Every once in a while I attempt to finish a writing to a publisher standards. What follows is one of those attempts.
The year I was five, my mother and father started looking for a new house. Danni was three; Amanda was one. The place we lived wasn’t large enough. I remember riding around with them as they looked. One place we looked was a corn field just off South Lewis. It was over a mile outside the Tulsa city limits. The next summer mother and father moved us to a new house on the new street in that corn field. We were not the first family in the addition; we were the second. Several other houses were under construction. The new addition was popular. Lewis was, and still is, a major North-South street in Tulsa.
For my first birthday in the new house, I got my first bike. Father spent the time needed to teach me to ride, and then the parents set the rules. I could go anywhere on the bike, provided I did not cross Lewis, 51st or 61st Streets. Joe Creek diagonally cut the section of land within those limits and made the fourth boundary. I was expected to behave and to be back for dinner time.
Their rules left me nearly 320 acres to explore and terrorize. About half, mostly to the North, was housing. To the South the land was more rural with two farmhouses, barns, sheds, and fields. Along the creek, scrub oak, grapevine, and underbrush formed a forest. This became my world. Their boundaries were really not a limit I felt. Jeff Cope and I built forts, caught snakes, and did boy things. The scar on his forehead marked the time I jumped from a ledge to catch a branch. The branch broke and smacked him square in the face. As time passed, I became obsessed with fishing the creek. I charted the numbers of perch and catfish I caught.
As I grew older, the cornfields began to disappear. New houses popped up in their place. To fish unspoiled creek, I had to go farther each year. Eventually, I had to go under the bridges where Joe Creek crossed Lewis and 61st Street. Each bridge had a path along which I could walk or push the bike. I do not remember how it happened, but, eventually, my parents found out I was fishing on the wrong side of Lewis. My father had an incredible temper. It didn’t come out often, but it was scary beyond belief. I explained that I had not broken the rules. I never crossed Lewis or 61st; I went under them. My mother laughed, but that only made Father madder yet. That was not a good evening.
Not long after that, my parents sat me down and set new rules for me. I was allowed beyond both 61st to the South and Lewis to the West. However, I had to check with one of them before I went; if I was on my bike, I had to walk it across; no aimless wandering; and all of the other rules about behaving applied double. My new kingdom seemed boundless again. I was grown up. From my old home, Joe Creek meanders South and East for six miles before it enters the Arkansas River. I fished every hole in the river. My parents understood.
When Tommy Meason got knocked down on Lewis by a car, I was afraid they would change the rules. He was a kid who lived two houses up the street from us. He wasn’t with me when he got hit, but I was sure it would make Mother uneasy. That night mother and father talked about it at the dinner table. When Father asked how Tommy was, mother told him he would be fine: “Betty said he’s just like his father, and he landed on his head so he wasn’t hurt.” From then on, when I checked with mother before I left, she would tell me, “Be careful crossing Lewis.” She expected an answer, too.
After I turned 16, I passed my driver’s test and got my license. I did not have a car and when I drove I used my mother’s Rambler American station wagon. It was clearly the slowest and ugliest car driven by anyone I knew. However, it was better than nothing as it moved the boundaries farther still. I was grown. The new rules: I had to ask permission and the parents had to know where I was going and why. Each time as she handed me the keys, she continued her habit from before and warned me of Lewis.
Mother and father insisted they drive me to college for my first year. Once we unloaded and unpacked, father was impatient to be on the road. On the other hand, mother had a prepared speech she needed to give. Father waited while she lectured, “Write. Study. Don’t drink too much. Be careful crossing Lewis.”
Sometime after I was at school, mother and I began to talk by phone late at night after father went to bed. We covered many topics and little was out of bounds. My two favorite dirty jokes of all time are ones she told me during talks. I didn’t realize it at the time, but somewhere I really had grown up.
During the fall break of my senior year, I took Nancy home with me. Mother and I had a late nighter during that visit and she eventually asked about Nancy. I talked about this, about that, and about how I admired Nancy. Mother always read me better than I read myself. At the end of the talk about Nancy, she concluded with an enigmatic, “Well, be careful crossing Lewis.”
After graduate school, Nancy and I moved back to Tulsa. We went to work; we had children; we went about living, all at that impossible pace only young people can maintain. Every month or two mother and I would stay up late and talk. Some times those talks became a way for me to talk about frustrations and worries, or ask advice. My mother offered advice whether I asked or not, often from the “Get over it” school of tough love. Sometimes she made constructive suggestions. From time to time a gleam would come to her eye and she would use her phrase.
When mother got the cancer, it seemed like she was confined to bed and on heavy drugs the next week. I will always admire the unflinching, honest way she faced her own death, but near the end we never knew if we were talking to her or the drugs. Sister Danni came up from Houston and stayed at the house. Every day I visited father in his nursing home and mother at home. I cannot fathom how Danni endured.
On my last visit before the night she died, mother didn’t say anything. I sat for a while, musing. When I rose to leave, she tried to say something. I could not hear her. I bent down and she tried again, “Be careful crossing Lewis.” I told her I would and left.
It was sometime later that I finally figured out, given the circumstances, the answer I should have given was, “You, too, mom.”