My sister flies in from California, and we start driving south and east towards Texas. We’re going to our hometown. It is the third Saturday in July and that means the annual Swisher County Picnic in Tulia. Not a picnic, or even the picnic, just Picnic, the great homecoming in a little town on the South Plains.
Tulia, the seat of Swisher County, once boasted a thriving town square. We recite the names of long-vanished stores as we drive: Lavelle’s, Amburn’s, J-Gee’s, Flynt Jewelry, Roger’s Grocery, Huxford’s, City Drug, Clower Jewelry, Heard & Jones Drug, Littlejohn’s Grocery, Piggly-Wiggly. And Musick Produce, the Purina Chow dealership our grandparents owned. There were two movie theaters, one on the south side and one on the east side of the square. There was a furniture store and car dealerships. The local Wells Fargo branch was once First National Bank, locally founded and owned, a brick temple just blocks from the brick temple that was, and is, First Baptist Church. There was Mert Nolte’s, the best place to eat in town.
Now most of the stores are empty. In the middle of farmland, the single grocery store left in town has a greater variety of chips — circles, triangles, strips, ruffled, barbeque, sour cream, no-salt, puffed, crispy, baked — than of fresh produce. Houses stand empty, the paint peeling in the sun, weeds growing and overgrowing the lots, the green of dandelions and clover, and Johnson grass providing the only color around the wind-blasted exteriors.
Nature rules the South Plains. It is a struggle to fight the dust and the heat and the drought of summer, the blizzards of winter. No rivers or mountains stand to guard the towns or the farms and ranches, nothing except the windbreaks. And those are trees planted one by one, wind-bent as though bowing before nature’s might.
There is no one of our kin left alive in Tulia. So, the parade and the meal in the park behind us, and the visit to the museum — where pictures line the walls of determined settlers and their unsmiling families facing the camera as they face the wind — past and done, we drive further south to Plainview in search of flowers. There are 14 graves to decorate.
We find pots of zinnias and gazanias to stand before the headstones and make our way to the part of the Tulia that is growing, the city of the dead, Rosehill Cemetery, where our family waits. We park near the cedar by our father’s grave, the farthest north of a double row of Musick dead. We begin setting out the flowers as the sky on the edge of town grows gray, then black. The winds blow harder and faster and the dust rises, dancing in the air, tumbling before us, towards us. It is blowing from the northeast. We can tell the direction by watching the smaller trees swaying at the wind’s command. Some of the branches will break, but their trunks are supple, accustomed to storm. We see lightning, hear thunder. It is close.
We get in the car and wait. The raindrops come, fat drops of water that hit the windshield and spread like clear saucers set on the glass. Then faster, the raindrops now sheets of water. The storm is wild and fierce, like the land, where the roads have become creeks.
My sister and I sit in the car, watching and remembering. We recall these storms, and how, when the waters receded, the streets of Tulia would be filled with tiny frogs. I caught one of the frogs when I was very small, thinking to make it my pet. I put it in our mailbox with a handful of grass to eat, then closed the door and latched it so that my frog wouldn’t escape. When I opened the door later that afternoon, the sun had baked the frog, all traces of the summer rain gone from its cage and its body.
At Sunday Mass in October we hear Isaiah’s love song for “my beloved’s vineyard.” It is the story of the beloved who planted a vineyard “on a very fertile hill,” a vineyard filled “with choice vines.” The beloved “expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”
Our hometown looks like the ruined vineyard of Isaiah, neither “pruned or hoed,” “overgrown with briers and thorns.”
Our beloved planted these plains. Why has it yielded wild grapes, shuttered storefronts and abandoned houses?
Then I look at these graves and at my sister, my thoughts with them who lie beneath this ground and with those who wait for us at home. The dead don’t know all the children and grandchildren that have been born in these years. But, my sister and I do. We know the “choice vines,” the “pleasant planting,” the sweet fruits that are our sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters. We helped plant the hedges. They have not been devoured. We help plant still.
We give thanks for all the sowing, for all the reaping, for every harvest home. We give thanks for the seeds they sowed in us and for the vines to which we are forever grafted, for the bounty they planted and which we reap. The rain eases and the wind dies down. Soon we will turn north again, towards home.
Editor’s note: All biblical quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version.
(Published November 2017)