The glow from the hole in the wall grew softer and longer as the sun moved down in the sky until a beam of light, filtered by half bare branches outside, struck a young tree trying to grow inside the church. A random seed that landed had somehow taken root and now a life no taller than three feet and smaller around than my thumb struggled to live in the confined space.
Family Line, released 2018
A few weeks ago I returned to Oklahoma for the first time in a few years. It was a wonderful occasion, the wedding of my only niece. Along with all of the family I also got to see two old friends from college I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years.
One of my favorite things I did, though, was to revisit a location that had been the seed that started a novel. On one visit, my brother-in-law asked me to take a ride with him. We drove the dirt roads outside his small Oklahoma town, each turn and stretch of road came with a story of his childhood and younger years growing up there. One field was the first place he’d been bitten by a snake. I didn’t ask if it had been the only time, but growing up there I think perhaps it wasn’t. The pickup finally came to a stop and sitting there at the corner of two dirt roads was an orange and brown stone building. A church, to be more specific, though it hadn’t been used as one for many years.
We walked around the structure, or I did. He held back and let me explore with my camera. He wanted some photographs of the building before it eventually fully returns to the earth. You see, the stones that make the walls were taken from the orange clay soil of the landscape of Lincoln County, Oklahoma. One wall is indeed partly gone, as Wesley describes in Family Line, now open for cattle to wander in and out for protection from the harsh elements. The roof is gone, replaced by the tin sheets also described.
On the front of the church, beside the stone with the engraved image of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the building being a product of his New Deal legislation, is another stone with names engraved. One of those names was the grandfather of my brother-in-law, a founding pastor of the church.
I lived in Oklahoma only a short time. Perhaps six months when we first relocated from New York City when I was in kindergarten, then the five years that were my college years. I never lived in the part of the state where this church stands, but my family has since about the time I moved away. I spent years in Dallas, then California, now more than 20 years in the Washington DC suburbs. I’ve had a strange relationship with Oklahoma. I never truly considered it home. It was where I went to college and where my family lives.
In writing Family Line, though, I found something odd happening about my perceptions of the state. I was romanticizing it. And in some way, I realized, I missed it. Life in the DC suburbs is fast, busy, hectic. People don’t say thank you when you check out at stores and you generally don’t have doors held open for you since most are automatic. Oklahoma is the opposite of all of that. When my family landed a few weeks ago, the driver of the shuttle bus to the rental car building was out of her seat and helping get everyone’s suitcases for them. The rental car agent asked what we were visiting for and when I told him a wedding, he seemed genuinely excited for me.
Then there’s something about the landscape. I’ve been fortunate to travel to some beautiful places, and I always do my best not to compare them. They each have their own quality and uniqueness. My wife loves to relay the story of a woman on a group trip to Tuscany who kept saying ‘looks just like Northern California’. I’ve lived in Northern California, and no it doesn’t. Sure there’s trees, rolling hills, vineyards, and brown grass from the extreme sunlight and heat, but they feel completely different. If you blindfolded me and sat me down in one of the two landscapes, I just don’t think they would feel the same.
Oklahoma has a ‘real’ quality to it. It was built on the backs of hard working men and women, those trying to farm the hard soil, those building up the new oil industry over a hundred years ago. People stayed because they wanted to. Oil is still there, though not as rampant as it once was. Farming still happens. But you feel that hard work, you sense it in the smiles at the grocery stores, the politeness on the roads.
I really enjoyed the long weekend. I got to take my son to the old church. Though he hasn’t read the book, and won’t for many years, he knew of it from asking me what it was about. I visited with old friends like we had just seen each other last month, and saw my niece get married on the edge of a lake at sunset. I watched my son ride a horse for the first time, glide across the smooth lake in a kayak, come close to beating adults at corn hole, and swim in the pool for hours on end.
Oklahoma has given the world music ranging from Reba McEntire to The Flaming Lips. It has one of the most beautiful memorials for one of the most devastating things to happen in our country. There’s green hills and brown fields and they are all beautiful.
And by the way, the tree struggling to survive in the passage from Family Line at the top of this post is still there. When I first saw it ten years ago is how I described it in the book. Now it is so big it blocks the large entrance to the old church. And that pretty much describes Oklahoma.