Thursday, May 20, 2010

Where I'm From

The June issue of Texas Monthly features pieces by Norah Jones, Sissy Spacek and other notables about their Texas roots. I got inspired to write my own "Where I'm From," and here it is:

Beaumont, Texas, was my home long before I lived there. I was born in New Mexico and, with the exception of the 2.5 years we lived in West Texas, I lived in the Land of Enchantment until I was almost 12. But we always came back to Beaumont. My dad had grown up there and my grandparents still lived in the house on Concord Road they had bought in the early 1950s. We moved around southeast New Mexico a lot, but Beaumont was my constant. In New Mexico, I had a new house, school and town every few years. But down in Beaumont, humidity always draped the town like a too-heavy blanket you could never take off. My grandmother’s driveway was always covered with wet magnolia leaves. The trees always sat as still as a painting on breezeless summer nights. When things in your life are ever-changing, it’s nice to retreat to a place that never does. That’s what Beaumont was for me.

By the early ’80s, we had moved to Lovington, New Mexico, after living in the hilly West Texas town (yes, there is such a thing) of Big Spring. I loved Big Spring and hated leaving it. This had been the roughest move of my childhood. Languishing in New Mexico, I came to associate not just Big Spring, but the entire state of Texas, with being happy. If we could just get back to Texas, I thought, life would be good again.

Then it came. A job offer for my dad in Beaumont. We weren’t just moving across the state line. We were moving to a town so far into Texas, it was almost out the other side. We bought a house just down the street from my grandmother’s leaf-strewn driveway a few weeks before Hurricane Alicia gave us a proper Gulf Coast welcome.

But the storm was minor compared to transitioning into my new setting. Moving from a rural New Mexico town to a mid-sized Texas town wasn’t without its bumps. I was enrolled in a private school where it seemed to me that everyone’s dads were doctors or lawyers. The fashion trends that were cool at my new school were unheard of back in Lovington. My social adjustment was nothing less than brutal.

But it was Beaumont. I may have been the “new kid,” but I had grown up here. I had waded in the pool at Combest Park as a toddler. I had attended family dinners at Don’s Seafood, one of Beaumont’s most celebrated restaurants. My last name was on the sign outside my grandfather’s accounting firm on 11th Street. My family knew or was related to most of the Church of Christ folks in town. I may have had trouble fitting in at school, but as far as I was concerned, I was home.

I took summer classes for kids at Lamar University. I went to rock concerts at the Montagne Center. I skated in circles for hours at Rainbow Roller Rink. I worked for a solid hour on my make-up and hair just to hang out at Parkdale Mall and hope to see (and be seen by) someone interesting.

Beaumont was a great setting for coming of age in the late ’80s. Dowlen Road was the place to be on the weekends, and teenage drama unfolded up and down that road every Friday and Saturday night. My high school sweetheart and I would make out at Rogers Park, break up a couple of blocks down at Whataburger, and make up in the grocery store parking lot across the street. Sometimes all on the same night. I can’t listen to Billy Idol’s version of “Mony, Mony” without smelling the combination of exhaust and cigarette smoke that hung in the muggy air on those Dowlen nights.

By the time graduation was near, I was making plans to go far away to college in a dry, wind-blown, West Texas town. My boyfriend was staying.

“There’s something about this town,” he said. “I just can’t leave it.”

I knew what he meant. But we broke up and I left, anyway. And I learned something. Hometowns have a way of never forgiving those who leave them. My unchanging Beaumont changed. Over the next several years, my high school closed down and businesses sprang up where square miles of solid trees had been. My widowed grandmother sold her house of 40 years and moved into a retirement center on the interstate. During one trip back, I realized something with a shock: Beaumont had forgotten me.

At one time, both sets of grandparents, uncles, an aunt and a number of extended family had lived in Beaumont and been members at the same church. Now I just have one aunt and uncle living there. After they’re gone, I doubt I’ll ever go back.

Sometimes I think of former classmates who have stayed in Beaumont and are raising their kids in the same town we grew up in. These thoughts bring a tinge of jealousy, which gives way to peaceful acceptance. Beaumont was home to me the way it was back then; not the way it is now. In my memory, damp magnolia leaves still carpet my grandmother’s driveway. Dowlen Road is alive with headlights, booming stereo systems and teenage drama on a Saturday night. The Gaylynn Theater is packed for the opening night of “Top Gun” and I’m there in all my 14-year-old awkwardness, giggling and swooning over Tom Cruise with a pack of my friends. We’re in a line that wraps around the side of the building, too caught up in our youth to notice the stifling humidity or our looming adulthood. We were having fun being young, and Beaumont was our home.

That’s where I’m from.


  • At Thu May 27, 07:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Deana, this describes very nicely the way I feel about my own hometown. It has changed a lot since I grew up and moved away, and when I go back I feel so sad. They tore down the hospital where I was born, and my elementary school. The Carnegie library where I spent so much time is an abandoned shell. I am debating whether or not to go back for my 30-year high school reunion this summer.

    -Mary Lou in NC


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