for my mother
One of the most important trips I took for work this year was a fluke. In a cosmically orchestrated turn of events, I ended up driving from a tiny town in Missouri to Tulsa through the wide spot in the road about 7 miles from Miami, Oklahoma (pronounced Miama, lest you give yourself away as someone “not from around here”) where my mother grew up. My mother always told me she grew up in a tiny town, but even the intensely rural areas I’ve traveled for my speaking gig did not prepare me for the single stop light community that is Wyandotte, Oklahoma. If I’d looked away from the road to adjust the volume of the usual “This American Life” podcast keeping me from dozing at the wheel, I would have missed it. But, there it was: A sign for Wyandotte Nation, the outpost where the remaining Wyandotte tribe members who lived on this land long before my mother, meet to discuss whatever community business is on the agenda. I pulled into the parking lot and took a picture of the sign, thinking I would send it to my mother, aunt, and grandmother, as a sort of “Look what I found!” bit of nostalgia and that would be that.
I knew my mother was the head cheerleader at her high school, and I’d heard dozens of stories of she and my aunt riding their bikes around the dirt roads that ran through the undeveloped land around their country home. In that time, she told me, children went out in the morning and explored the rivers, streams, and wide open countryside until suppertime. For a girl who grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, this always seemed wildly and tantalizingly adventurous to me. The extent of my wilderness exploration growing up was to the creek behind my friend Kris’ house, where some of the neighborhood kids had rigged a rope swing that launched my freckled, bikini clad girlfriends and I into the suspiciously murky water in the blistering Texas summers. Fun, but not exactly sunrise to sunset excursions into Wyandotte Indian land. I was pleasantly surprised, then, on this crisp September afternoon, to know I was driving on the storied dirt roads of my mother’s childhood.
After snapping a quick photo of the Wyandotte Nation sign and applying the most appropriately vintage Instagram filter I could find, I pulled back on the road to head to Tulsa. About a mile down the road, a sign informed me that the town of Wyandotte was to my right. “How far down can it be? She said this place was teeny.” I thought. Click on blinker, turn right. Almost immediately, I came upon a handful of old homes, a tiny post office, a long abandoned gas station with graffiti tagging the parking lot and darkened gas pumps, and then Wyandotte Public Schools. All of them. Right there, sharing a parking lot, football and softball fields, and a couple of picnic tables sat my mother’s elementary, middle, and high schools. I couldn’t believe it. The navigation system that I had spent the past two hours blindly following from Missouri to Tulsa had delivered me straight into the heart of Wyandotte.
I immediately called my mom, who happened to be eating dinner with my aunt and my father at the time, and told her where I was parked. I would later find out from my dad that watching her on the phone with me as I walked around the places that held her childhood memories was like watching her as that high school cheerleader all over again. We talked about football and basketball games as she guided me, by phone, around her campus. I noticed a maintenance worker coming in and out of the building and wandered up to one of the front doors. Could it be open at 5 o’clock on a Friday? The whole town would be out in a few hours for the home football game, but there were only a few stragglers at the picnic tables out front this late in the day. I tried the door. It opened.
I walked into a newer addition of the school, one that hadn’t been around when my mother was, but noticed, hanging on the far wall, poster sized printouts of senior classes dating back to the 30s. I flipped through until I found the class of 1972, and found a picture of a girl who looked a lot like me. There was Deborah Maughan, all green eyes and Farrah Fawcett blonde waves staring back at me. I found her sister, my Aunt Stephanie a couple of pages later with her class of 1974. In that picture I saw a lot of her son, Cooper, and a little of my brother, Alex. The Maughan genes are strong and undeniable, especially in the faces of the women. We share the same round Maughan nose, high cheekbones, and slightly wide set eyes, always looking for an adventure. I spent a solid hour, at least, wandering the halls and the grounds of Wyandotte high school, soaking up a little bit more of my mother, realizing that her suburban Dallas raised daughter graduated from a school about the size of this one, a fact I hadn’t fully considered before.
I still had quite a bit of driving to do, so I took some final videos and pictures of the school and pulled back onto the two lane road headed out of town. I texted my grandmother some of the pictures, as well, and she replied with “Ah, my lovely Okie land. Our house is on hwy 137 just around the curve from Twin Bridges State Park. Between Spring and Neosho rivers.” I knew she was excited about my being in her Okie land, but there was no way I was going to be able to find that house. It would have been incredible cool, but I am severely geographically challenged in my own element and I could not see myself finding two very specific rivers and a small highway in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma on my own. I headed out of town.
I drove a couple of miles and came upon a bridge: Spring River. Immediately after I crossed over I saw a sign for Highway 137, and cut across the road to make a sharp right and climb the hill leading into the countryside. I called Gammy. “Where did you say your house was? Is it right off highway 137, or back into a neighborhood?” “Oh, no, it’s a little white house right off the highway. You turn right directly into our drive. There’s a carport that your DD and I built, and a white well house in the backyard. We planted trees along the front of the property. They were small then but should be pretty big, by now.” She talked me down the road, over the hill, and straight to little home with the well house out back. “Do you see a gas tank behind the house?” she asked. I did. I pulled into the driveway and stepped out into the yard where my mother played as a girl. I walked around to the front door of the little white house that was now a little brown house, and knocked. No one was home. I walked around the property, on the phone with my Gammy, and she told me stories about all the mischief my mother used to make out there, the misadventures that they had as a family with two young daughters and a lot of land, and how they used to have to climb up a ladder to get into the well because DD had build it out of concrete blocks and left no easy way to get in and out without going up and over. I touched the well house, needing to feel connected to my grandfather who built it with his hands. He passed away two Septembers ago, but I felt him there at that well. As I stood there, Gammy reminded me of the date. It was September 6, DD’s birthday.
I walked out to the line of trees that my grandmother planted decades ago, small and tender then, tall and protective now, and I dug my fingers into the dirt. This was the dirt that made my mother an adventurer, a dreamer, an explorer of the unknown. This was the dirt where my grandparents taught their daughters what it meant to work hard and make something great of their lives. I could see them young and running, barefoot and free, across this dirt for hours as girls who would become strong, ambitious, adventurous women who aren’t afraid to get messy. I wanted to feel it in between my fingers, this dirt that my mother grew up on. I didn’t want to leave.
It’s been almost 2 months since my accidental trip to Wyandotte, and the dirt has long since washed out from underneath my fingernails, but I know that a little bit of that town is still with me. I may have left the line of strong, noble trees in front of the little house that used to be white, but I still get to hug the little girl that sat in the dirt underneath them.