If you’d asked me 25 years ago whether I considered myself a nostalgic person, I would’ve laughed. Heck no! I live for the moment! Or so I thought. In recent years, I’ve become very nostalgic. Those things, people and places that I took for granted have suddenly taken up a special corner of my heart. This is evidenced, first, by the fact that I based my novel — The Edge of Nowhere — on not only my home state of Oklahoma, but my actual hometown of El Reno, Oklahoma.
I remember walking across the stage at Jenks Simmons Fieldhouse for graduation nearly 30 years ago. I was 17 and I couldn’t wait to get out of El Reno. It’s not that I didn’t really like the town so much as it was that I was ready for “bigger” things in life. El Reno is a small town where most everyone knows everyone else. I couldn’t wait for the anonymity of “big city life.” A few months after high school graduation, I packed my bags and headed for college and the “big city” of Norman, Oklahoma.
It took me a long time to come back to El Reno. Truth is that I didn’t really miss it until I moved to Minnesota at the age of 22. Now, at almost 45, I miss almost everything about it. I miss the people; the small-town atmosphere; the old buildings; the native american culture; the red dirt; the wheat fields as far as the eye can see. I miss everything.
Yesterday I was trolling around Facebook and found a post in a group dedicated to people from El Reno. On the page were photos of renovations that have recently taken place at my high school. I won’t lie — the images brought tears to my eyes. Actually, just sitting here and writing brings tears to my eyes.
What type of image could cause such a visceral effect, you wonder? Surprisingly, it was nothing more than an image of my old high school auditorium. With new chairs and a good paint job, the room seems barely recognizable to me all these years later, except one thing clutched at my heart and made me pause: the balcony.
For as far back as I can remember, my dad was a teacher at El Reno High School. His classroom was located on the 3rd floor, just outside the doors that led to the balcony overlooking the high school auditorium. My earliest memories are of looking up toward that balcony and seeing my dad watching the goings-on below. Even before I was a high school student, I remember dance recitals held in that same auditorium. At recital practices and what-not, I remember looking up into that balcony to see my dad leaning against the door frame. He always seemed to be there.
As I got older and attended high school assemblies in that room, I remember looking up from my seat on the floor to again see my dad leaning against the door frame as he watched the action on the stage. And I can’t count how many after school hours and play practices I spent in that auditorium, only to look up and see my dad standing in what seemed like his assigned spot — leaning against the doorframe of the upper level balcony. He was always there.
Yesterday as I viewed the image of the renovations to that high school auditorium, my eyes went directly to that upper corner. Like always, I was looking for my dad. Of course he wasn’t there. He’s been retired for nearly 20 years. But it didn’t stop me from hoping. It seems like he “belongs” in that corner.
My dad is 83 now…turning 84 in November. It’s hard to believe the years have passed and I didn’t even notice the progression of time. As should be expected, my dad has aged. Sadly, he is no longer the strongest man I’ve ever known. His muscles have atrophied with age and, while he’ll never be “weak,” he no longer possesses the physical presence or strength he once did.
I wish I could stop time. No, that’s not right. I wish I could rewind time and then stop time. Not for everything, obviously. If I’d stopped time ten or twenty years ago, I would’t have my children or the life I have now. But I wish I could rewind and stop time as it relates to things like my parents. I wish I could go back in time to my hometown and see it through the eyes I have now and appreciate it as I do now for its many wonderful aspects.
I guess what this boils down to is this: be careful what you wish for. 30 years ago I wished to be grown and on my own. I wished for the anonymity of big town life. What I wouldn’t do to go back to the 17 year old me with the understanding that — though not perfect — home is where people know you. It’s where you don’t have to explain why and how you think the way you do because you’re all a product of similar experiences.
I wonder if I’ll look back in another 30 years and again say to myself, “I wish I knew then (in 2015) what I know now.”
C.H. Armstrong is a native of El Reno, Oklahoma, and a 23-year resident of Rochester, Minnesota. A 1992 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she is the author of the upcoming Historical Fiction novel, The Edge of Nowhere. For information and a synopsis about this title, follow THIS LINK.
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