I sat on a rock beside the calm water and watched the slipping sun paint golden streaks across the sky. A breeze rustled the reeds and the evening song of cicadas welcomed the dusk. My lakeside perch was the perfect place to watch the close of my perfect day.
My daughter and I had run away from home, urged on by my worried husband who insisted I wasn’t getting enough sleep because of my nightwatchman’s post at mom’s bedside. My daughter and I had thrown clothes into an overnight bag and hit the road. Caregivers would watch over my mom, my husband reasoned. I needed a break. It was just one weekend.
We left early, kolaches and lukewarm coffee in the console between us. I had kissed the husband and hugged the dog, but couldn’t bear to say goodbye to my mom. She was still tucked, cozy in her hospital bed, not yet roused into her routine by caregiver hands who would bathe and dress her. I felt guilty that I would not be there for our morning coffee and conversation. It will be fine, my husband reminded, ushering me to the packed car. Just one weekend.
It had been a rough week. A stomach bug, sudden departure of one of our caregivers, and too much on the “to do” list had me stressed and tense. A small break would do me good; Just one weekend.
My daughter and I navigated morning traffic easily and we were soon on I-35, heading north. We passed through Denton, and I shared college stories with my daughter, who had briefly considered my alma mater during her collegiate search. I told her about how, as dorm mates, we’d sneak in and steal each other’s clothes from the community bathrooms, leaving the clean and dripping no choice but to dash down the hall — a manic, Eve-like coed, strategically clad in paper towels instead of fig leaves.
I pointed out the dingy truck stop where study buddies and I indulged in bleary-eyed, wee-hour breakfasts of pancakes and greasy hash browns, a break from text books and spirals stuffed with scribbled notes. I thought about my college crush — a jazz trumpet player from Maryland — and wondered where the music and years had taken him. I think about my daughter on her own college campus, hoping she doesn’t make the same, senseless mistakes I made while finding my footing with too much, new-found freedom.
The music blared on the car radio and the mile markers sped past. The daughter navigated to our exit, and we made a pit stop in Gainesville, home of the infamous fried pies. We filled a bakery box with goodies and promised the proprietor we’d come again.
My intent was to try just a nibble of the pecan pie and get back on the freeway, but I hastily pulled the car over, devouring the entire sugary, gooey mess in an alley behind the Gainesville courthouse. My daughter laughed as I licked sticky goo from my fingers. She handed me Wet Wipes, and we were back on the road. We cranked up the music and sang.
When we crossed Red River, my daughter and I looked at each other mid-bridge, broke into song, warbling the familiar refrain from the popular Rogers and Hammerstein musical. It is a family tradition. We sing Oklahoma when we cross the state line.
My mom grew up in rural Oklahoma and each time we visited, we crooned as we crossed into her home state. My mom taught me the song when I was a little girl, and through the years, she and I always sang as we crossed the ruddy river to visit relatives. After I married, my husband hummed, but did not sing. When our daughter came along, she, too, learned the lyrics and sang Oklahoma at the top of her two-year-old lungs from the safety of her car seat.
I retold my daughter a favorite story. After a visit to Oklahoma, she surprised her preschool class in Los Angeles with an impromptu performance of the family anthem. Everyone clapped and sought an encore. My heart hurt, thinking about the long-limbed beauty beside me who used to sing to her nursery school class.
I thought about past trips to Oklahoma when my strawberry blonde, cherub-cheeked toddler stomped into small town motels pulling her pink, Arthur suitcase asking: “Is this our home for the night?” Yes, my darling, this is our home for the night.
My mom and I would unpack the car, our littlest traveler helping with a menagerie of stuffed animals and the Go-Everywhere-Yellow-Haired Baby. The well-traveled, well-worn doll is crammed into a closet at home. My daughter has long outgrown her childhood chum, but to me, the Yellow-Haired Baby is part of the family. I will keep her until my daughter has a home of her own and hope that she some day cherishes this small, significant memento of her childhood.
The miles and years have passed so quickly. Family vacations got fewer and farther between as life’s complications interfered. Oklahoma grandparents grew frail and faded away, and soon we’d travel to Oklahoma only for quick lunches with cousins or to place yearly flowers on overgrown graves in country cemeteries.
I thought about my mom at home with the caregivers, and missed her voice, singing along from the back seat. I missed her “yehaw” at the end of the song. I swiped at a tear and kept my eyes on the road. My daughter grew quiet, leaving me to my thoughts. Just one weekend.
Our next stop was the scenic overlook at Turner Falls. Like all good tourists, we hopped out with the camera and took requisite shots, posing, The Falls in the background. I told my daughter about the steep, rocky stairs that used to wind down the side of the mountain. Back in the day, you could actually climb down the steep stairs to the park below, and in her younger, able years, my mom and I had done so. My daughter couldn’t imagine her wheelchair-bound grandmother and her less-than-agile mom navigating the rocky terrain.
I have lots of memories of Turner Falls. When I was a child, I came often with my mom and grandmother on family picnics. My grandmother spread her checked, red-and-white tablecloth on the ground, and we’d sit, cross-legged, snacking on fried chicken and chocolate cake. Later, I came to the falls with college friends. We pitched a tent and camped beside the cool waters; city girls embracing adventurous spirits. We called home from the pay phone at the park office.
Now, I walked the dusty road with my college-aged daughter. We sat by the falls, dipping our toes in the chilly water, seeking shade from the beaming sun. I watched the families, here to take in nature’s beauty, climb to the top of The Castle, cool off in the blue-green waters. The Falls stay the same; the faces change as time marches. My grandmother came here with her mom, then my mom and I, now me and my daughter. Generations of families and faces. I can almost see them, ghostly glimmers of the past, laughter and love, memories and milestones. Just one weekend.
After a few hours, my daughter and I were back in the car, heading to our ultimate destination, our home for the night. We slipped into the Sulphur city limits, and I spotted the hotel right away. It’s hard to miss, this new addition to the Sulphur skyline, a bright and shiny newcomer amid the history, decay and decline of a small town that has known better times and is trying to recapture some of her former glory.
Sulphur used to attract visitors who came to the area for the sulfurous springs that were thought to cure ailments and medical conditions. My grandmother used to collect water from the springs in empty milk jugs. I remembered the pungent, egg-like smell. On the way home, I remembered stopping at a local drive-in for a dish of vanilla ice cream.
Chickasaw National Recreation Area is still a popular tourist and naturalist attraction, and my daughter and I looked forward to walking the winding trails. On a previous trip, my husband, daughter and I hiked with a park ranger to a secluded area and caught clear, cool water from a mountain spring. We carted the water home in plastic jugs, convinced that we felt vital and healthy from sipping the soothing water.
Now, tourists travel to Sulphur more often for the hotel spa and casino than the beauty of the park. A long-lasting drought has water scarce, and many of the springs are dry, the creek beds cracked and gaping. Still, my daughter and I hike its trails, climb up bromide mountain for a better look at the beauty around us. We gaze over the town of Sulphur, see the city in miniature, the tiny houses, water tower, our tony hotel.
The hotel is nice, well appointed with amenities my tired body and weary soul appreciate. New shops entice tourists with T-shirts and frappuccinos, trendy clothes and gourmet chocolates. We amble the blocks and spend an hour or so on Main Street, window shopping and getting reacquainted with the new/old town.
Businesses have cropped up since our last visit, including a new steak house in an old mansion and a wine-tasting room. We venture in and find a table. My daughter orders a turkey sub and a glass of water with lemon. I sip on peach wine and nibble cheese, grapes and artichoke dip. I feel a little like I’m back in Dallas or LA, or maybe, Southlake. Still, it’s nice, and the wine is crisp and sweet. I check the name. Pink Toe. I ask my daughter if we should take some home. She politely declines. This is a new side to Sulphur — big-city attitude in a small town. The little town of Sulphur is trying hard to grow up.
Back at the hotel, we check out the casino, meet a nice college student, home for the summer. He tells us he’s working in the oil field, majoring in environmental science. He tells us he comes to the casino when he’s bored. He’s tells us he’s had a good night. He plops down on the seat next to us and coaches my daughter in slot-machine gambling. She places a dollar bill in the machine, lights blink and spinners roll. After about twenty minutes, we’ve had enough casino fun. We bid our new friend goodnight and leave him, cashing in his tickets and gathering up his hundreds. We’ve spent $4.
We head to the car for one last spin around town before we’re in for the evening. Before bedtime, we’ll don our suits and soak in the hotel spa, letting the warm water melt away the miles and the stress of the week. At bedtime, I’ll climb into crisp, white hotel sheets with plump pillows and be grateful that I can sleep all night without getting up many, many times to check on my mom. We’ve checked in at home, and my mom is fine, just like my husband said. Just one weekend.
My daughter and I drive to the park, take the road to Veteran’s Lake and get there just as the sun is setting. The park is settling in for the night, dusk cloaking the lake in soft gray light. My daughter and I sit at the edge of the lake and watch the sun dip lower. Gray and white clouds streak the golden sky and reflect on the water. I think about our day together, about days past, and days to come. I think about my mom and the special days I’ve had with her. I think about my Oklahoma grandmother with her full skirts and fishing caps. I think about those I’ve loved and lost.
I hope, one day, my daughter will sit here again, maybe with a child or a family of her own, and think back on this time, our time, our days, our lives. I hope she remembers the good times, the sweet times, the laughter and the love. I hope she tells stories about Red River, Turner Falls, Fried Pies and Yellow-Haired Babies. Memories and milestones.
Yes, just one weekend. One weekend. It was ours and it was perfect.