Monday, October 31, 2011

Hobbs, Part II

I don’t remember leaving the store. Later that day, I sat on my bed, grieving the loss of my first best friend. The phone rang. After a minute, my mother came into my room.

“Christi’s OK,” she said. “She just got a little bruised up.”

“She’s not dead?” I asked.

My mother looked startled.

“No, she’s not dead. What gave you that idea?”

“She closed her eyes. She looked dead.”

My mother spent several more minutes convincing me that Christi was not dead. I finally believed her.

There is a blissful ignorance that defines the preschool years. I was 3 and 4 when we lived in Hobbs, and my life consisted of playing in our wonderful four-bedroom house, playing with friends at church, playing with the neighborhood kids and playing with our dog, Snoopy. Snoopy and I spent long afternoons in the backyard. I was an imaginative child and he accompanied me on my imaginary adventures. Snoopy often played the role of a young prince who was being chased by an evil witch who wanted his crown. I had been charged with his protection, which I took seriously. We would run through the yard to escape the witch’s terrifying grasp and jump into the storage shed just in time as she whizzed by on her broom. Thanks to my valiant efforts, the witch never caught up with Prince Snoopy, and the crown was preserved.

My brother Brian was gone to school all day, and, on the days that no friends or neighbors came over, Snoopy was my closest friend. I felt such a connection with him that I didn’t think twice about lapping up some water out of his dish on the back porch on a hot summer’s day. After taking a long drink from his water dish one day, I looked up to see my mother’s horrified face through the kitchen window. She brought me in, made me gargle with my dad’s Scope mouthwash, filled a glass jar with water and showed me where she put it in the refrigerator. When I get thirsty, she said, I was to come in and get a drink from the jar and not from Snoopy’s dish. I agreed to her demands, but I still didn’t understand what the big deal was.

One day, something happened that, at least for a moment, shattered my childhood delusion that I was always protected from everything. I was walking alone down the sidewalk on our street to a friend’s house. Suddenly, a car screeched from around the corner and sped past me before its two right tires hopped up on the sidewalk about ten feet ahead of me. The car kept speeding, half of it still on the sidewalk, until it dropped back down off the curb. A police cruiser, sirens blaring, raced past me in pursuit of the car. I probably didn’t realize then that I could have died had the car jumped the curb ten feet sooner. But I did feel rattled. I walked home and sat alone and quiet in my room the rest of the afternoon. I never told my parents what happened.

Every summer, we made the 14-hour drive from Hobbs to Houston and Beaumont, Texas, where my grandparents lived. The contrast between small, flat and arid Hobbs and large, bustling and humid Houston was almost overwhelming to me. I loved the endless masses of freeways that snaked their way through the city. I loved the zoo and museums and Toys R Us, which Brian and I thought was the closest to heaven we would get in our lifetime. And I loved the frigid blast of my grandparents’ air-conditioned house after a day of shopping in Houston’s 98-percent humidity. Beaumont, where my other grandparents lived, was also an exciting escape from our southeast New Mexico norm. It was, in my mind, simply a smaller version of Houston.

The summer I was four, we were sitting down to dinner at my Houston grandparents’ house when I began to feel quite ill. We had been to the Houston Museum of Natural Science that day, and I had seen a picture of a bloody battle scene that had grossed me out a little. I did not want to eat, and the more my parents tried to push food on me, the worse I felt. I went to bed early and I remember being awakened in the middle of the night, having my robe wrapped around me, and being put into the backseat of the car. My parents drove me to a hospital, where I was diagnosed with a severe case of pneumonitis. The doctor described the illness as something between bronchitis and pneumonia, and inching closer to pneumonia by the minute. He instructed my parents to get me back to New Mexico’s arid climate immediately. We returned to my grandparents’ house, where I fell asleep and dreamed I was flying across the sky like a bird. I awoke in my bed in our Hobbs house. My parents had driven the 14 hours straight through and delirium had kept me asleep—or at least unaware of my surroundings--the entire trip.

The arid Hobbs air cleared my lungs and I was back to good health within a few weeks. It was good to get my energy back and resume my favorite activities, which still included watching the Brady Bunch. I longed for a two-story house like theirs and a stylish station wagon like the one Mrs. Brady drove. I wanted blond pigtails, an endearing lisp, and a cute name like “Cindy.” That family, I thought, had the perfect life.

I now know that my own real life was as perfect as it could have been at that point. I had a stable family and, while we weren’t wealthy, all my needs were provided for. I had a best friend and a dog, and the innocent youth that protected me from knowing too much about the real world. But the happy Hobbs years were coming to an end. My father had, once again, grown unhappy in his work situation. A church in Roswell, New Mexico, needed a youth minister. So we packed, I said goodbye to Christi, and we drove another moving truck to another small New Mexico town.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hobbs, Part I

Moving from the rental house on Birch St. in Lovington to the brick parsonage in Hobbs was a step up for my family. The house even had a fourth bedroom. A fourth bedroom! The only other family I knew that had a fourth bedroom was the Brady Bunch. I figured that if my family ever got an Alice, she could stay in that extra bedroom. Until then, my mom moved her sewing machine in there.

Hobbs was only 18 miles down the highway from Lovington, but it was a much happier place to live. The sun seemed to shine more brightly there. Most days were so clear that my mother could look out the back window to the bank sign several blocks away and tell me the time and temperature when I asked.

As any minister’s family, we plunged into the life of the church where my dad worked. This is where I met Christi, my first best friend. Christi was a brown-eyed tomboy with a clump of blond curls on her head. We made an enthusiastic pair of 3-year-olds. I spent many nights at her house and I became intrigued with her life. She had an Italian last name, she shared a bedroom with a teenage sister, she had a Chihuahua named Pebbles and her house included a formal living room that was strictly for grown-ups—no children allowed. These details added up to the fact that Christi’s life was much more interesting than mine.

My mother and Christi’s mother were also good friends, which put us together even more often. The four of us took shopping excursions to the J.C. Penney in Hobbs. This was before Penney’s became a staple anchor of the sprawling malls that had not yet reached our part of the country. The Hobbs store was on Main St., in an old row of buildings with holes from hitching posts still in the ground out front. Penney’s had a main floor and a long, straight staircase up one side of the building, which led to the children’s department. One day when the store was crowded, Christi and I sat down on the top step of the staircase. Sitting very cautiously still, I told Christi to stop bouncing around so much because she might fall.

“I’m not going to fall,” she said.

In the next moment, Christi fell. I watched in horror as Christi bounced and rolled down the entire length of that staircase. She came to a sickeningly still stop on the landing, limp and eyes closed. That’s what people did in the movies when they died. They closed their eyes. I knew my sweet friend was dead.

To be continued...

Friday, October 28, 2011

Lovington Part II

My dad went to a mysterious place called “work” every morning. I don’t know when I realized he worked at our church. Our church was a red brick building with a steeple, which made it unusual. We were members of the Church of Christ, and many of our sister congregations viewed steeples as unnecessary ornamentation.

My dad was the youth minister at our church. Youth ministry was new back then and there was no training in the area yet. No books, no models of youth ministry, no Christian rock bands. My dad knew only that he had grown to hate church as a teenager and he wanted to make church more teen-friendly. He held after-church evening devotionals in which he dimmed the lights while youth group members sat in a circle on the floor of the fellowship hall and sang “Kum Bah Ya.” The church elders learned of this practice and put a stop to it, saying singing on the floor in the dark could cause something called “emotionalism,” something the Church of Christ has traditionally feared.

My dad responded by moving these devotionals away from the church building so the elders would be less likely to find out what was going on there. One night, the youth group went to a park and sat in a circle on the grass. I was a ridiculously cute 2-year-old by then, and the teen girls argued over whose lap I would sit in. Settling into the winner’s lap, with the girl’s arms protecting mine from the cool wind, I looked up into southeast New Mexico’s only natural beauty: the clear night sky. It looked as though someone had flung a diamond-studded ebony sheet high above our heads. The youth group must have worn out “Kum Bah Ya” because my dad began singing “How Great Thou Art.” The teens joined in, and when we got to the line about the rolling thunder and I still felt so safe in the girl’s arms beneath the enormous twinkling sky, I thought that if we could sing about thunder in such a beautiful setting, it may not be that scary after all.

If the night sky was Lovington’s only redeeming quality, the nearby town of Hobbs was its respite. Hobbs was the place to go if you wanted to go to McDonald’s or a doctor. I had been born in Hobbs since Lovington had no hospital. Hobbs also had a Kmart, a large car dealership and a busy business district. We drove there every week for my brother’s piano lessons. If you needed something Hobbs couldn’t offer, such as surgery or a prom dress that didn’t look like everyone else’s, you drove two-and-a-half hours to Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock was an actual city—a metropolitan oasis surrounded by dirt and cotton fields on the Llano Estacado of the Texas Panhandle. Lubbock had department stores, a giant mall and a college people had actually heard of. We made a trip to Lubbock every November, and my dad carefully corralled my brother and me while my mom made secret purchases. A month later, we opened Christmas presents that could not have come from Lovington or Hobbs. I had heard Christmas presents came from the North Pole, but I suspected mine came from Lubbock, Texas.

What I did not know then was that my parents paid for those presents with my grandparents’ money. Our church elders believed ministers should only be paid what they needed to provide for their families. Back in Beaumont, my dad’s CPA salary put my parents in a nice house, on the guest lists of charitable events and on the fringe of the town’s higher social circles. But now my grandparents paid for all the extras, such as Christmas presents, birthday presents and piano lessons. Right before I turned three, a church in Hobbs made my dad a better offer, which included a four-bedroom brick parsonage. More than the money and the house, my dad was restless. Stuck with a vocation that was not his first choice, he seemed to find some contentment in a change of scenery. We made the familiar trip to Hobbs once more, but this time in a moving truck with everything we owned. We were not finished with Lovington, however. Or perhaps it was not finished with us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lovington, Part I

Since my coursework is the only writing I have time for right now, I decided to post some of the things I've been working on this semester. For my Nonfiction: Biography/Autobiography class, I've been working on my memoirs. Here is the first bit of a 50+ page assigment. Enjoy.

Somehow, New Mexico became the answer.

My dad was using an accounting degree he never wanted. He had music in his blood, not numbers. But his CPA father had dreams of “Hamby & Hamby” on the sign outside the firm in their southeast Texas town of Beaumont. He would only pay for college if my dad got an accounting degree. This is how my dad became a CPA against his will.

But forced careers will only get you so far. By the time he and my mom had a toddler, my dad needed another job. Something that wouldn’t kill him from the inside-out. There was only one vocation more noble than accounting to his father. If my dad went into ministry, he could escape the number-crunching and still have his father’s blessing. And a family friend knew of a church in New Mexico. So my parents sold their house, packed their stuff, and with a 4-year-old in the backseat and me tucked away in my mother’s womb, they said goodbye to all four of my grandparents. Then they set off for a drive clear across Texas.

Parts of New Mexico are breathtaking. The ancestral puebloan ruins of Chaco Canyon in the northwest. The centuries-old churches of Santa Fe. The mountains of Taos that lie under a blanket of pristine snow. Stately mesas that line the horizon beneath a massive canopy of clean blue sky.

Lovington was near none of this. Lovington sulked away in the forgotten and lonely southeast corner of the state. The town smelled of stockyards and a soon-to-close oil refinery. The relentless wind kept a fresh layer of dirt on everything. There were a few elegant homes, which were a mystery to me since I couldn’t imagine how people got rich out there. Neighborhoods of poor to modest homes filled out the rest of the town. On the outskirts, Mexican migrant workers dwelled in trailers with rubber tires on top to keep the never-ending wind from blowing the roofs away. Decades later, a Lovington High School graduate named Brian Urlacher would become the NFL Rookie of the Year and finally bring a gleam of pride to the town’s eye. But in 1971, Lovington had no one to cheer for; no future to hope in. Just dirt, wind and a horizon that was too far away.

My parents rented a house on Birch Street. I showed up a few months later, rounding us out to a family of four. My mother had grown up the child of an Army officer, and she had come of age in exotic places like Panama and Japan. Now she was the mother of two young children in a drying-up oil town that stood on the verge of being blown across the New Mexico desert at any moment. She took her circumstances in stride, however, and created a safe, happy home for my brother and me.

My memories in the Birch Street house are of gradually becoming aware of the world around me. I woke up in my crib from a nap one day and decided the crib railing would be a nice place to sit while I looked at a book. Suddenly, everything became a rushed blur as I fell backward and landed with a thud on the floor. My cries brought my mother, who scooped me up, took me to the living room couch and distracted me from my trauma with the bright color pictures of a catalog. I had learned, as all young children do, that gravity, while necessary, can be a merciless enemy.

I developed a fear of storms in Lovington. A tiny town on the broad New Mexico plains has nowhere to hide from the Armageddon-like storms that would brew in the late spring skies. A sudden gust of cool wind on a warm evening told us nature’s rage was on its way. Within minutes, the sky turned the color of a deep bruise and flashes of lightning jagged all around. Once we were watching out the window and an especially large dagger of lightning stabbed down toward the earth. For the fraction of a second that it was visible, we saw two long spikes shoot upward, like angry rabbit ears.

“That one looked like Bugs Bunny,” my mother said, in an attempt to comfort me. I was still terrified. Bugs Bunny was a harmless character who made me laugh. He would never explode out of the sky and scare me out of my wits.

Thunder was the worst. Sudden loud noises are scary enough for a child, and thunder, with its mysterious origin and with no way to make it stop, created an inescapable horror. I could close a book with scary pictures, or carefully avoid my brother’s rubber snakes, but thunder had to be endured until it was gone.

(to be continued...)

Friday, October 14, 2011


My bright idea to take nine hours this semester has resulted in this drowning sensation I’ve been experiencing since mid-August. If I survive, I’ll have 21 hours toward a 36-hour degree by the end of this semester. If I don’t survive… well, I’m trying not to make that an option quite yet.

So what has been going on with me?

- I’ve been showing up in print. A lot. That’s because I did nothing but write all summer. Well, I did do other stuff. I went to camp and Memphis and Baytown and Beaumont and the beach. But I did have back-to-back deadlines all summer. I am grateful for the work, and it’s been fun to see my stuff popping up on newsstands.

- I’m on Pinterest. If you get a kick out of me making fun of stuff, follow me.

- I’ve seen “The Help” four times in the theater. I just keep finding people who want to go see it, so I go with them. The fourth time was tonight, and I went to see it with my friend Tammy. We were both emotional wrecks by the end and we sat there and talked about the movie until the theater guy politely asked us to leave so he could clean the place.

- School. I’m taking two writing classes and one class about how to teach people how to write. So I’m using just about every spare moment I have to write for my classes. When I’m not writing, I feel like I should be writing. I love my classes and my profs are outstanding. I’m experiencing the strange combination of not wanting the semester to end and being desperate for December to get here.

- Our girls are great. Julia is loving middle school. My own middle school experience was a bit hellish, and I’ve observed her positive experience so far with a blend of relief and incredulousness. Everyone my age talks about how awful middle school was. At 40, will she be the odd one who says, “Oh, I LOVE middle school!” We shall see. Jenna is as enthusiastic about life as she was as a 3-year-old. Just a little more calm and less messy.

- I still think of my friend Kristen often. We now know she died of a coronary artery dissection, which is a rare (aren’t they always) condition that mostly affects women. A few weeks ago, I dreamed I was standing in Kristen’s backyard, where our kids used to set off fireworks at their annual Fourth of July parties. In the dream, I saw her smiling and waving at me through her back window. I hesitated, then waved back. She disappeared.

One class I’m taking this semester is nonfiction: biography/autobiography. We’ve talked about how we’re not always aware of what’s going on in our lives when it’s happening. It’s not until later that we can look back, see how things were and write about them with more clarity. In this chaotic blur of children, school, work and home, I sometimes wonder what I’m missing right now that I will see later with clarity. Right now I feel hurried and frustrated because I’m just not getting it all done. But the truth is that I have a wonderfully loving and supportive husband, two girls that we cherish, and I have freedoms that many women in this world could only dream of. I have a mind and resources that enable me to constantly learn more about and evaluate the world I live in. The people who know me the best give me room to grapple with concepts like God and church and come up with new ways to view them when the old ways quit working.

I think what I’m trying to say is that I live a ridiculously charmed life. That’s what I want to remember when I write about this later.