Time to Change your Borders?

We’d traveled into north Texas when the green mileage marker popped up.

Oklahoma 8.”

The road trip that day promised a long journey, another seven hours. I turned to DH and teased, “You game?” He smiled, nodded.

A‐OK = another RoadBroad quick stop. Because, why not?

One left turn and eight miles later, we arrived at our new destination.

We eyeballed the terrain. Nothing: no cars, no animals, no buildings, no people.

To visitors, such a sight spooks.

To a native, it’s heaven, a reminder of similar landscapes, e.g., the Texas Panhandle where I grew up.

It saddens me that so many fail to see the beauty of these flatlands. Here, you can slow down and catch your breath. Tech devices don’t work well. Distraction dissolves.

What follows? A thanks offering for simplicity and clarity, for clean, pure lines where earth meets sky meets river. Hard to see it but there is water flowing in the Red River here:

Centered under a moon dot, the Texas‐Oklahoma state line nestles mid‐river between banks of scrub.

Look up, in the center of the blue sky, can you see the surprise?

The tiny circle of the moon snagged me, too. How many times have I missed such clear vision? 

The moon hovering sweetens the moment. Overwhelm descends. Earth’s only natural satellite transmutes a spontaneous side trip into holy encounter. Indeed. 

Wikipedia informs that we’re viewing what’s technically called the Red River of the South. One of the few American state borders so created, the waterway meanders across/around/through four states, feeding eventually into the mighty Mississippi.

We sigh, make a u‐turn, and head back toward home.

Texas awaits. So does a second gasp:

Sunlight morphs a new state line?

How did we miss this house? Abandoned or not, it’s the only structure around.

This sight at this moment? A two‐fer?

We both do more than pause. We pull over and stop, both silent in a second holy encounter. I wonder: does this bustling city girl need more slow‐down encounters like these? Is this pandemic self‐care or something bigger?

Where the Lone Star state curves away from Boomer Sooner‐land.

I swallow and look up.

Past the house, the land flattens to familiar terrain. Beyond the sign of my home state, I spot Home.

Over there. Around that curve. After a looong afternoon drive. Oddly grateful there’s no eerie ahead, I comprehend. Now I can breathe and drive. Easy.

The straight lines of the Texas state marker offer comfort. I know this place. It’s where I belong, for now.

The tight green rectangle screams precision. The two poles beneath radiate strength. Both offer comfort, valued in these times.

Translating, I understand these as guideposts, each offering a pathway to home. All roads do, but today’s messengers brought intensity in different form: two states, multiple shapes (circles, lines, borders), varying forms (earth, water, sky), and changing landscapes (flat versus rolling terrain).

Homeward bound.

Then I connect. These are messages from my recent existence.

I take the sights and their messages in hand — from this latest little diversion — and put my foot on the gas, heading south to home.

I’ll figure out — precisely — what it all means.

Later.

Dia(s) de Las Muertas: Bringing Life to Death

Celebrating Mexico and Catholicism is not my usual modus operandi. Neither was losing a beloved sister suddenly.

In the 13 months since Mimi died, I’ve accepted there’s hole in my heart that will never heal. But there’s a peace offering in the ongoing celebration of Dia de Las Muertas, or Day of the Dead.

Mexico’s biggest festival ends today, November 2nd, on what the country calls All Soul’s Day, a time to honor the newly, and long, departed. 

Thus I remember my sister Mimi today and recent rituals to honor her life’s impact and meaning in our lives.

On her birth day, we placed her ashes inside our home church’s columbarium. Mimi’s steel urn now hugs our mother’s brass one, placed there six years ago. All that separates the pair is a picture, seen below (far right).

This hand‐carved columbarium holds cremated remains in perpetuity at our childhood church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal. The small spaces in the wall are called niches that hold urns of ashes. 

Unlike a cemetery, a columbarium is not built into the ground but rather inside a church wall or a similar structure. It’s also not a mausoleum, a building built for caskets, either buried or entombed.

As important: interment is burial in the ground; inurnment is when cremated ashes are placed in an urn followed by final location in a niche.

I didn’t want this education, either. 

In the church chapel, we gifted flowers overflowing with symbolism.

The single red rose honored our sister. Yellow flowers on the right recognized our parents and grandmother (our father and his mother rest in the niche’s back row). The varied floral spray on the left celebrates living family members.

On the one year anniversary of Mimi’s passing, my other sister and I remembered the eldest with a Jewish Yahrzeit observation. This annual rite commemorates a loved one’s death with rituals celebrated by Jewish faithful since the 14th century.

This observance was Merrilynn’s idea, mirroring a ritual she conducts after her own experiences of heartbreaking loss.

Together, we lit three white candles, read Yahrzeit meditations, prayed together, and said blessings to our departed sister. We even offered ring‐topped cupcakes. Mimi smiled.

Now today, I’m honoring loss and grief again. Writing can be ritual, too.

And I finally understand. Without knowing it, I’ve been practicing Dias de Las Muertas since August. Three times.

Ancient archetypes awaken again.

The human condition: we’re not different from each other, are we?

Important perspective to remember with this thing we’ve got happening in America tomorrow.

So who are you remembering on this All Soul’s Day? 

When Home Morphs into Hometown

NOTEThis post concludes a four‐part blog about a recent trip to the town where I was born: Pampa, Texas.

Roadway sights defined the long drive to my hometown. I should’ve paid more attention as clues announced themselves. It started with a first omen one hour in.

Thick smoke from a truck fire draped the highway. Later, I recognized the effect: clouds as funeral pall.

We made the trip to return my eldest sister to our mother’s side at our hometown church. The ironic presence of the smoke — in effect, color, and timing — screamed.

Another American city fades, its population less than half of 40 years ago.

Nine hours later, we spied the little green sign we’d anticipated all day.

Its sighting followed miles of non‐stops through big cities, small towns, and farming villages. Scattered among the people, buildings, and roadways were landscapes ranging from summer green to drought yellow.

Surrounding the city limits sign, two elements stood out:

  1. A yellow‐gold ring midway down the pole linked the green rectangle at its top, an unique marriage of city marker to high school colors of green and gold.
  2. Cloudy skies engulfed the entire sign. I gulped, remembering why I had come back home.

My mind began to race. It linked this moment to the morning’s roadway fire.

Aha! Is this another omen or has my mind shifted into overdrive? 

Driving toward our hotel, my mood shifted to near‐mania. Storefronts I recognized. Bricked streets of downtown. High school hangouts. Childhood church.

Then, as I drove down the main street, the quick stop stores began to pop up like little Whack‐a‐Moles. They each demanded attention, their names worth the price and tears of driving to Pampa.

Only one of these stores existed during my childhood. I remember Toot ‘n Totum as Toot ‘n Totem. But why did today’s “u” in Totum replace yesterday’s “e” in Totem? No idea, but I remember the chain’s ad campaigns : you toot your horn; we’ll tote out to you. 

Amazing what the mind remembers after a half‐century!

The next day, we breakfasted at another first.

United Supermarket offers what I dubbed the food quadrifecta (and yes, I made up that latter word: in my dictionary, it means “four of something”).

DH makes his photo debut on RoadBroads. That’s him on the far left, ordering breakfast.

In one building, United offers a stand‐alone of these four: grocery store, delicatessen, dine‐in restaurant, and a full‐service Starbuck’s.

A lifetime traveling the globe and never has this Houstonian seen a combination quite like this.

Departing this place of quick stops and quadrifectas, I realized there’s something to learn in the laughter and the sadness discovered this trip.

It’s called the Circle of Life, when home morphs into hometown.

A place I used to know.

Home: Ghosts Haunt but Woody Guthrie Sings

NOTE: Part 3 of a 4‐part post about returning to my Pampa, Texas hometown.

I smiled as I turned onto downtown Cuyler Street, Pampa’s first paved road.

1926 & an oil boom led to the moniker "Town with Muddy Streets."
The moniker “Town with Muddiest Streets” followed a 1926 oil boom.

Red bricks, laid last century by “Indian Jim,” extended south as far as my eyes could see. Perfectly aligned rows and rectangles dissolved into muddy crimson, eventually to meet railroad tracks on the far end of the street.

Thank you Mike Cox for this "Texas Tale" excerpt.
Thank you, Mike Cox, for this excerpt from “Texas Tales.”

One thing about my hometown had not changed.

Black circles (for mourning, anyone?) mark the old night deposit dropoff, the 1940's bank name over the front door, and the eagles keeping watch over downtown.
Three black (cough) circles, from left to right, mark: the old night deposit slot (pre‐ATM days), the bank’s name over the main entrance, and granite eagles that watch all.

Something across the street had.

Resound” headlined the former First National Bank building.

How can a hometown survive without a ‘national bank’? 

Resound offers wireless internet. Good news for a rural town.

WiFi takes over The Bank? 

I remember opening my first bank account here with my father talking in the car about how the building was built during the Great Depression — “jobs for too many unemployed men.” 

I whisper now, At least it’s been repurposed for good,” and drive away.

Next, it’s to the hospital where I survived double pneumonia.

Worley Hospital looked in bad shape the last time I saw it. No time to stop then. It was Mother’s day.

The black circle notes my ’62 hospital room.

Years before, owners had abandoned Worley Hospital. A newer hospital on the town’s north side drew more doctors and patients. 

I cringe at the building’s extreme deterioration. Then my eyes, unconsciously, flick upwards. To the window I can never forget.

For two mostly‐black weeks at age five, I lived in that circled room. Life‐threatening fever seizures led to pain‐filled treatments. But the day before dismissal, Mother lifted me up to that window. I watched traffic on the street below and giggled. I looked over at her and didn’t understand why her eyes were wet.

Ah, a little girl’s scary experience transformed into a sweet memory.

A half century later, scary returned. Thank you, A&E Network.

The film crew profiled Worley Hospital and its new owners, youngsters who dreamed of a B&B. They began renovating. Hauntings began. “Ghost Hunters” came to visit. 

“Ghost Hunters” profile a haunted hospital.

So much stuns in this TV clip:

  • Ghostly entities sidling up walls
  • Green bars recording voice echoes
  • Ghastly state of hospital interior
  • A B&B? In this building?

Outside Worley, I don’t know whether to laugh, roll my eyes, or go inside.

No Trespassing” signs stopped me.

I needed a happy close.

On its north side, Pampa hosts a one‐of‐a‐kind “musical fence.” It ‘sings’ the opening bars of “This Land Is Your Land,” as composed by Pampa’s most famous citizen: Woody Guthrie.

If you can play an instrument, you can play the song by following the fence.

Pampa welder Rusty Neff created the art piece and its 12‐foot treble clef to honor his father. And Woody Guthrie. At night, the fence illuminates in red, white, and blue lights.

Woody lived in Pampa throughout the 1930s. The folk singer dropped out of high school to self educate at the city library. In addition to songwriting, illustrating, and painting, he worked as a busker (musical street performer).

I wonder, “Did Woody busk on the downtown bricks?”

By the way, check out the final verse of “This Land Is Your Land.”

We need more Woody Guthries.

Can You Go Home Again?

NOTEIn this second of a four‐post series, I answer the question, “How’s my hometown, 37 years after I abandoned her?” 

I journeyed to the Texas Panhandle to bury my eldest sister.

A sad moment, yes, but an opportunity, too. A chance to cruise old “stomping grounds,” using wizened eyes, peeling away teenaged angst, and replacing memory with meaning and appreciation.

A drive‐by to First Home revealed a house I recognized only by outline, shape, and a large front window. At the large trees, I smiled.

From birth through first grade, I learned here to walk, talk, and eat dog food. Future blog post?

From the pinkish‐paint to the solid front exterior, everything looked new. Extended carport, enclosed porch. Two sticks: flag pole and yard light.

My family’s decade here — mid-‘50s to 1964 — vanished into history. Except those massive trees, adult children of my father’s planting days. I hear fierce hammering as he pounds wood squares tied with twine into backyard dirt still winter‐hard.

I drive across town to New House. My eyes squint. This is, once again, a New House. Not ours. 

Second grade to high school graduation, I learned Life in a home and town I couldn’t wait to escape.

A stranger tree guards where our willow once loomed. On the upper lawn, weedy grass covers where pink petals from our mimosa tree fluttered. The garage door holds windows and a stained picket fence graces our wide porch.

My second floor bedroom window is hidden. I take that as a good omen.

I’m two down for Home. Surely, School will be different?

At my first school, Sam Houston Elementary, I spot bare ground. When did this happen?

I imagine the terrifying teacher of that one year: Esther Ruth Gibson. You may remember my profile of her.

By the tree stood my first grade classroom, a loud, cavernous space filled with strangers.

Mrs. Gibson terrified me. She stood six feet tall (or more) and greeted me the first day of class. I cranked my neck skyward then buried my Size five torso into my mother’s skirt and burst into tears.

The terror of that year lingered in my memories until last year. I found a letter Mrs. Gibson wrote my parents and closed with, “Melanie is a writer.”

Mrs. Gibson knew first. 

This bike rack beats the decrepit mess of steel we had. 

One more elementary school to view: Austin Elementary where I attended grades 2–6.

I recall a playground filled with non‐stop action. Swing sets, slides, and a see‐saw, plus some kind of whirly‐bird contraption.

None remains.

Where do today’s kids play? Or do cell phones and iPads count as recess?

Potholes dot a cracked parking lot, offering metaphor?

One last school stop: Lee Junior High, a name now buried into history and, soon, dust.

I marvel at the unintended symbolism: an abandoned flag pole and a broken handicapped ramp. With potholes for a bonus.

Too delicious for words.

Intentional? Or merely clueless?

I left my hometown with one more question.

Where is Home when your houses and schools vanish?

Hometown Road Trip, Part 1

NOTE: In a first of four part blog, I answer the question: “how’s my hometown of Pampa, Texas, 37 years after I left? 

News of Pak-a-Burger’s demise stopped my heart.

Technically it’s a drive‐around as in drive‐to, park‐near, walk‐up, sit‐and‐wait, then drive‐around.

Home of the best hamburgers in the Milky Way, this drive‐in burger joint earned its reputation for cheap food, sold hot and greasy.

Locally owned and operated, Pak‐a‐Burger opened the same year — 1954 — my parents relocated the tribe to this Texas Panhandle town. Like so many families in Pampa, we were in the “oil‐bidness,” my father earned the money, and my mother raised the children.

Eating out was a Big Deal. My parents complained of the cost, similar to their carping about long distance calls and new school clothes every August.

They broke down on some Saturday nights, opting for Pak‐a‐Burger treats. Even the best mothers break down after too many tuna casseroles.

My order never changed: Combo #3, Cheeseburger and Fries. We never ordered drinks or dessert. We had plenty of Dr. Pepper and stale cookies at home.

Mention Pak‐a‐Burger and I go Pavolovian. Yes, drool. Consider:

Little white sacks dotted in grease stains.

Seven‐inch burger buns smashed down, the insides branded with charcoal stripes. Thin beef patty hanging beyond the bun. American cheese dripping over tiny fingers. Lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle imprinting against the meat.

Second sack held French fries too hot to touch. But when these long oily slivers cooled off, they stuck in bunches of six or seven so you learned early to eat them fast and free. As in sans ketchup: why adorn perfection? 

Today’s menu includes Mexican food and BBQ? Egad!

Several years ago, we buried my mother then treated the nine grandchildren to Pak‐a‐Burgers.

Their response?

These are good?”

I noticed all the food was consumed within a half hour. Or the youngsters were really hungry on that long, tough day.

Two weeks ago, we buried our oldest sister in the hometown church.

I insisted on one last Pak‐a‐Burger run after the service.

Perhaps green means go — for a later opening on an hot August afternoon?

We spied the green light, read the  diner’s urgent message, “Call In/Take Out Only.” The white shoe paint on the window boosted its homespun appeal, as it reminded us. Small town America suffers the Covid blues, too. 

Drive‐up side reveals an interesting synchronicity: the burger shack and my eldest sister each lasted 66 years.

Later we learned the news: Pak-a-Burger’s owner sold the real estate for development.

This town of 17,000—less than half the population of my childhood years—needs that promise of something better.

I hope it comes.

Sooner rather than later.

I leave with one question.

What’s home without Pak‐a‐Burger?

Old Radios, Aging Broad

Despite years as a radio journalist, I never looked inside the machine that sent my stories out into the world.

Then I found this, the backside of my grandmother’s old radio:

Guts-eye view of my grandmother's 1948 Crosley radio
Guts‐eye view of a 1948 Crosley radio: aren’t those vacuum tubes gorgeous?

At the bottom of the picture, as if lying down for a long nap, lies what you’re no doubt looking for: the radio dial. Here it is, full frontal:

Four wave bands — AM, FM, shortwave, and police — with push buttons for on/off, sound, and station controls.

I’d forgotten that radios once had shortwave and police bands on top of the information and music channels we utilized most.

In my grandmother’s day, AM radio was primo. Lawrence Welk was her favorite! When he switched to television, so did she.

Scope the station buttons on the lower right of the picture. You’ll find my grandmother’s favorite AM station, KPO, marked by its broken, smudged glass. It’s an old San Francisco radio station. Did Welk produce his show there?

From the station buttons, my radio friends will recognize KGO, KARN and KONO. The others are all California‐based, still on the air, 70+ years later.

The FM band would have meant Future Media to my grandmother. But I wonder if she ever listened to the police band. Maybe shortwave radio? On a lonely Saturday night after her son had left home for university?

This old radio enchants as does the larger set of my grandmother’s furniture.

Entertainment center with cocktail cart; console includes turntable on upper left with storage for 78‐speed records below.

I remember the glitz of her Adolphus Hotel apartment. Dinners included soft jazz emanating from the black box and cocktail ice clinking from the cart. Fancy, intimidating moments for a little Pampa girl.

Perhaps it’s not the memories, but nostalgia for old equipment? Today’s gizmos can’t replicate the simplicity of a one‐function device. Solid state and digital technology isn’t as warm as wood and doesn’t glow like tubes. Also, satellite voices talking to the masses never impact as deeply as locals who name names.

But you reach a point where the past can’t keep talking to you.

So, we donated these pieces to Vintage Sounds Houston. They’ll find a home for these gems.

Meantime, I clear out my space, listening to the future now.

Which voice do you tune in?

Fast, Masked & Waaay Far Apart: Corona House Closings

Six months to clean, 73 days to sell, and ten minutes to close.

That’s a pandemic time stamp to wrap up the “house” part of my sister Mimi’s life.

This timing mimics, with numbing speed, the roller coaster of grief and estate matters that first hijacked my life last October.

Like clockwork, coronavirus hijacked our last biggie: the closing of my sister’s house last week. But this day brought the quick dealmaking I’ve ever experience with a house sale.

The red alerts began with the title company’s final email the day before: 

Email screams: “This is not your average house closing!” At least we were warned: nothing ‘ordinary’ here. But we’ve known that since last fall…

We gathered at the house of my other sister, Merrilynn Stockton. The thick wad of house‐closing papers arrived.

Thank the hand model (Merrilynn) for displaying the customary wad of dead trees, all “required” for a house closing.

We sisters signed. And signed. And signed. Even as our fingers and palms cramped and ached.

DH had paperwork, too: a silly affidavit with legalese about inherited versus community property.  

Merrilynn delivered the completed papers. I took the historic photos. Terri, the Title Lady, inspected our signatures.

Who’s missing from this party?

Yes, the buyer.

A young couple from outside Houston bought our sister’s house. From the documents we’d signed, we discovered they had sat in their own remote location the day before. They wrote their names a bazillion times, too. All we learned or saw of them was their signatures.

Closing on a house used to be fun. Now, it’s only memorable.

This one I’ll remember as the most creative. Which has taught me one thing.

When chaos reigns, you can do anything — even clean, sell, and close a house.

All you need is willpower.

By the way, have you updated yours—your will, I mean?

I promise that’s my last friendly reminder.

You don’t want to live this road trip.

Have Shields, Will Travel

Four months buried in the ‘burbs, this RoadBroad needed a break.

Off to The City — that’s Houston, by the way — I drove, my trunk bearing sack loads of face shields. Each was destined for other broads, all writers like me.

We Wednesday Writers “talk” weekly to share stories either written or read in the previous six days. Yes, it’s a Zoom chat — what else is there nowadays?

Each visit renews my life. Literally. And connection matters.

During last week’s screen visit, I casually mentioned a recent find: face shields, available by the table‐full at a local store.

What do they look like?”

The question landed in multiple. I tried to describe: It’s a sheet of clear plastic that hangs below your chin, almost to your chest, with a blue plastic band that goes around your head.

I modeled mine then volunteered to gather more for those interested. On Sunday, I delivered, realizing on the way that the drive marked only my second trip into The City since March. Another first in 30‐plus years living here.

How many more firsts will I live? How many in this pandemic alone?

The next surprise came with when I saw my writer friends for our carefully‐planned, all‐masked, mostly‐distanced reunion.

Happy.

No hugs.

Sad.

I learned it’s hard to stay physically away from people I care about. It’s triple‐hard when it’s several people.

I learned real human connection delivers a buzz that nothing else can. That buzz amplifies the more I connect with others in person as evidenced by another friend reunion later that day.

Maybe that’s my Big Learning from this entire coronoavirus pandemic: relationships really do matter to me, the self‐proclaimed, fiercely fiesty, independent creature.

Why I Became a Street Walker

Note to Reader: She’s on the war path. Just sayin’…

I walk four miles every day.

Before dawn each morning, I don my black pack then stuff my orange towel into the waistband.

My exercise comes from a habit born of a health crisis. It mimics, on a much smaller scale, this Covid‐19 nightmare that whacked us all three‐plus months ago.

The lessons, however, are the same.

I walked and I’ve kept walking. Then the neighbors joined in. Great! I thought.  A collective pursuit of better health!

Not so great anymore. Now, we’ve got neighbors of neighbors walking our sidewalks and pedaling our streets.

Frustration overwhelms me these days because of this one simple irritant: a common lack of sidewalk manners.

I do not mask up to walk. I would suffocate in such a four‐mile adventure.

I do, however, step off the sidewalk when someone approaches. In one fluid move, I cover my nose and mouth with my towel and never lose my stride.

The two actions matter as much as my breath. Together, the pair of moves protects my fellow walkers. And me.

In these recent weeks, a minority of walkers has matched my move. Sometimes they even beat me to covering up or stepping away.

But the more common reaction involves what I call the barrel away. These strangers scooch steadily toward me, never slowing. As they barrel into their shortened version of social distancing, I hop down to the street. These walkers, oblivious, continue their barrel away down the sidewalk. It appears only their walk matters. Is this their corona daze?

On the worst walks, crowds come. I’ll spot three to five walkers jammed in a horizontal line across the concrete, aimed head‐on at me. And as I step down, they glide by like an incoming tide.

The guiltiest party involves the high school track team but I’ll forgive them. They’re teenagers, self‐involved.

Even so, age shouldn’t matter—aren’t we all in this together?

Elected officials have re‐opened most places. To get to any of those locations, we must walk. Through parking lots, malls, and airports; along beaches and dirt roads, into/out of restaurants and shops; even down to the mailbox. Then there’s those of us who walk to live.

Can’t we all walk and, when it may save a life, step away from each other? It’s only for a few feet and a few seconds. It might keep all of us safe.

Perhaps it’s a futile question and I should give up my rant and pray. Maybe, ultimately, the littlest among us are correct in their offering of sidewalk calm: