The Last Pilgrimage

It sounds so final, doesn’t it? I guess it is, really. Last week I lost my sweet Aunt Billie. She was my father’s sister, and the last of her generation. All my father’s siblings had very small families, and several of them don’t seem to be into procreation – so we are a dying breed. I felt it was important to be there. This meant I had to make a pilgrimage to the place of my birth – a small, shrinking town on the Texas prairie.

Pampa has been haunting me. I don’t really understand why. I don’t like the place. It’s dusty, sad and ugly. It suffers from extremes of weather, no matter what time of year. The damn wind blows ALL THE TIME! For some reason, I have felt as if there is a lonely, unattended, dirty little girl wandering those streets that needs to be gently guided to her rightful place – in the past. I didn’t find her last week. And maybe that’s the way it is supposed to be. She is long gone. A strong, capable woman replaced her many years ago. But, the search for her took me many places.

It started on the prairie about 25 miles out of town. My grandparents lived at a refinery camp in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to stand on their homesite, under the cottonwood tree, and gaze through the distance to the next bluff where the Phillips 66 refinery stood. I wanted to hear the oil wells doing their relentless work…one more time. Unfortunately, that was not to be. A ranch has bought up all the land and posted it with numerous large signs warning that trespassers will be fully prosecuted. I didn’t feel like tangling with cowboys that afternoon….so I stopped just short of the final dirt road to Grandma’s house and took this shot of the horizon. If you look closely, you can see the Phillips 66 refinery far in the distance. At night it sparkled like a diamond necklace. I loved watching it when I was a small child. It’s funny what things stand out in your mind.

Leaving the prairie behind, I made my way into town and had lunch at a cafe where my grandmother would take me after shopping. Coney Island was already an old, established business when I was a child. And, I swear, they haven’t changed a thing, including the fryer oil! I sat at the counter – and used the same stool where I had once spun myself sick. The food was awful! But, it was clear from the crowd that this was still “the place” to gather for a quick sandwich or coffee and pie. I’m glad I stopped.

It was just a few blocks to the place that holds a lot of history for me and my family – the newspaper office. This was where my father – and I – worked. He was classified advertising manager. I landed my very first job there. On Saturdays I would roll coins for the circulation department when the “paper boys” turned in their collections. They paid me $5 for a day’s work. That was a fortune back then! Later, I got my own paper route. I was the first girl “paper boy” in town. Nobody quite knew what to think about that!

A block or so away from the newspaper office was the LaVista. It just kills me to see it crumbling. My brother and I spent many long Saturday afternoons there. For a quarter, we could watch bad movies, one after another. We were in heaven. Afterward, we would walk over to the paper and drive home with Daddy. At 12 and 9, we thought we were grown!

Of the three schools I attended in Pampa, this one was the least changed. I attended Horace Mann for grades 1 and 2. It looks exactly the same, although it is now an administrative office. I think it’s interesting that the playground remains. Just out of the shot is the monkey bars where I took a head-first fall into the gravel. I thought I was going to die! I can still feel those frozen nanoseconds I was in the air on the way to the ground. Time does stand still sometimes.

Another thing that remains much the same is Central Park. Yes…they really do call it Central Park. But, it’s funny. It’s much, much smaller than when I was a child. It was the site of many Easter egg hunts, church picnics, school outings and family reunions. I loved Central Park. Its shady elm trees were a welcome break from the relentless Texas sun. I wish this trip had come a little later in the year. It would have been nice to see the park in full greenery.

Also still in great shape is the church where I was baptised and confirmed – St. Matthews Episcopal Church. It was nice to see that it’s been well cared for all these years. I wanted to attend a service there, but the timing was just a little bit off. I couldn’t fit it in.

Cruising the neighborhoods, I located this house. It holds so many nice memories. This is where my grandmother, mother, aunt and I held on together while our men were away during the Korean Conflict. It was a total Girl House, full of nail polish and hair pins. I have my first Christmas memories in this house. The earliest photos of me all dolled up for Easter are taken in front of this house. Even though we were women against the world, there is no sadness associated with this little house.

It was interesting as I drove around to see that people I once thought of as “rich” were far from it. Make no mistake – there are pockets of money in this little town – but all those people I thought were wealthy…just weren’t. Of course, there’s a reason I thought everyone else was rich. This is where WE lived…all six of us.

My last night in town, I was treated to a traditional prairie sunset. This photo was taken behind my hotel. Sunsets like this one – and those that are made even more beautiful by the incredible Texas cloud formations – are one of the few things I will always miss about Pampa.

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