It’s hard to have a hometown when your father works for an oil company and your family gets uprooted every few years. You leave behind a series of houses that were never quite yours. The trees you saw planted become tall and striking, but they’re other people’s trees now.
The last time I went to my hometown-by-default of Midland, Texas, I told my brother-in-law it seemed haunted to me.
“What do you mean, haunted?” he wanted to know.
I didn’t really try to explain. I just gave up. Either you see the ghosts or you don’t.
So I’m here in Midland now, by myself, which is strange, and I’m working on an article. I drive along the flat, wide streets with some kind of purpose, something that’s motivating me in the present. But I’m troubled by memories of the past and of people who no longer live here, of people who no longer live.
I avoid the cemetery where my mother is buried. Someday, we’ll return when my father dies. Until then, I don’t want to see it or the small concrete plaque that bears her name.
But I see my parents, most particularly when they were in their fifties, the age I am now. That’s where they always got ice cream, in that little strip mall. I remember the country-and-western dancing lessons they took, the small camping trailer they bought, but rarely used. I see them at the grocery store, on the blocks where they once lived, taking a walk when they were healthy. Nobody – certainly not them – knew how fragile or temporary that health would be.
Driving, I see myself, too, as I once was. Timid and scared of life and expecting so little. I think of how interesting my life has turned out to be. I don’t give myself much credit for that; I’ve simply been very lucky. If I don’t watch myself, I think in a superstitious-ninny trance, maybe the past will sweep over me and I’ll have to be 15 and hopeless once again.
Coming into town, I decide to eat dinner at Luby’s Cafeteria in the middle of town. It’s where my parents loved to go. In fact, a member of our family once staged a screaming nervous breakdown over a Louann platter in the middle of the Luby’s dining room in 1994. In our family, cafeteria memories – unlike the food itself — were especially potent.
The parking lot is curiously empty. I get out of the car anyway and read the apologetic notice on the door. This branch of Luby’s has been closed, the sign says, but people can go to another nearby Luby’s in San Angelo, which is only 111 miles away. I stand there, feeling disappointed and angry, which is odd, since I have no idea why I came there in the first place.
Maybe I did it to reassure myself that I am still here in my present incarnation, that life has something that endures, something that’s permanent, some continuity I can trust. But even a cafeteria and buffet line aren’t permanent in this life and the nearest Louann platter is more than 100 miles away. Who am I kidding? I’m like the last person in the room who finally gets the painfully bad joke that you can’t pick what remains with you and discard the rest.
By the time I figure it out, everybody else has already stopped laughing. The sound lingers just a little, the way the laughter of ghosts always does.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)