Going Back To Grandmother’s House

by John C. Westervelt

When my sister Harriette read the Grandpa John story about summers at grandmother’s in Hugo, she said we should go back. As for me, I wasn’t sure it was possible to go back.

Each summer from about age seven to age thirteen, Mother, Wallace, Harriette, and I would spend a month in Hugo at Mema’s house. Two days before my fourteenth birthday, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Gasoline rationing ended our Hugo visits.

In the spring of 1946, my freshman year at OU, I attended a debate tournament at Southeastern State College in Durant. Afterwards, I traveled by train to nearby Hugo to spend the night with Mema. At that time, I wouldn’t have guessed that it would be fifty-two years before Harriette would take me back to that house.

In the spring of 1948, Wallace and Lloyd Boatright (Harriette’s husband) went to Hugo to move Mema to Mother’s home in Oklahoma City. Lloyd and Harriette were living near Chandler on Lloyd’s father’s farm (the doctor lived in Oklahoma City, but always had a place for cattle). Lloyd drove eighty miles round trip to classes in Stillwater and fed cattle on the farm. Lloyd had the only car in the family, so on a Friday after class, he headed south on highway 18 from Chandler. At the same time Wallace left Norman hitchhiking east on Highway 9. Lloyd and Wallace met at the junction of the highways in Tecumseh and continued southeast to Hugo. For me Saturday was a work-day at the telephone company in Norman so I stayed home.

Mema had sold her house and most of the furnishings as she prepared to live out the rest of her days with my mother. This sounds hard for both women, but not if you understood my mother’s love and the strong faith of these two women. That was the last time Mema was to see her house.

On the last day of October 1998, Wallace, Barbara, Harriette and I headed back to Grandmother’s house. The clouds thinned and the red sumac brightened under a peeking sun as we moved towards the southeast corner of Oklahoma. In Hugo we drove the path I had walked a hundred times, north off Jackson on Second street for six blocks.

At 611 North Second, Mema’s house stood as stately as I remembered from the 1930’s. The large elm tree, that had provided shade for play, was gone. The screen of the front porch had been replaced with windows. The lady living next door at the old Tarkington place came out to ask about our taking pictures. After we talked about helping lead Mr. Tarkington’s cow to the pasture two blocks away each morning of our summer visits, she offered to ask the current resident of Mema’s house to show us around.

The woman and her husband moved into Mema’s house twenty-five years ago. After twenty years as the preacher at the Presbyterian church, the woman’s husband had retired. A year ago he died. I shared that when my Presbyterian preacher grandfather died, my grandmother moved with her six children from Texas to Hugo to be near her three brothers.

Inside, the house looked the same as when I was a boy except it had "shrunk." The front door, at the extreme right side, opened into a hall. On our left was a wide, sliding, pocket door to the living room. Straight ahead was a staircase to the second floor.

When I was a boy, renters lived in the two front rooms upstairs. Aunt Werdna had an upstairs bedroom on the back. During my early visits everyone in the house shared the upstairs bath. Later when Mema began having trouble with the stairs, a shower was added beside the toilet below the staircase.

The screened-in, back porch, where Wallace and I sometimes slept and where Cora, Mema’s friend and hired help, ate lunch, now had windows. The backyard fruit trees were gone. The big, black, wash kettle was no longer around. The garage and attached lean-to shed for holding chickens had been torn down. Wallace reminded Harriette and me that Mema would buy live chickens a dozen at a time when we visited. These were kept behind chicken wire closing off the front of the shed.

Almost every day, a chicken felt Mema’s ax before being prepared for dinner at noon. With a west kitchen on the east-facing house, supper consisted of food requiring no heat. The G E refrigerator, that once sat in the corner with its round compressor on top, had likely been gone almost as long as I.

As Jackson divides the town of six thousand into north and south, Broadway separates the east from the west. A block west of Broadway, just off Jackson, still stands a two story, red brick, train station. Next to the waiting room was the Harvey House restaurant. Upstairs we could see rooms outfitted as in the days when Harvey girls roomed there.

Today the train beside the former Frisco station carries a name of Kiamishi Railroad. This train was awaiting an afternoon departure for a tourist excursion to Paris, Texas, about twenty miles away. We didn’t go. Instead, we drove fourteen blocks east to the winter quarters of the Miller Brothers and the Carson & Barnes circuses. We stood beside a pen holding six elephants and another housing a two humped camel. Most of the pens were empty because most of the circus was still on tour.

Eight blocks east of town and several blocks south was an attractive cemetery. The long entry road had the same stone curbs that are in front of Mema’s house. These were placed there by the WPA (Works Progress Administration). Those were times when the welfare patrons had dignity as they left behind a useful legacy.

Pine trees abound in the little Dixie area of Oklahoma. A canopy of pine branches covered the driving lanes of the cemetery. Our interest in the cemetery was the section set aside for circus people. The standing gravestones depicted all types of circus scenes and circus inscriptions.

None of Mema’s family are buried in the Hugo cemetery. My aunts and uncles had moved to California, Texas, and Oklahoma City early in their careers. When Mema died at age ninety-two in March of 1955, Nelda and I were unable to travel home from New Jersey for her funeral.

Life’s lessons learned with family in Mema’s house and neighborhood are as real today as when they were formulated sixty years ago. Seeing Hugo again brought many of them to the forefront of my mind. I celebrated my grandmother and her life once more, then left Hugo for what may be the last time.

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