stella’s Outlet in Gladewater
One way I sought to do this was by saving my babysitting and birthday money to buy decent clothes at a dress outlet up the road in a town called Gladewater. I loved sifting through the racks of dresses at Stella’s hoping to find something I could afford. Rack after rack was filled with colorful 1980s terry cloth dressed cinched in the middle with elastic and self-fabric ties.
One day, my mom picked out a bright red dress for me. It had a beautiful handkerchief hem. She helped me cover part of the $7 price tag. We were so happy on the jaunt back home from Stellas’s that day. Driving along Highway 271, we were giddy in my dad’s beat-up 98 Olds. And then unimaginably imaginable happened: the brakes went out in the car.
During the last five or six miles of the trip, my mom white-knuckled the steering wheel while I pressed my palms against the glove compartment. She grew pale and angry and fixed her eyes tight on the road. I was nervous, but I never once thought she wouldn’t save us. As we pulled onto the edge of town going about 40 miles per hour, she turned off the ignition and navigated the car off the road needling it between two tall hardwood trees. She landed that car like a large plane on a grassy runway. Her precision was extraordinary. There wasn’t enough room between the car and the trees to even open the car doors. Some man from a nearby house saw the whole thing and came over to check on us. Eventually, my dad showed up and took us home, but not before he and my mom had a huge fight, right there on the side of the road.
These type of harrowing events defined my childhood and youth. The carnal side of me says these were just the straws we drew, while the spiritual side of me believes the Lord ordered our steps. Either way, I think what Birdie Pruitt said in Hope Floats is the truthy truth: “Childhood is what you spend the rest of your life trying to overcome.”
At 51, I still ponder all the big questions: What is the meaning of life and why am I here? I have no answers for the calamity we risk on a daily basis. But, I’m sure I felt my mother’s spirit remind me the other day of that time we went to Stella’s and how we cheated death one more time. It’s not that I’d forgotten how she needled the clunker narrowly through that stand of trees, it’s that sometimes, I still need reminding that I was saved for something. Quite possibly to save her through the poverty that lingered upon her in old age — the poverty from which I strived to deliver her — and the heart disease that tried to take her from us many years before it finally did.
She is gone from me now, a face in the stars. But, I know that I saved her many, times. And, I would relive all the calamities over again to save her one more time — just to have her one more day. To hold her hands, strong from crocheting. To kiss the soft folds of her pale cheeks. To sit in the living room of her simple life and listen to her laugh and pray.