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.

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?

When a Census Counts…and Doesn’t

Thank the U.S. Census for repeating itself last week.

Such are my days:

  • I received a pair of 2020 census forms: one at our house, another at my sister’s house;
  • Two flashbacks followed: one to 1980, my year as a census enumerator, another to five months ago

I wish my parents had snapped a photo of me as a census girl. We didn’t take many photos 40 years ago. Each print! It costs money! If I had a picture from those days, you’d see a Melanie-circa-1980-Census photo:

**right here**

I prized the homemade outfit I assembled. Over-coordinated in perfect reds, whites, and blues, I reminded myself, “I’m working for the U.S. government!” 

I also proudly toted the government-issued shoulder bag, a cheap black vinyl thing that swamped my small frame. It arrived with a massive U.S. CENSUS! sticker slapped on the diagonal across the bag’s front.

If I had a photo — again — you’d see that bag:

*right here**

But I grew to hate the bag’s wide black straps. They bit into my shoulder, the gouges deepening each day I criss-crossed the streets of my Pampa hometown.

Many of its roads I’d never driven, much less walked. At 23, I was frighteningly young, long sheltered from another side of life in a small Texas town.

When Derek opened his door, I recognized him as a high school classmate and former football star. He now lived alone with his mother in a unpainted shack south of the tracks.

He grimaced, remembering me. I smiled. It was my job.

A day later, I stood on Mrs. Wilson’s porch. Her youngest daughter had been my best friend in first grade. Mrs. Wilson complimented my outfit, validating my sense of style.

But her face remained blank. I didn’t know whether to feel hurt or gratitude.

Fast forward four decades:

My family received two census forms in, yes, two different mailboxes: my house, plus the same form at my recently deceased sister’s home.

I opened Mimi’s first. It read “To Resident at….”

I entered her census ID, expecting questions about her status.

Instead, a plethora of questions gushed forth like a wave, all focused on the structure at her address. I answered that no one was living in the house. The computer responded:

Swallowing the lump bulging in my throat, I asked the screen, “Empty doesn’t matter?”

On our census form, DH confirmed we still occupied the building as “residents of the address.” Up popped a question about our names. Answering led to gratitude from Uncle Sam: I know, I know. The census exists to count people for many reasons.

But we only matter if we’re living? 

Yes, I’m still grieving my sister’s sudden death. Last week marked five months.

Time does ease the loss. It won’t go away when reminders keep coming.

And 40 years later, I remain sad about those porch moments with Derek and Mrs. Wilson. 

Interesting, isn’t it, remembering what we’d like to forget.

Honoring Mother, the Original RoadBroad

From Austin to Abilene, Salisbury to San Francisco, she taught me how to be a RoadBroad.

Indulge me, please, as I pay tribute on this Mother’s Day to mine: Glenna Lea Couch Miller.

From a childhood spent in an orphanage to a widowhood making up for lost time, my mother lived adventure and attitude.

It began with her 1927 birth in a “teacherage”—that’s government-provided housing for schoolteachers—in Vernon, Texas. Here, Allie Couch holds up her surprise, born as the “but-doctor-I know-I’m-in-menopause” baby

From Vernon, my mother moved into a Corsicana orphanage. There, her father served as superintendent for much of Glenna Lea’s childhood.

Imagine sharing all your birthday and holiday presents with 250 Depression-era orphans. Glenna Lea became a dedicated bookworm for good reason. Books were easier to share than a bicycle.

Reading, no doubt, honed my mother’s writing skills. Upon discovering her 1938 report card, I shrieked.

Evidence echoed an earlier report card, highlighted in 2/25/2019 post. Delighted, I showed Mrs. Mathis’ remarks to DH and shouted a loud aha! At last, I know who gifted this gene!”  

The teacher’s prescience also identified a family’s later tease point. Cough, cough: yes, math challenges were gene-shared, too.

Later, Austin and a new bookstore summoned my grandfather. Glenna Lea moved through school in the capital city, landing at the University of Texas as a theater major.

While attending college, my mother joined a women’s singing trio. She spent her weekends during World War II traveling across central Texas to perform for base-bound soldiers.

Mears Studio hired her to model. In those pre-ballpoint pen days, UT students received these 3.5 x 5 inch “ink blotters” to use while taking class notes. Also, the studio enlarged this pose and plastered it on the side of their downtown building.

As an award-winning actress, Glenna Lea dreamed of a Broadway career. Marriage and children interceded. Post-war expectations ruled women’s lives.

Four children and two decades later, Mexico and deep-sea fishing beckoned.

I doubt Mother caught this thing. Instead, I imagine her reading as she humored my father’s love of all things fishy. If I had laser vision, I’d bet money on finding books in that bag. Yes, plural.

Fast forward 37 years. Glenna Lea asked to join a daughter’s European honeymoon—“but only for the first week.”

The tallest church spire in the United Kingdom lured us to Salisbury Cathedral, outside London. Mother stopped outside to read the outside plaques., Spot the tiny, huddled figure in the lower left here?

And so her pattern began. Every day for seven days, she read every word she could find in, on or about the place du jour. Across England, Bride and Groom gawked and listened as Mother/Mother-in-law read about Salisbury, Stonehenge. Bath. Westminster Abbey. St. Paul’s. Roman Wall. Others sites, too, all now forgotten, lost to middle age.

After my father died in 1994, Mother hit the road. Big trips, somewhere, every year. Santa Fe. Washington, DC. San Francisco. New York City (multiple times). Colorado. Across Texas.

She slowed down when I did, joining me in walks along the Cane Lane at the stroke rehabilitation center.

In this single shot, I see a lifetime of dedication, love, and the full meaning of today.

If my mother could read this post, she’d say—as she always did—“Sweet girl, it’s perfect. And it’s your story to tell.”

I would answer back, “Thank you for your generous spirit. And Happy Mother’s Day, GL.”

Road Trip to a Book Launch

What a spring time! What a weekend! What a life!

I felt excited about all three of these as I spent the weekend in Austin, Texas. Another road trip for this RoadBroad! Usually it is just fun to travel to Austin and soak in all the “wierdness” that is the State Capitol of the Lone Star State. However, I had a very important reason for this most recent trip.

My dear Friend and I went to Austin to visit the Book-Woman and enjoy a book launch for an exciting murder mystery called Death Unchartered by Dorothy Van Soest.

I met Dorothy last year when I traveled to Boulder, Colorado for the 10-day writing intensive with Max Regan. It was just after my retirement from local government and I was beginning to make my way as a full-time writer.

Dorothy lived in Austin for a while when she served as an associate dean and professor at the University of Texas School of Social Work before she became the Dean of the University of Washington School of Social Work. Turns out we knew some of the same folks in the Social Work field.

Dorothy has already published 10 books and Death Unchartered is the next one in the series of Sylvia Jensen mysteries. This is my first Sylvia Jensen mystery and I can’t wait to read the others. If you like mysteries, you will find this to be a real page turner!

The book launch was a success. The crowd was all but standing room only and Dorothy kept us all captivated as she shared several short readings with us. The story opens with a murder and gets more exciting from there. I won’t say any more, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Believe me it is good!

Several of us writers traveled from Houston to Austin for this book launch. Melanie was there dressed in her traditional orange. RoadBroads are nothing if not loyal and supportive of each other.

Actually I am delighted to know that I am a part of a really great team of writers. Between Max Regan’s Colorado retreats, classes with the Spectrum Center Writers Guild, and weekly writing get togethers, we are at all stages of our writing careers. Some, like Dorothy, are old hands at the publication game and are willing to help those of us who are just now beginning to send out essays, short stories, and the like.

From Spring 2018 to Spring 2019, I have written a lot (but never enough!), I have submitted pieces for publication and occasionally get accepted, and continue to develop my writing chops. People like Max, Dorothy and Melanie have helped me transition from being a retired Social Worker wanting to write to being a full-time writer and hanging out with writing friends at book launches.

Thanks to Dorothy Van Soest for coming to Texas for a book launch of Death, Unchartered! You can find it on Amazon, you local bookstore, or wherever you get your books! You can also check out Dorothy’s website at dorothyvansoest.com.

What a great Spring! What a great life!

Until next week.…..

A Paper Kind of Trip

When I hit the Declutter Road last week, I never expected laughter, gasps, and heart tugs.

This roller coaster ride of emotions arrived after I found a single piece of paper beneath a six-inch pile of old memories.

It’s my first-ever school progress report, dated October, 1963.

I quickly realized the sheet offered more than a single snapshot of a student’s education.

Cultural and societal commentary screamed here, too.

All courtesy of Mrs. Esther Ruth Gibson, my first grade teacher at Sam Houston Elementary School in Pampa, Texas.

She was “Esther Ruth.” Never simply “Esther.” It’s a double-name Texas thing.

However, to me, she was always Mrs. Gibson. That’s small town Texas.

When Webster’s Dictionary defined ‘teacher,’ this woman modeled.

Here, her opening paragraphs offered boiler plate language on a mimeographed page (remember those purple-staining-machines?): “…listening and following directions …following the school routine…learning letters…how to write…begin at the left…move to the right.” 

She mentioned a “Readiness Program.” My mind flashed forward to Common Core, No Pass/No Play, and similar education reform efforts. The more things change, the more they remain the same?

Below the standard progress report, Mrs. Gibson added two paragraphs of professional educator observation. Offered in teacher-perfect penmanship.

She nailed me at age six.

That comment about things staying the same? Mrs. Gibson identified elements of me that remain true 56 years later.

However, what most caught my attention was her sentence: “Her writing is particularly good.”

My writer self would like to believe that sentence was both prescient and true. Then. And now.

I’d also like to believe she would be proud of this blog.

After discovering Mrs. Gibson’s letter, I looked her up on-line.

I learned she died a dozen years ago.

In 2007.

The year I turned 50.

The same age Mrs. Gibson was the year she taught me.

Road Trip Twist

NOTE: Not all road trips are alike. The following story offers a compelling twist on the Journey tale, one that only Kay Cox — our dear writing retreat friend — could tell, and well.

Guest blogger Kay L. Cox writes poetry and stories from her San Antonio home. She’s an experienced blogger (check out her writings on www.picklesandroses.blogspot.com). Earlier, Kay worked as an art and family therapist, teaching graduate-level art therapy classes in the US and abroad.

Thank you, Kay, for joining our RoadBroads team today! — Melanie & Ellen


Road Trip With a Twist

Kay L. Cox

My lunch plate that Friday held sliced roast beef, slathered with gravy. But the instant mashed potatoes looked like a sauce, thanks to too much liquid on top. I spy broccoli. Fresh broccoli. I can’t wait. I grab my fork. Then the broccoli’s so tough, my fork can’t cut it and even my knife has a hard time. It’s so tough, I can hardly chew it.

I open my mouth to complain. Then I remember.

The previous Sunday. Dinner at my son’s house.

Emotion overwhelms me.

My family is active with local churches in helping documented migrant families as they head through San Antonio enroute to their next destination by bus. We were asked to house two families. One family stayed one night. The other was a young father, Juan, and his 2 ½ year old son, Ricardo.

When I arrived at my son’s house, the pair sat on the sofa watching television. Ricardo snuggled, sleeping, on his father’s chest. I greeted Juan in Spanish. He nodded, giving me a big smile. I noticed an ankle monitor on Juan. What have we come to in this country?

I went to the kitchen to help prepare the dinner. Chicken casserole and steamed broccoli. Soon, Ricardo awoke and Juan sat him in his lap to eat. Ricardo’s big brown eyes and shy smile won our hearts. He was so well behaved, almost too quiet. I surmised that in his long treacherous journey from Guatemala he had been taught to be very quiet. Ricardo looked at the plate in front of him. His eyes grew bigger still as he looked at the plate in front of him.

He picked up a piece of broccoli, looking at it as if he had never seen such a vegetable. He spoke softly to his dad. With my limited Spanish, I think he called the broccoli a tree before plopping it in his mouth. Then he picked up another, looking at each “tree” carefully before putting each piece in his mouth. Over and over, Ricardo did this, eating bite after bite. I think his body was craving fresh, green food. I wondered when he had last had fresh vegetables.

Never have I seen a child that young eat broccoli like that. Any complaints I might ever have about food from now on fall into a different perspective. I have so much to be grateful for.

My daughter in law bought clothes and diapers for Ricardo, along with snacks and books in Spanish, and his long journey with his father riding multiple buses to Washington. She found a children’s backpack and filled it. Ricardo proudly put it on and clung to her leg at the bus station when she turned them over to the woman who guided them to their correct bus.

What a beautiful experience to share what we take for granted. We were able to make a difference in making someone’s life easier.

I will never eat broccoli again – be it steamed-to-mush, raw or tough — without thinking of Ricardo and Juan. And I’ll feel grateful.

All we have to do is be kind to each other. It’s that simple to create change.

A Journey Ends…

…as a new one begins.

Details on all that later. For tonight — after 21 hours of driving across three states in two days — I’m home, ready to sleep in my own bed after 17 days and 2703 miles.

A lot of numbers to absorb, eh?

Maybe that’s why I’m e‑x-h-a-u-s-t-e‑d. But, overall, it’s good tired.

Rummaging through Larry McMurtry’s bookstore in Archer City may be key.

To the right here is one corner of one room of one of his treasure-packed stores. All are used books and/or literary classics and collectibles. Imagine looking at row after row of 14-foot high bookcases; pile after pile of reading treasures. Overwhelm rises in your bones. The smell of old books wafts up to your nose and you remember when you first discovered the joy of the written, printed word. Intensity grows, the feelings of overwhelm magnified by more books than you’ve ever seen in one place. Magnify the overwhelm by a factor of ten.

I’m proud of myself — I left Larry’s place with only four books.

That’s because this was my fourth bookstore in four days. My car already has two bulging sacks of books awaiting my reading delight. Such joy, however, can only be indulged after unpacking, laundry, groceries, errands, phone calls and everything else I walked away from last month.

Why does May seem like two years ago now? Why does my recently-finished writing retreat feel like an alternate universe?

Alas, tough questions and mixed-up senses for a late night. Meanwhile, my bed beckons. I anticipate a wonderful night of sleep on the one mattress that knows all my body’s nooks and crannies.

Tomorrow, one last look at my recent past with a preview of my blogging future.

Tonight marks my shortest RoadBroad post. You understand why?

Boulder Bound: What Am I Doing?

I am now a full-time writer. I have waited a long time to say that and it feels good. Right now, I am getting ready to head out on a long road trip to Boulder, Colorado with one friend, books, journals, lap top, and hopefully at least a little good sense. My friend, Melanie, is traveling with me. I am packing the books and journals. We will have to wait and see about the good sense. 

Hannah preps for her own road trip.
Hannah readies for the road trip…

The cat in the picture will try to go with me, but she will stay at home. Many thanks to Jim and my great team of house-sitters and cat-sitters who will look out for everything while I am gone.

Two months ago, I was a full-time Social Services administrator for a local governmental organization. I was your “tax dollars at work”. During these last two months, I have had surgery (which restricted movement for six weeks), then I had to speak in front of a crowd at a cemetery for the placement of a historical marker, then I had a major water leak in my home thanks to my upstairs neighbor, then I retired from the governmental bureaucracy.

I had planned to spend my first week of retired life in my night gown, sleeping a great deal, reading and watching junky television. Instead, I was visited daily by contractors and maintenance personnel who repaired walls, ceilings and floors damaged by the water leak. Fortunately, within 2 weeks all home repairs were complete…all except for the dust. Thanks to a great team of professional housekeepers for helping me to clean up.

Needless to say, I still haven’t had my week of sleeping, reading and couch potatoing and now I don’t have time. I am Boulder Bound! Melanie and I are attending a writing retreat in Boulder. Enroute, we will stop and visit a few sites. It’s my first trip to Colorado and I want to see as much as possible.

What does it mean to be Boulder Bound? It means I no longer work in an office. I am a writer. I can write at home, at a coffee shop, or while gazing at whatever mountains I keep hearing everyone talk about in Boulder. Hopefully by the time I return home, I will know the names of the mountains.

Being Boulder Bound means I am hitting the road to see what there is to see. On the road. I almost feel like Jack Kerouac using the “essentials of spontaneous prose” to outline my journey. Before, during and after the retreat I will share my existence and experiences with a couple of talented writers exploring the depths of our visions and talents. Unlike Kerouac, I will probably skip the substance abuse and sexual experimentation.

Okay, for anyone who does not know about Jack Kerouac and his book On the Road which was published the year I was born, please Google now. I will wait.

I have several writing projects, but while in Colorado, I will be working on one in particular. This project involves my writing about growing up in Memphis, Tennessee during the 60’s and 70’s. Like now, it was a time of great change in both me as a person and in the society and culture that surrounds me.

Wish me luck with my journey! I will keep you posted on everything (or almost everything) that happens.

About this Blog

This blog came to life, courtesy Ellen, who prefers road travel to soaring skyward. She suggested driving to a Colorado-based writing retreat in June, 2018.

Melanie answered with two words, one of which can be repeated in mixed company. Young children, however, would probably be confused. C’est le vie — it wouldn’t be the first time either of us has been misunderstood.

Post-writing retreat, we contemplated life sans RoadBroads. Should we continue this blog? We both proclaimed a loud two-word answer, identical to Melanie’s reply to Ellen’s initial query. Amazing what happens when two women writers get to know each other on the road.

We’ve dialed back the blogging to one post each per week. Periodically, we’ll post a guest blogger — another woman writer, on the road — reporting some kind of trip and what she’s learned.

We can all learn from each other.

Looking forward to the lessons offered via observations, discoveries, and experiences. The good. The bad. The ugly. Adventure is all this, most especially the ugly. 

It’s only roadtrips. With two broads and some special guests.

Join us?