This past week, my husband and I went to Midland to celebrate his father’s 90th birthday. Midland is where my husband was born and reared and where I went to high school.
Often, when I’m there, looking at its stark, hard landscapes, I wonder what it must have been like when my father- and mother-in-law went there in the late 1940s. By the time my own family arrived in the mid-1960s, it was a small, bustling city, with a crazily vertical downtown (hence the name “The Tall City”), lots of new money and the kind of stubborn optimism that finds oil in deep reserves, creates immense fortunes, and loses everything when bets go bad and prices plummet.
Even if I can’t talk politics with West Texans without coming to blows, I still love their spirit. There’s something defiant about the kind of people who come to such a hard, unforgiving land and plant trees and build houses and sweep the floors after duststorms coat every surface. Sixty years after my husband’s parents and other families came to Midland to stake their claims to a better life, those first trees they planted are now relatively large. Early in December, they had turned gold and red and orange like torches against the sky. Trees and people and tall buildings shouldn’t pepper this landscape, but there they are — and to hell with you if you bet against them. Or if you repeatedly voice a concern that a certain almost-native son is doing a rotten job in the White House. (Why did he go to war against the wrong country, anyway?)
But we weren’t there to talk politics; we were there to be with my husband’s family. Aside from being somewhat deaf, my father-in-law is in amazingly good health, smart, well-read, up to date with current events.
“DO YOU WANT TO COME FOR A WALK?” I asked him. I’d learned to scream whenever possible. It’s kind of like speaking another language to half the people you’re around; you often forget what volume/language to use around which people and end up screaming at everybody. Since my husband and I are becoming semi-hard-of-hearing ourselves, this may not be a bad thing. (However, constant screaming would rob us of much of our conversational thread, which now consists of, “What?” and “Huh?” and “What did you say?” and “You don’t have to shout!”)
Going to the family house, I see the rooms where I first came as a teenager. See aging faces I knew when they were young and unlined. Think of those who have died — both mothers and other relatives. If you live long enough, I suppose, these absences begin to haunt you whenever you return to someplace you once knew. They linger just outside your line of vision and you swear you can almost hear conversations that once took place. Maybe it’s the emptiness that’s the illusion — and not those presences you can still sense years after they’ve gone.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” we all screamed at my father-in-law’s birthday party, remarking how he was the best-looking 90-year-old we’d ever seen. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”
From there, we returned to Austin, where trees are less of a miracle and the land is less hard and unwelcoming. Today, we went to visit my own father and could see he was getting worse. He now sits in a wheelchair, hunched over and staring. When you speak to him, he doesn’t react. He doesn’t even seem to be hungry any longer. It’s hard to believe he’s seven years younger than my husband’s father.
My husband and I wheeled him outside, into the warm winter weather. We sat with him and tried to talk. We talked low, we talked medium, we didn’t bother to yell. The volume didn’t matter to him. Just looking at him, you knew. He’s going further and further beyond us, becoming one of those illusions you can’t quite see.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)