About the Feature
The Ghosts of Lubbock
Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
— Robert Duncan
My parents and I enter the auditorium through a side door, where an intern awaits to whisk my father backstage. He fiddles with his hearing aids as he trails after her into the shadows, his guitar case slung over his shoulder. “Knock ’em dead, Dad,” I say, but he does not hear me.
In recordings my parents made of me singing nursery rhymes when I was a toddler, my father gently chides me in the background—Sing on key, Sarah! Now he is the one missing the notes. This show, part of an annual Lubbock music festival, is his first since he began to lose his hearing, a side effect of chemotherapy treatments he recently completed. I probably would have skipped it in the past. It’s not exactly a landmark event; he’s played hundreds of these songwriter-in-the-round concerts over the years. But during his cancer battle, I realized how much I missed seeing my stage father. And so I left my husband and three daughters behind in Michigan for this chance at redemption.
My mother and I choose our seats in the center of the empty auditorium, a large Texas Tech lecture hall that smells of pencil dust. Soon the doors open and the audience floods in, wizened older Texans who know more than the words to the songs they are about to hear. They know the route to the 640 acres outside Lubbock where my great-grandfather planted cotton and sorghum, and to the joints where my father used to pick with Buddy Holly as a teenager. The land is out of cultivation and the joints leveled, but in the weathered faces surrounding me, I think I see the flicker of those ghosts.
The room dims, the ceiling explodes with pinpricks of light, and my father walks onstage as easily as if he’s strolling into his living room. He is newly trim from the cancer, looking elegant in a navy sport coat and dark jeans. The room erupts in applause for him and the night’s other two performers, fellow Lubbock sons Joe Ely and Lloyd Maines. A hush falls over the crowd as the three men take their seats.
Sometimes I feel like I grew up with two fathers: my real father and my stage father. My real father hunched over his plate at the dinner table, but my stage father stood tall with a defiant cowboy swagger, his guitar propped against one hip. My real father walked around the house in faded concert T-shirts and sweatpants, but my stage father wore black and silver, Lucchese boots, and belt buckles that caught the light. My real father could be moody and absent, but my stage father was all jest and sparkle. Perhaps I tried to converge the two fathers in my young mind, for I didn’t call my real father Dad until I was an older child. I called him by his name, Sonny. Is Sonny your father? my third-grade teacher wanted to know. Well, yes, of course he was. But it wasn’t so simple as that.
“To my immediate right, Mr. Sonny Curtis,” says the silver-haired announcer. He delivers a fawning introduction, calling my father “a terrific songwriter, a terrific vocalist, a terrific guitarist, and a terrific human being.” He does not mention the name Buddy Holly, maybe because everyone in this room already knows that my father began his musical career playing with Buddy at the age of fifteen. Later they would split up and go their separate ways. Later still, on a bitterly cold February morning, my father would help lift Buddy’s casket into the Lubbock Tabernacle Baptist Church. But that was over sixty years ago, and tonight is about what remains.
After the introductions, the announcer asks my father to go first, to sing a song and tell a story about the song—the usual procedure for a songwriter-in-the-round event. Yet my father seems confused. “What’s that?” he asks, cupping his ear and leaning in, though the announcer is sitting right next to him. The man repeats himself. A nearby audience member laughs uncomfortably and my heart seizes. But when my father starts talking, I exhale.
“First I’d like to say what a pleasure it is to be back in Lubbock. I always feel real warm when I look out the window while the plane’s about to light, and I see my old home.” He draws out the words real warm and narrows his eyes for effect, slowly sweeping his hand in front of him as if he’s surveying the land from just below the cloud line, how Lubbock sprawls like an endless quilt of brown and orange squares. It’s a striking view, all that expanse made so tidy. This place has owners, a system, the land says.
He kicks off the show with “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” a country hit he co-wrote in the late eighties. His voice wobbles between the notes, weakened by surgery to remove a tumor close to his vocal cords. Yet his guitar playing remains nimble, his fingers picking up the slack. After a few turns at the mic, his voice warms up and he appears to relax. He plays his hits—most notably “I Fought the Law” and “Love Is All Around,” the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A casual observer watching him would assume he’s enjoying himself. It’s clear the audience loves him, and the feeling is mutual. But I am his daughter. I see his forced smile, his rushed introductions. He stares into the middle distance after each song—once Lloyd has to tap him on the shoulder to alert him it’s his turn. My father wants off this stage.
For the finale, the three men perform “That’ll Be the Day” together, a Buddy Holly hit I’ve heard enough to last three lifetimes. And yet my eyes burn with tears as I watch my father show off on lead guitar, the audience gleefully singing along as if the song represents hope, not tragedy. This is what survival looks like, I think.
What I don’t know as I sit in that audience is that soon my father’s hearing will deteriorate so rapidly, he’ll never perform again. But I suppose it was a fitting goodbye, the last time I would see my stage father.
The next morning, my parents and I eat breakfast at the Pancake House, a diner that caters to hungover Texas Tech students and burly old farmers in Carhartt coveralls. The place is filled with antique tchotchkes and signs about Jesus and cotton, like All I Need Is Coffee and Jesus and Cotton: It’s What You Wear to Dinner. A middle-aged waitress appears with a wink and a refill. Her shirt reads Today’s Special: Jesus. My father asks her for a side of fruit with his eggs, and she screws up her mouth in thought. “Hon, we don’t have any fruit, but I could probably wrangle you up a banana.” He chuckles and shakes his head.
“Oh, jeez,” my mother mumbles as the waitress walks away. Raised in Wisconsin, she is forever a foreigner here.
“Can you tell I just had Botox?” she asks me nervously, touching her cheek. I lie and say no. Possibly due to her deepening anxiety about my father’s health, she suffers from a hemifacial spasm, a twitch that overtakes half her face. Invisible to the naked eye, it is maddening to the sufferer. Her doctor calms it with Botox, which immobilizes the area around her eyes, altering the planes of her cheekbones. As the Botox wears off, my mother appears more natural but the twitch returns. I can tell she’s recently been injected by the way her blue eyes freeze when she smiles. My parents’ aging has become a series of bargains straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. My mother’s beauty for her sanity. My father’s hearing for his life.
We talk about the shrieking wind from the night before, a West Texas night sound I remember from childhood visits to my grandparents. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that sound, a long time since I’ve been in Lubbock—not since my grandfather’s funeral twenty years ago.
“I always hated that sound,” my father says, stabbing his eggs. “Lonesome.”
Outside the Pancake House the wind has settled into a mild April day, the air weightless on my skin. My father gestures to a strip of gravel lots in the distance. “A few blocks that way was the 16th and J Club, a joint where I used to pick with Buddy,” he says. “Man, you talk about some orchestrated fistfights. Woo-eee.”
We climb into our rental Jeep, on our way to visit my uncle Pete, a retired farmer who still lives in my father’s rural hometown south of Lubbock. Outside my car window, high architecture brushes shoulders with low. The former Lubbock post office, a handsome, Classical Revival building capped with a tiled Spanish roof, overlooks loan clinics and bail bond stores. The streets are empty except for a group of weatherworn men sitting outside the bus station on piles of suitcases, smoking cigarettes and squinting into the sun. Across from the station, a mural of Buddy and the Crickets decorates a squat, beige building. My father pulls to the curb so I can snap a picture of the mural on my phone. The men stop talking and eye me curiously.
I can’t tell you I believe in ghosts. But I can tell you that Lubbock is a ghost town, and one ghost looms larger than them all. It seems like every block bears Buddy’s face or his black, horn-rimmed glasses—shorthand for his face. His glasses grace T-shirts, keychains, menus, billboards, even a canvas tote bag I buy the next day at an overpriced boutique. A 750-pound metal sculpture of his glasses stands at the entrance of the Buddy Holly Center downtown. His glasses exude cool, a nerdy accessory turned rock ’n’ roll statement, a marketing ploy even I can’t resist. His glasses move product.
Buddy’s been dead for over sixty years, yet he continues to breathe life into Lubbock. The newly constructed Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences, a $154 million arts campus, is expected to revitalize downtown. It won’t be long, though, before Buddy’s ghost presides over a town whose residents have no memory of the real man.
Outside the city center, my father makes a sudden right-hand turn down 36th, a residential street of neglected ranch homes on parched lawns. He stops the Jeep in front of the first one on the right, a tan house with peeling siding.
“Right there’s where my high school girlfriend Jeanie Kate lived,” he says.
“Oh yeah? How long did you date her for?” I ask.
“Uh, I don’t know. Three or so years.”
That’s a long time for high school, I say. I ask if she’s still alive. “No, she died fairly recently. Cancer, I think. She was a good ol’ girl.” He sighs, examining the house from behind his black shield sunglasses.
“And a beautiful girl!” chirps my mother. “I’ve seen pictures of her.”
I roll down my window to get a better view of Jeanie Kate’s house. It looks abandoned, as do all the houses on this street. I start to wonder how long we’re going to sit here and stare at it. My father breaks the silence. “I’ll tell you a story about this house,” he says with a smirk. I reach into my purse for my notepad and flip to a clean page.
Before my father turned seventeen, Jeanie Kate planned to throw him a birthday party at this house, he tells us. The night before the party, he was booked to play a show five hours south with Buddy and their bandmate, Bob Montgomery. He gave her his word that he’d be back in time for the party, but after the show, a high school principal offered the band a gig at a jamboree the following evening. Buddy and Bob felt they could not pass it up.
“But I’m supposed to be back at Jeanie Kate’s house tomorrow night for my birthday party!” my father claims to have protested, though I’m betting he didn’t put up much of a fight. Back in those days, gigs trumped everything for my father. In some ways, they always did.
He leans in to deliver his punch line, making a gun with his thumb and index finger. “So at that house right there, Jeanie Kate threw me a seventeenth birthday party.” Click, boom, he pulls the trigger. “Sans moi.” He laughs lightly and eases on the gas.
I laugh too, but as usual, I have questions. I ask them in order to know my real father better; but often it is my stage father who answers. “Was she mad?” I ask.
“Aw, no, I don’t think so.”
“Well, yeah, maybe a little,” he admits.
We drive for a minute in silence. My father scans the landscape, tapping out a beat on the wheel. I wonder if he is remembering Jeanie Kate, the cheeky way she nibbled her pencil, how she stood in the front row at his shows and winked up at him between songs. In my mind, she’s the stock 1950s girl next door, the spurned, bobby-socked heroine whose loyalty is never enough. More Betty than Veronica, more Debbie Reynolds than Liz Taylor. But surely she was more than that, and maybe my father’s not thinking of her right now anyway. Maybe he’s thinking about the boy on that stage, what kind of life he would have led had he married Jeanie Kate and not my mother, whom he met years later in L.A. Would he have managed the music store he worked at through high school, selling guitar strings and giving lessons to teenagers who wanted to pick like Scotty Moore? Or would he have become a farmer like so many who came before him, relegated to writing songs from the seat of his own tractor?
On the outskirts of Lubbock, strip malls give way to farmland, green and brown stripes of cotton and soybeans, the metal irrigation systems looming over them like prehistoric monsters. The West Texas of my memories. The horizon is so flat it appears sliced by a paper cutter, the view all heaven, no earth. The seam between land and sky trained my father’s eye from an early age. You’re not crazy or stupid in West Texas; you’re “half a bubble off plumb.” Anything other than level is viewed with suspicion.
Every landmark cues a synapse in my father’s brain. The place where he first spotted his friend Glen D., riding a bike barefoot while playing a ukulele. A community center where he rigged a talent contest as a teenage judge. The exact elm tree under which, in third grade, he first kissed a girl. His voice is as rich as warm molasses, and it lulls me back to a place deeper than memory. Though his accent is Texan, it evokes the green Tennessee farm where my parents raised me, lush and rolling. It smells like cut hay and vanilla, with a base note of cow manure. It sounds like the lonely call of a bobwhite, like my mother yelling up the stairs, Sarah, dinnertime! It feels like the smooth edge of the oak dining table, where I sit night after night, listening to my father tell stories or lecture me about history. He talks us all the way to his hometown of Meadow. At some point, I lay down my pen and close my eyes behind my sunglasses. I lose the thread.
The writer Vivian Gornick famously distinguished between the situation, or the events taking place, and the story, or the meaning of those events. My father makes the situation so entertaining, you forget about the story; you forget about your question. He’ll tell you about Jeanie Kate’s birthday party sans him, but he won’t tell you how desperate he was back then for a break or how impossible it felt to leave Texas. He’ll show you the joints he played with Buddy, but he won’t tell you what it felt like to bury his friend at twenty-two or to live out the remainder of his life wrestling with the shadow of a ghost. He’ll spin his life into a series of anecdotes and stage-friendly one-liners. It’s a magician’s trick. First comes a sudden sparkle in the periphery, an old pickpocket move, though he uses it to protect his own pockets. Over there, he’ll point, and in a wink you’ll laugh and look away.
Parallel to the highway a freight train blows by, the words Texas Star emblazoned on its steel belly. My father squints at it. “Wonder why that’s passing so late in the morning?” he mutters. I’m not sure how he knows the Lubbock train schedule, but his memory is a bit of a mystery. He still knows who owns every square inch of land on this farm-to-market highway, and this knowledge seems to cheer him. “See that metal shed? That’s the Jenkinses’ quarter. And look, Louise, there’s the old Burleson place!” He points to a tumbleweed.
Finally we reach a sign announcing we’re in Meadow (pronounced “MED-ah” by residents), population 593. My father turns right over the railroad tracks into his hometown, past a dingy, white building on the corner. “There used to be a restaurant right there! And that’s where I had my first bite of hamburger with mustard.”
All those mom-and-pop businesses are long gone, squeezed out by cheaper competitors in nearby Brownfield or Lubbock. But when my father was a teenager in the 1950s, the town was bustling for its size, a place where kids rode their bikes from dawn to dusk, where mothers baked each other pecan pies and fanned themselves on porch stoops. The town had a grocery store, a variety store, a blacksmith shop, three cotton gins, and a feed store that served as a hangout spot for farmers, a place to share almanac predictions about rainfall. The diner where my father first tried mustard was one of several restaurants, including two Mexican cafés that played loud norteño music on weekends. As a child, he loved to stand on his porch and listen for the vibration of accordions.
Today Meadow is a motionless suburb, mostly populated by retired farmers and Mexican immigrants seeking cheaper housing outside Lubbock. Even the post office is shuttered now. All that remains of Meadow’s heyday is the Meadow Music Hall, a local bluegrass venue with the false front of an Old West general store. Bisecting the town north to south is Sonny Curtis Street, formerly 1st Street, renamed in the late nineties. I make my father pull over so my mother can photograph the two of us standing under the street sign.
As we’re walking back to the Jeep, he waves toward a vacant patch of dirt. “I own both those lots,” he says.
“You do?” I ask. This is news to me. I know he owns a share of his family’s farm, but I had no idea he still owned land here in town—if Meadow can be called a town anymore.
“Yeah, this was where we lived, where the yellow house was,” he explains. “Before he died, I said, ‘Daddy, I sure do like those lots in town,’ so he left ’em to me.” My father was born on his family’s farm, but they moved into Meadow when he was five. The house was torn down years ago.
“Could use a little landscaping,” my mother says. I look at the dirt lots and try to envision the ghost of a yellow house filled with two parents and six children, the only house in town with no indoor plumbing. My father couldn’t wait to leave this house behind when he was a teenager; yet now he’s an old man, nostalgic for the patch of ground on which it stood.
Back in the Jeep, he turns down Renfro Street, a series of larger brick homes with neatly kept lawns (“Silk Stocking Row,” my cousin once joked). One of them belongs to my uncle Pete, my father’s oldest and only surviving brother. We park in the driveway and walk up the single cement stair leading to the porch. The door creaks open, and Pete appears behind the screen wearing a white Barstow shirt and a gray Stetson cowboy hat. At eighty-eight he is growing frail, though he still cuts an imposing figure. Pete is taller and more classically handsome than my father, with chiseled cheekbones and a square jaw. When my father first brought my mother to Texas to meet his family in 1970, she told me she swooned over Pete and their late brother Dean. Man oh man, were they somethin’. Real live cowboys.
Pete gives me a one-armed hug, his other hand gripping his cane. I pull back and see tears in his eyes. “This place is a mess,” he mumbles, “what with Glena away . . .” Glena, his wife of over sixty years, is in a rehab center in Lubbock recovering from knee surgery. My father rests his hand on Pete’s shoulder as if to say, Don’t worry, brother.
We enter through the living room, where Pete’s wooden rocking chair has been replaced by a leather recliner he gingerly lowers himself into. The walls are cluttered with portraits of weddings and grandbabies in cowboy boots. On the wall behind Pete, I glimpse my floozy-haired high school portrait. Photos only get added here, never subtracted. Beside it, a copy of the Ten Commandments hangs directly above a yellowed print of a gunfight scene, a rogue cowboy on a horse, shooting at a stagecoach. Imposed over the scene is a revolver and the caption “Colt Wells Fargo, .31 caliber.” It’s quintessential Texas: Thou shalt not kill . . . but in case you need to, here’s the gun for the job.
My parents and I sink into the pink sofa across from Pete and listen to his slow, hypnotic Texan drawl. “Sonny, do you remember them ranchers rippin’ out Daddy’s fence?” he asks about a story we’ve all heard a hundred times.
“Well, I can’t quite remember it, Pete, so go ahead and tell it,” my father says. This is their ritual, their dance. Their love, their history, their values, their connection to the land—all they hold dear expressed within the arcs of timeworn stories they repeat like hymns, like prayers. Many of the stories involve fences. For the farmers who settled this land, fences were laws, protecting the land they had surveyed and fought over, paid for with blood and sacrifice.
The 640-acre farm remains in our family, passed down and divided among the branches, but whole. As I am my parents’ only child, one day their eighty-acre share of it will be mine. It’s land I can never sell, as my father has instructed me over the years: “Not because it’s worth much, Sarah, but because of the mineral rights, the oil.” Perhaps he is preternaturally attached to the land. The deed to the farm represented an upward social tick for his family, promoting them from sharecroppers to landowners. The realized dream of the West.
I’ve asked Pete and my parents to show me the homeplace this morning, the section of the farm where my great-grandfather Will and his wife, Pearl, built a house in 1925. This will be my second trip there. My parents took me to the house once when I was a girl to visit my father’s uncle Argust, who lived there after his parents, Will and Pearl, died. Argust was tall and awkward, the kind of man Texans describe as having “a funny look out of his eye.” I remember how he and my father made strained chitchat in the living room, how, when I started to fidget, my mother whispered in my ear, “Follow me.”
She took my hand, explaining to the men that she was off to fetch me a glass of water in the kitchen. But once we turned the corner, she continued straight, past the kitchen to a closed door at the end of the hallway. I stood behind her as she turned the knob slowly and tried to soften the whine from the rusty hinges. A stagnant odor wafted over us, like what I’d smelled when I’d buried my nose in the pages of old library books. Inside I saw a standard oak bedroom set, some framed needlepoints on the wall. On the bedspread, a yellow bathrobe had been staged intentionally, as a teenage girl might display a prom dress. A pair of worn slippers lay on the floor beside the bed. My mother had described this scene on the long drive down to Texas, so I knew right away the bedroom had belonged to Pearl, who died twenty years before. Argust was so close with his mother that after she died, he refused to touch her bedroom. Back in the doorway, my mother turned to me with wide eyes. “Spooky,” she whispered.
What is the lifespan of a ghost? The lifespan of Buddy, the lifespan of Pearl? Her son Argust was an oddity to my mother, but he stands as an apt symbol of my father’s family, held tight in the grip of the past. I spent years building a fence of my own to separate myself from them, but maybe I’m as strange as Argust. I wouldn’t keep my father’s bathrobe on a bed for twenty years, but I do obsess over details of his life, turn them over in my brain and press them into words on a page. Preservation takes many forms.
Distant relatives I barely know live on the family farm now. The land has been out of cultivation since the late eighties, when Pete turned it over to Texas’s soil conservation program. Now its cotton rows are but a memory, the fields overtaken by desert flora: vermillion shoots of Indian paintbrush, bright blankets of red-and-yellow firewheel, blackfoot daisies, barbed mesquites and cholla cacti, and through it all, feathery lovegrass. Pete likes the lovegrass best; he tells us it replenishes the soil. As we drive to the homeplace, he nods out the window at the lovegrass, pleased to see it thrive. Rumi said, “There are hundreds of ways to kiss the ground.” The Dust Bowl taught West Texans a few.
While my father couldn’t wait to flee Meadow as a young man, Pete stayed and farmed this land his entire adult life. He is a caretaker of land as well as people. For years he’s nursed his wife, who suffers from crippling osteoporosis. As the oldest Curtis son, Pete also cared for my father and his siblings when they were small. Since the family had no indoor plumbing, baths were a luxury. When the brood started school, kids on the bus made fun of them for smelling bad. My grandparents were too busy working the fields to remedy the situation, but Pete refused to let his family become a town joke. Each morning at the break of dawn, he dragged his younger siblings out of bed to rinse them off, one by one, under the cold garden hose.
My mother told me that story years ago; my father would never speak of it. Even writing the words on the page now brings tears to my eyes, as if I am revealing a shameful family secret, as if I too bear the scars of my father’s poverty.
After a ten-minute drive through cotton fields, we reach our farm, wilder than its neighbors. My father turns left down a long, gravel driveway that cuts through a grassy prairie. Pete asks him to stop the Jeep.
“See here . . . this is the southwest corner of the homeplace, and this is the old Speckman section,” Pete says, gesturing to an overgrown field on our right. His hand trembles with neuropathy, a result of severe frostbite he suffered while stationed at Heartbreak Ridge during the Korean War.
That’s right, my father nods.
“See here, this was pasture . . . all this was pasture,” he continues haltingly. “And the lake where they shot the cows was over by where that mound of dirt is.”
The lake where they shot the cows. The story is fresh in my mind. Pete had told me about it during a phone call I made to him before our visit. It happened in 1935, a year deep in the bowels of that devastating trio: Dust Bowl, Depression, and drought. The drought was so severe that year President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Drought Relief Service, a delicate title for a brutal act. Under the DRS, government men traveled throughout the Great Plains and Texas, paying farmers between four and twenty dollars a head to take their cattle off their hands. Some of the cattle were drought-starved, or at least that’s how the government framed it. But many were healthy—the program was designed to relieve the farmers, not the cows.
My grandfather Arthur was a young father in his twenties at the time. The morning the men came to Meadow, he brought along five-year-old Pete. While the little boy watched from the sidelines, Arthur and the other farmers corralled their cows into the bone-dry crater of a lake. They sorted them according to age and condition, herding mothers with their young calves. Then half a dozen government men made their way to the center of the corral, where they loaded their .22 rifles and began to shoot.
I imagine Pete, his childish excitement turning to horror as the wild-eyed cows crumpled on their sides, legs twitching, as calves cried out in terror watching their bawling mothers go down. In little more than fifteen minutes, 250 head of cattle lay dead.
“You must have been so scared that day,” I say. Pete looks straight ahead from the shotgun seat, a muscle rippling in his jaw. I think maybe he does not hear me, so I say it louder. He still does not answer.
My father takes his cue and continues down the dusty driveway. I stare out at the haunted field, thinking of my young uncle, almost the same age as my youngest daughter, and wondering why my grandfather brought him to the slaughter that day. Maybe he knew Pete would one day inherit the responsibilities of this land, a life that leaves no room for childish attachment to animals.
We park in front of a redbrick ranch house, where a man and woman I’ve never seen before come outside to greet us. I’d place the woman in her late seventies, maybe younger; it’s hard to tell. The sun has had its way with her. She has close-cropped blonde hair and is missing a few molars. Pete introduces her as my father’s step-cousin Linda. Her son, Lanny, is a stocky, middle-aged man wearing a baseball hat and glasses. He seems excited for visitors and immediately begins showing us his self-rigged farm equipment. His crown jewel is a shooting circle he’s devised out of a remote-control clay pigeon thrower and an old Lawn-Boy mower. To designate the area, he’s hooked the Lawn- Boy up to a pole, then set it loose to mow a perfect sixty-foot circle. “It’s pretty neat watchin’ that thing go,” he says.
“Well, all right, Lanny,” my father responds with a wry smile. It’s hard to entertain the entertainer.
Linda asks if we’re ready to see the homeplace. The site is only a few hundred yards away, but the field is completely uncultivated, impossible to reach on foot. Lanny and Pete lead the way in a golf cart, while the rest of us ride behind them in the Jeep. When we reach the site, I open the car door and step into a tangle of knee-high grass. “Watch out for rattlesnakes!” shouts Linda. My father had also warned me of snakes before the trip, so I’ve dressed in jeans and an old pair of Frye cowboy boots. I glance down at my father’s feet. He’s wearing European sneakers.
The homeplace is no longer home to anything but snakes, varmints, and a collection of rusted relics planted deep in the windblown soil: a house in shambles, the skeletons of a Studebaker and station wagon, my grandfather’s tractor, the top half of a windmill fanning out of the grass.
I weave down what passes for a hill in West Texas to the stucco house where Will and Pearl and, later, Argust lived. After he died, the house was left to rot. Earlier my father had told me it wasn’t safe to enter. Come on, I’d thought. How bad could it be? I nudge the screen door open a few inches before I get my answer: a noxious smell of rotting animal flesh and feces. It stops me cold. Through the screen I see a living room destroyed, the floor buried under smashed glass and upended furniture, its stuffing ripped out by looters and raccoons.
My father’s getting nervous. He yells down for a second time that the place is a snake pit, and I turn back reluctantly. I’m not sure why I’d been so eager to enter; it’s not as if I have fond memories of this particular snake pit. Maybe a part of me wanted to prove I’ve got the guts of a Texan like my relatives, though my relatives are standing by their vehicles looking uneasy. Linda and Lanny never come out here. The only reason we’re all standing in this ghostly field is because of me and my curiosity. I don’t have the guts of a Texan. I have the guts of a tourist.
I walk back to my father’s side. He takes my arm and points to a faraway spot on the prairie to show me where the dugout used to be, the underground shelter where he was born in 1937. I was so poor I was born in a dirt hole, he used to tell me when I was a girl. That kind of image leaves a stain on a child’s brain, hard to scrub out. When my father seemed distant, I suspected it had something to do with that dirt hole, like a black hole of meaning into which I projected all his sadness and anger. I’d hoped to see the dugout up close, but the terrain is too wild; even if I could reach it, the lovegrass has claimed it. Now the dugout exists only in memory. A faded scar of a home, an absence of an absence. I cannot reach across this fallow field to the dugout any more than I can reach into my father’s mind and know what he is seeing as we look at the same landscape. I could ask him, but his silence has trained me over the years to know the answer wouldn’t fill the void.
We wind our way around the wreckage of the house to where my grandfather’s tractor remains half-buried in the earth. The green paint has rusted off, but you can still make out the brand, which my father says aloud as if recalling the name of an old lover. Allis-Chalmers. He affectionately runs his palm over the grass spiking from its metal carcass.
One tedious fall day when he was fourteen, perched on the seat and running a stalk cutter behind, he stared down those incessant rows of cotton and wrote a song about the moon. Of course it was about the moon—his family, like so many West Texas farm families of their time, was near-pagan in their adherence to the moon’s rhythms, planting crops and castrating bulls and weaning babies according to the almanac’s crude astrology.
Moon, moon, silvery moon, light up the heavens tonight, his song that day began, self-soothing him like a lullaby.
It was an afternoon like so many others, row upon row of work before dusk. What made it different were the notes, notes only my father could hear above the dissonant growl of the engine. He listened for them while keeping an ear to the ground that had borne him, spewed him from a Dust Bowl dugout onto this hard, flat plain.
Moon, moon, silvery moon. It was a hymn to the heavens, a game to fill the space between the turnrows. It was the first song he ever wrote.
Long after I say my goodbyes to Pete, Linda, and Lanny, the homeplace will stay with me. Perhaps it was always a part of me, though I struggle to see what part. A DNA spit test once told me my father’s side is mostly English and Irish, though his family has no records dating back to Great Britain. If you ask my father where his family came from, he says Texas. If you ask him where before that, he says Arkansas.
My research suggests they were likely tenant farmers from Great Britain who came over in the late 1700s, part of a mass migration to the New World. Most of the emigrants were Scots-Irish border residents fleeing poverty, sectarian conflict, or in the case of the Northern Irish, famine. One Irish Anglican minister called those fleeing both England and Scotland “the scum of two nations.” But though the emigrants were poor, they were fiercely proud, which the Quakers and Puritans of New England found crass and perplexing. The colonists pushed them westward, using them as a physical buffer against the Native Americans. It was a role the new immigrants were born to play. The men were warriors and the women laborers, raised on bloodshed and expecting little more from life than raw survival, with maybe some music along the way.
In the past few years, scientists have made surprising discoveries in the field of epigenetics, the study of the myriad ways genes express themselves, which biological chords get plucked and why. It seems we may carry more than our ancestors’ DNA. Some research suggests we carry their traumas, their memories, and their experiences, possibly for up to fourteen generations.
What does my father carry? A fear of rattlesnakes, an ear tuned by Revolutionary War melodies? A sullen pride, a made-up mind, a black hole low enough to keep him humble for the rest of his life, no matter how high he ascends?
And what about me? Do I carry Pete’s drive to nurture? Argust’s nostalgia? My mother’s vanity? The grief of early morning news of a plane crash in Iowa? My father’s daydreams and quick temper, his wandering heart? Pluck the wandering string, and it clangs against my breastbone, the string that longs for home. The chord is as atonal as the West Texas wind crying in the night. Lonesome.
Before we head out for dinner in Lubbock that evening, my parents and I meet for a drink in the hotel lobby. A young man working the reception desk, clean-shaven with dark hair and black horn-rimmed glasses, stops my father on our way to the table. Excuse me, sir. Is it true you played with Buddy Holly?
An aw-shucks grin spreads across my father’s face. My mother and I stand smiling behind him while he scribbles his autograph on a hotel notepad. “How’s it feel to be so famous in Lubbock, Texas?” my mother asks him with a wink as we settle around the table with our drinks. He shrugs and says he reckons it feels pretty good.
I tell him I didn’t know he owned so much land around Lubbock. Then after a few sips of liquid courage, I ask him what he plans to do with it all when, you know, the time comes. He explains matter-of-factly that he’ll leave me the two lots he owns in Meadow, along with his eighty-acre share of the farm. I know I’ll keep the farmland, but I immediately start thinking how to unload those dirt lots. Yet before my mind can wander too far, he tells me he’s set to inherit an additional ninety-six acres of the farm from his brother-in-law, which he’s willed to my three school-aged daughters. Thirty-two acres apiece of wild pasture outside Meadow, Texas—a place my daughters have never been. He has several Texan nieces he could leave the land to, relatives who would treasure the acreage. What will my three Yankee daughters do with it? As much as I believe in epigenetics, I find it unlikely they’ll be drawn to this remote brown square of earth.
“Why leave it to them, Dad?” I ask.
He takes a sip of his scotch and looks out the window at the dying sun, sinking over the parking lot in this city where people still know his name. He’s not a ghost yet. “Well, you never know,” he says. “If things ever get rough in life, it’s good to have a little land to fall back on.”
After all these years, it was a perfect answer.
“Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” by Robert Duncan, from The Opening of the Field, copyright © 1960 by Robert Duncan. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
About the Author
Sarah Curtis’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, the American Literary Review, Crazyhorse, and the 2020 anthology River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction. She holds an MFAin writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Michigan.