Things That Disappear

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)

8 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    I drove through Midland on my way to a funeral last summer. You are right. A pretty desolate place even if you didn’t grow up there. Amazingly, it’s considered to be the “nice place” in comparison to next-door Odessa. And, oh, man, if you ever journey north as I did, you know where the edge of the earth is. It’s that caliche desert north of Odessa where the only sign of life are those ENORMOUS wind turbines. It’s a landscape worthy of science fiction.  Good thing you escaped, Ruth.

  • Hey Ruth,

    It’s funny, we always had our family eat outs in cafeterias too.  I’m fond of Picadilly now but we used to eat at Morrison’s when they were alive.  Sadly, those are gone too.

  • Craig Link

    Very nice Ruth

  • I have been driving around Fairbanks with Jerry.  Streets are named after people he knew when he was young.  We saw the University on a hill above the freeway, and he said, “My office was in that building up there, on the 7th floor.”

    “So you looked down on all this,” I said.

    He replied, “None of this was there, then.”

    But he longed to come back here, ghosts and all.  Why, I wonder.
    So here I am, living with Jerry’s ghosts.  It’s an odd feeling.

  • I loved this. These feelings come, no matter what the setting, when revisiting the past. I don’t know Midland, but your piece immediately reminded me of the small town I grew up in.

  • Steve Link

    Great piece, Ruth.  

    I saw and heard those ghosts in the Amarillo wind when we buried Pop in February.  It was so odd to feel the hometown attachment knowing that, with his passing, I’ve no reason to travel there anymore other than the occasional obligatory decorating of the family graves. 

    For most of us, “hometown” is a choice;  few of our generation have families who stayed in the same place long enough for there not to be a choice that has to be made. I was born in my father’s hometown, Childress, and was six when we left there.  After brief stops in Borger and Vernon, we settled in Amarillo.  I was eight when we arrived and 18 when I left.  I lived there for only 10 my 57 years, but I identify it as my hometown. 

  • Winston Link

    Ruth, I think that piece strikes a chord in most of us.  I have always lived in my hometown.  Yet, I see the ghosts on streets that no longer bustle as commerce here has crept steadily eastward.  Us Boomers have hit that spot in the road where we no longer envision the highway spinning out endlessly before us as the pop-youth culture of our day encouraged us to believe.  Somehow we know when it’s time fasten our eyes more and more on the sideview mirror rather than straight ahead.
    But take heart.  The fine print at the bottom of that mirror reads: Things may appear farther away than they are.

  • Lovely. Sometimes I wonder if those who don’t commune with ghosts and are old enough to have them are truly alive.

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