When I got off the plane in Oklahoma, I smiled at an old man with creased jeans and bright white shoes. His hands were spotted, and they curled as they adjusted his mesh hat. I scooted by him off the ramp and into the airport, which gleamed from a recent renovation, proud of its new stone and glass. Oklahoma. I spent my childhood in Edmond saying things like “y’all” and running and climbing and throwing and kicking. I also baked some cookies with my Grandma at the oddly perfect hour of midnight.
Grandma lived in a blue house with Grandpa on a square acre with a strawberry garden and pecan trees. My sister and I would pull bagworms off the evergreens and look for inchworms hanging from the mimosa tree. Sometimes the pecan trees would have webbed nests full of insects. In the summer we would sit on an ice cream maker and turn the handle till our arms were sore and our backsides frozen. Peach ice cream was the best.
When I was eleven, my family left Oklahoma and there it was, a funny-shaped state in the center of the country. I didn’t think about it much, until one day I did. I thought about “y’all” and neatly creased jeans and the tidiness of the Great Plains. And so there I was, heading out of the airport in a blue rental car, rain pelting the windshield as I turned onto the flatness that goes on and on and on.
Everything seems newly pressed to me in Oklahoma: accents, expressions, gestures, left turn signals. The rain reminded me of a regular day I’d spent in the car with my family when I was maybe eight, driving in the rain shopping for a bed or something. There must have been a special atmosphere for me to remember that day for no particular reason. The rain turned the roads into slick black outlines that defined the city. In Oklahoma you can see in front of you for a long way until there’s no focus, just a smudge. I find this comforting, like being out at sea and looking way, way out, as if your eyes could catch a particle of light and get carried away at that fast speed.
On the road, someone spun out five minutes ahead of me. It’s hard to stay focused on a bare slick outline of a city. Things like lampposts catch my attention. So tidy. I remember them being decorated with glitter and gold on the way to my grandparents’ house for Christmas. I was on my way to my grandma’s house now. The rain subsided and a softness rose up around the cars and buildings.
Grandpa died when I was twelve, in a terrible fire brought on by a faulty air compressor in the garage. Grandpa was the one who pretended to scratch my teddy bear’s belly. He liked to sit on a magical beige lazy boy with a newspaper. When I ran by he would reach out to grab me, but I was fast. Grandpa also let me ride his small motorbike around the backyard, and he let me crash it on the sidewalk and bend the handlebars, which he said was “customizing it.” I don’t remember crying when I hit the ground because I loved speeding through the pecan trees and singing to myself about being a bird.
Grandma mowed the yard and clipped the trees and pulled the weeds and painted the house by herself until her eighty-second birthday. This is when I understood about Oklahoma and the frontier, and the Great Depression and the Second World War, and about being tough on the outside, reserved, maybe a little suspicious, maybe a lot. At eighty-three, she decided she’d mowed enough grass, sold the house, and moved into an apartment building that’s also a senior center. She moved her belongings and her memories of Grandpa, and packed up all the small family souvenirs stretching back to her grandmother leaving Germany for good.
I pulled into the parking lot of the yellowing building from the 1960s with the funky entrance in the shape of an upside-down pyramid. Grandma was waiting behind the sliding doors in a pressed denim outfit that she had made. Her gold sneakers and white curls made me think of visiting long ago and those midnight cookies.
Grandma’s apartment was full of flowers, lace, and her paintings of birds, ladies, cats, and Jesus at the Last Supper. Things from the old house had been miniaturized for the small space, but it was otherwise the same. The ginger cookies were already made. Grandma says things like “warsh” and “Oh, I don’t know.” She uses the world “anyhow” as a conjunction. Sometimes, too, she calls me “babydoll.”
Grandma grew up completely in Oklahoma City, born and raised. There was a forty-year break in there, spent in Indiana, but then she returned. Her high school is down the road. Her family home is down the road. Her grade-school friend is down the road. All of these things I find remarkable. My equivalents are scattered across the country, losing meaning at a steady pace. So when she talks about her mother living in Colorado with her many sisters and her needlepoint shop, I hang on so that I can understand and make pictures in my mind.
People pass away and become two sentences, if they’re lucky. “She was a kind woman.” “He was a drinker.” “They liked to fish, hunt, and make paintings of flowers and animals.” That last one described my great-great aunts, who lived in the hills of Colorado until they were a hundred years old. Their names were Bertha and Fannie, and my sister saw one of them mentioned on her hundredth birthday on the Today show in the late 1980s. In one photograph, my great-grandfather is handsome and giving beer to a dog. “He was a strict man.” “He wanted grandma to be a boy.” Do I hold on to these sentences and pass them along? Should I write them on the back of the photograph?
Grandma has a cedar chest full of dainty things neatly wrapped in tissue and plastic: handmade handkerchiefs with needlepoint designs, little bags, gloves, and hair clips. They are mainly everyday things, only from a hundred years ago. In one bag there is a mink stole made of seven individual minks with faces intact, each biting the leg of the one ahead of it. I try it on and I too could have been one of the great-great aunts, one of the sisters. My mom (born and raised in Ireland, a different family tree) likes to say I take after my dad’s side when she’s annoyed with me. It’s not meant to be mean, and it’s hard to deny when I learn that my obsessive drawing habits — birds, animals, plants — are direct descendants of all the bird, animal, and plant paintings that my grandma’s family made.
We head out to a fast-ish food restaurant, the kind that Oklahoma is good at. People are genuinely nice, asking how we are, calling us “honey” in a no-frills way. We eat platters of cheese and lettuce and sour cream. Grandma picks precisely at her meal, edging small bits into place, tucking in their corners, sharpening their outlines. Tidy and perfect and proud, because we’re in the middle of a funny shaped state in the middle of the country. No one has come to check in on us and we’re scooting the lettuce across the plate, thinking about wide-open spaces and the stillness that happens deep in the middle of your mind. As we walk out, grandma asks if I’d like a toothpick. I pause for a second then say “Sure, thanks.” I put it in my pocket for another day.