I continue to learn new things about myself. I’ve always had in the back of my mind that scenario in which I would be forced into stillness. I was sure I would catch up on all the things people do when they can’t be active. About a week before my wedding my step-mother sprained her ankle and ended up pouring all her energy into the only thing she could do sitting down: embellishing my wedding dress by adding over a thousand seed pearls. That’s what I’ve been waiting for all these years- the situation where I would finally have nothing better to do than read War and Peace or write the Great American Novel.
It turns out I’m not that kind of gal at all. When breast surgery forced me into stillness I only ate myself silly and figured out how to mop the floor with my feet when I couldn’t use one arm. I may be the only person in history who gained weight having cancer. I got the green light yesterday from the surgeon to resume my normal activities. The more I thought about that I decided I’d better double check some of the things I really wanted to do. The nurse repeated that I could do anything I wanted, “It’s not like you’re going to dig ditches or anything”, she said. But actually that’s exactly one of the things I wanted to do, I told her. There was a long pause and she finally asked, “Oh, dear, what kind of a ditch?” I eventually got her to let me “listen to my body” and not over do it. I’m afraid stillness will never come naturally to me, nor can it even be forced on me. So far my body seems OK with digging ditches.
I’m looking forward to Glee on TV tonight and I’ve already figured out they’re doing a Glee version of the Rocky Horror Show. So, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.
Beaven and I took a visit through time on Sunday and in the best way possible—with two fellow travelers who seemed to be as interested in our lives as we are in theirs. One of my favorite children of the church actually requested to spend time with Beaven and me. And he wanted to bring his girlfriend with him.
I have known Stephen pretty much all his life. He was baptized in our church after his parents joined when he was two years old. I vividly remember his first theological act at age two or three. He was sitting in his mother’s lap when the Call to Worship was given. Stephen’s enthusiastic response was a large “Hooray!” that reverberated throughout the sanctuary. I knew then there was something special about this kid.
He was a handful, though, those first few years. Every church has a kid like Stephen. When the Stephens mature they are replaced by the same kind of kid only with a different name. The kids who are so active they seem to be everywhere at once. Who move so constantly and so fast that you hold your breath just waiting for disaster to strike. I could tell you who the current “Stephen” is at our church right now but won’t because he’s under 18. However, those of you in my church reading this know exactly who I’m talking about. And the great thing about these kids are they usually end up surprising us all by turning into brain surgeons and model citizens and we have to begrudgingly admit that maybe God knew what She was doing all along.
Stephen went with us on a mission trip to Mississippi one year for Katrina recovery while he was still in college. His energy level was so high on that ten-hour van ride, that the van driver wisely pulled over once in a while at a gas station or rest area and just let him out to run around in circles for a while.
A couple of years ago he went to Mexico with our mission team and brought Ashleigh with him. When he graduated from college he spent a year working with the church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Some of us expected him to go into seminary after that but he’s still thinking things through. In the meantime, I love watching the wheels turn. Right now he’s spending a year with AmericCorps and here’s where the Field Trip of my dreams comes in. He’s working in North Oak Cliff with an after school program. When I heard this I knew I wanted the details on his new ministry and knew I could tell him a lot about his new neighborhood.
Beaven and I both grew up in North Oak Cliff. In fact, my husband and I went to the same elementary school, the same junior high and the same high school. We never met because we’re seven years apart in age and we were never in the same school at the same time. I’m not totally sure we would have met, anyway. He was one of the AV geeks who helped run the movie projector for the teachers, whose main claim to fame was that he could yell “Horse Shit” in Study Hall and make it sound like a sneeze. When the teacher took him to the principal for this she couldn’t bring herself to imitate the sneeze and it remained just that—a sneeze and thus nothing to punish a boy over. I wasn’t into boys like that in high school. I didn’t have enough sense back then.
We wouldn’t meet until we were both working in downtown Dallas and lived in the same apartment complex in East Dallas. Both of our families have a history in Dallas with Beaven and I being the third generation on each side to put down roots here.
So when Stephen asked if we would take Ashleigh and him on a tour of Oak Cliff the experience was ripe with promise. In return he would tell us about his work.
Oak Cliff is the oldest section of Dallas and is experiencing a renaissance of sorts where small Hispanic-owned auto shops sit across the street from eclectic art galleries and elegant restaurants. Beaven and I have been busy in other parts of town for the last 35 years so we saw a lot of changes in our old hometown. For Stephen, we were able to bridge past and present.
The day started out with the excitement of finding out Ashleigh is planning to take a Jan-term class at Austin College, going to Guatemala for three weeks at language immersion school. Beaven and I were full of information and questions, telling her of our own immersion experience in Quetzaltenango and asking about her plans in Antigua, which is where we want to go next.
We started with lunch at Hattie’s. It sits in a remodeled 1920’s-era building. It offers white-tablecloths, attentive service and fine cuisine. I had crab cakes with hollandaise sauce. (Yes, Oak Cliff!) For dessert we walked down the street just a bit to The Soda Gallery, another revitalized space that offers vintage sodas. You can get a soda from almost any country or any time period. If you’re looking for a Yahoo, Nesbitt’s or NuGrape, they’ve got it . Also, Cheerwine from North Carolina and Berghoff’s Ginger Ale from Chicago. They had a sign posting which sodas they were temporarily out of and sadly which ones had gone forever. Grapette was one of those I particularly mourn. It took me a while to get used to the “forever” part of “gone forever.” I ended up with the perfect Ginger Ale from England in a tiny and adorable bottle. The others each got a root beer, and each one was a different brand. You might call it the ultimate wine cellar of sodas.
Then we started driving. Every street offered a memory of some sort. Schools, fire stations, restaurants, stores . My brother’s paper route that I ended up delivering when he broke his foot in study hall (another whole story there.) Where Beaven delivered bread for his family’s bakery. And Stephen and Ashleigh actually seemed interested in hearing us babble on.
Some things were exactly as they were the last time we saw them thirty years ago. My Daddy’s office was exactly the same except now the doctors’ names are Hispanic. Red Bryan’s BBQ is gone but the building looks exactly the same. Beaven and I can each boast that we ate not only at Sonny Bryan’s original BBQ restaurant on Forest but are of the few who ate at his father’s place in Oak Cliff in the 50’s. Yes, we grew up eating brisket from the man who taught Sonny Bryan how to smoke meat. The funeral home our family used for three funerals was still there but under a different name. The huge Sears is gone. Three iconic theatres, including the Texas theatre, are still standing and in occasional use for musical concerts. Our elementary school has been remodeled and they’ve moved the front door. Sunset High School, where we both graduated, stands untouched by time.
Stephen took us to see his apartment and the Methodist church where his program is housed. He and Ashleigh are the kind of young adults that give you faith in the future. They don’t seem interested in acquiring a lot of toys as much as living in a world where people everywhere can be connected by love; where everyone has an opportunity to be healthy, safe and loved.
Beaven and I grew up in a city and in a time when our lives were like that and we were protected from the stark knowledge that not everyone in the world had what we had. We grew up in a time when kids safely explored their town. I would leave the house on Saturday morning and I don’t think I ever told anyone where I was going. About the only safe bet was that I was generally with the other kids in the neighborhood. I’d come back just before dark and many times no one knew where we had been, unless we had decided to swim in the creek, in which case my wet clothes gave me away. And my mother usually pretended to believe my story that I fell into the water.
We took Stephen and Ashleigh through the neighborhood I grew up in, a neighborhood built by WWII veterans who came home hungry for a Beaver Cleaver life. Our house was built in 1948 when I was a year old. The neighborhood has been rediscovered by a lot of the young professionals working in downtown Dallas. Some of the smaller houses have been torn down and totally replaced with huge McMansions. Our next door neighbors’ house was exactly the same as always. The house I grew up in has been upgraded with huge natural stone accents and they’ve painted the red brick gray. But the rest of the house looks about the same. Somebody was mowing the grass as we drove past. I had a fleeting urge to stop and talk to him.
There are a few things about that house that only one person is left who knows anything about them—me. Do they wonder why the ceiling in the bedrooms on the outside wall were cut at a slant? Did they need to know which trees in the backyard were used as first, second and third base? Which branches in the oaks were the best for climbing to the top? Which window was best for sneaking in and out at night because it wasn’t visible to the street?
And there were questions I had for myself--a small urge to smell the cedar closet one more time. To hear the sound of back screen door when Daddy came home from work. To revisit those areas of our big back yard, big enough that there were corners and pockets of trees that weren’t part of the route to take the garbage to the alley, held in special reserve for my own solitary time.
Our last stop was the corner of Marsalis and Jefferson where the old library once stood. I used to ride my bicycle to the Skillern’s Drug Store for a cheeseburger, fries and a coke. (If I left off the cheese I could get all three of those for fifty cents.) Then I’d ride over to the library. As I learned new places I expanded my territory without a thought of how far it was. Driving through the neighborhood I was surprised to see I had been riding two or three miles from home to the library. I can still remember the smell of the place. The basement smelled slightly musty like basements do.
The library has been torn down now but the obelisk at the street corner remains. When I was a kid there was a water fountain built into the obelisk. Each side had a sign carved in granite over the water fountain that announced who the fountain was for: “Adults”, “Children” and “Colored.” Carved in stone.
Stephen and Ashleigh couldn’t believe it. And we were a little startled ourselves by how much things have changed. The three fountains have been removed entirely and the three granite signs have been replaced by flat blank stones. You may be able to replace granite but there are still people like Beaven and I around who remember the way it was. And, thankfully, there are young people like Stephen and Ashleigh who are interested in our stories, who will take our stories and then will write their own entirely different ones.