Perhaps there is nothing in the world so still as a blade of grass in a small town cemetery in Waldron, Arkansas. Not even the electrical buzzing of the cicadas can disturb it. On a summer evening the humid air pressed on our necks and arms with a thickness I could almost hear. And hanging in the air, a scent of sweat and sweet decaying leaves…

We were the only visitors, intruders, pilgrims—I hardly know. Whatever we were, we entered that stillness and swallowed wet air through our mouths and noses. At first it was decided that Katie and Eric would stay with Bill while I quickly scanned headstones for our surname. (We did know, according to online records, that Bill’s uncle and grandfather were both buried in Duncan Cemetery: this research was one of my tasks while driving through Oklahoma earlier that day). Alone in my wandering, I felt the twilight pressing in about me and I thought about the Godric’s Hollow scene in the Harry Potter series. Bill suggested that of course the most logical approach would be for me to start with any headstones that looked particularly aged: that strategy, combined with intuition and quick reading, yielded efficient results for Bill’s grandfather’s grave:

 

This is Earl Reeves McGaugh’s gravestone.

 

This is a picture of Earl that he sent to his half-sister Addie, possibly around 1915. (Link to the original source). On the back of the photograph is written, “To Mrs. Addie Williams, This is me in my cooks apron. Don’t look at the frown. I was facing the sun. Earl”

Apparently Earl worked at a cafe in Waldron for quite some time before opening Earl’s Cafe, which was known by locals for its chili. Here is a picture of the cafe:

 

 

We tried to find the site of where Earl’s Cafe used to be. We think perhaps we did.

Katie and Eric with their daddy at the gravesite of their great-grandfather Earl McGaugh. Bill’s middle name is Earl. My husband was named after both of his grandfathers, actually.

 

Katie at her great-grandfather’s gravesite. He died in 1942 and now, seventy years later, one of his great-granddaughters finds herself below the Ozarks in Waldron visiting in the warm twilight on her way to a three-day Indian wedding in Pennsylvania.

It turned out that finding Earl was the easy part. Uncle Dewey’s gravestone was not so readily observed, and it was relatively far from Earl’s. Bill thought about calling it a day, but I am nothing if not persistent. We aren’t often in Waldron. In a small cemetery, how long could it take using a methodical approach? In the end, we still found ourselves relying more on the “stumble upon” strategy:

 

Bill’s Uncle Dewey was the County Clerk, and Bill’s brother Patrick remembers that Uncle Dewey actually died on the night of a re-election. Bill recalls being fourteen-years-old and visiting Uncle Dewey on a road trip with Bill’s dad to Arkansas.

Here is a current picture of the building in which Uncle Dewey served as County Clerk.

 

On the way out of Waldron, we stopped by a small market for dinner items that the kiddos could eat in the car. As the sun set, we wound our way through backwood forests toward Russellville, where we planned to spend the night. After dinner and after darkness settled, I reached into my magic box (one of my tricks on this adventure) and pulled out glow sticks. Katie and Eric were both excited and surprised. One never knows what I have up my sleeve… I told my children, as they waved their glow sticks, to be intentional about making a memory right then.  We described our time in the cemetery and really focused on the imagery. I hope they have it…

When we got to Russellville, all the hotels, motels, and inns were almost completely sold out. Why? By coincidence there was a huge fishing competition taking place the next morning. We lucked out at a La Quinta, where were upgraded to a suite—one of their last two rooms at 10:00PM—for a discounted rate, which included a hot breakfast of biscuits and gravy. All in the parking lot were the most ginormous (*yes, that is a technical term) crickets I have ever, EVER seen. I happen to like insects really quite a bit, so I found the huge crickets to be entertaining to no end the next morning as I reloaded the car with some of our night things.

That night before retiring I reflected a moment on where we had been just that morning, as we traveled through Oklahoma:

 

We found a large park in the small town of Sayre, OK which happened to be a perfect rest stop for us. The park had a pond, bridges, and a big train structure.

 

 

Pushing my little people on the swings…

 

 

The park also had one of these spinny-things (yet another precise term). I’ve dreamed about playing on one of these my whole life, though good luck finding any in California (at least, speaking anecdotally from my personal investigative measures)! I think we are probably too litigious here, though I could be mistaken. This retro spinny-thing made my day. Bill showed us how to get it going, and I truly felt like we were in another time far away in the small town of Sayre, Oklahoma. I had an almost immediate rapport with this land, especially as we drove through the town. I felt how much I could live there and teach there and suck in the open air and fields and run so free and far.

 

 

A stray dog came to see us at the park. She was friendly.

 

 

I made a stop at Pucketts for a couple of items we needed, and as I walked through I savored all the Oklahoman accents. Ever since we’ve been back at our home, I find myself imagining all of the places and people we saw and met. What is life like in Sayre tonight?

All along the road, I kept remembering pieces of novels that are dear to me. Obviously, no one can go through Oklahoma without thinking about The Grapes of Wrath, which happens to rank among my very favorites. All along the road I kept thinking about that turtle and about the first time I finally understood what it meant to have to pick myself up like that turtle. I also reflected on some of my favorite lines about Ma Joad:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials….She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.

Of course, we were also singing the score from Rodgers and Hammerstein as we traveled! I could just imagine Curley coming around the bend on his horse!

From Amarillo, TX to Russellville, AR, this was one of my favorite days of travel during our road trip.

 

 

 

 

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