I have a fairly large extended family. For the most part, our current clan originated in Wichita, Kansas, but through the power invested in marriages, divorces, job transfers and time, we have been strewn out across the country over the years. You'll now find pushpins in our family map everywhere from the Florida Keys to Honolulu, Austin to Wisconsin.
As a result of our geographic divergence, it makes it very difficult for all (or even many) of us to ever come together in the same place at the same time. Years go by and we don't see each other. The younger cousins eternally frozen in my mind as munchkins at the "little kids table" are now high school seniors and sophomores in college. The home I cast as the scene for all family memories hasn't been in our family for nearly a decade. This is just to say - things change, people get busy, time flies.
A year ago my grandmother passed away after a brief battle with cancer. Weddings and funerals. For better or worse, these are the things that finally bring a modern family together. As each branch received the call, they made plans to descend upon the teeny, tiny town of Frederick, Oklahoma - my grandmother's childhood stomping ground. She had elected to be buried in Frederick beside her parents.
Frederick. How do I explain Frederick? It is perhaps best described as a blip town. A blip I fell very much in love with. Frederick is the kind of little place you pass through on a rural highway heading somewhere else. The last census put the population at under 4,000. I'm not sure what industry supports the economy there, I can only guess farming, and I remember reading somewhere that the median income in Frederick was well under $30,000.
In many ways Frederick feels like a land untouched by time. It struck me as the kind of place that could be described (and accurately so) as the heartbeat of America. A place steeped in family, God and the American dream. Unpretentious and hardworking. A welcome smile with a little grit under the fingernails. A land where people know their neighbors - and the value of a hard day's work. Frederick isn't relic as much as it is artifact. It isn't un-evolved, rather it's a place - and a lifestyle - unperturbed. From what I have gathered from my mother's accounts of visiting the sleepy tow in the 50s and 60s, not much has changed for Frederick the past half-century...and that's okay.
My family descended on Frederick like a bit of a storm. If you're going to stay in Frederick, your lodging options are limited to two motorlodge-type hotels on the outskirts of town. If you don't like the first, no worries. The other option is right next door. But if memory serves, one of the signs boasted that they were now offering wireless internet, so you may want to take that into consideration.
Our first afternoon in town, we took a driving tour around the city - and down memory lane. 40-some years later, my mother's memory was still able to trace its way back to the modest farmhouse my great-grandmother (Mimi) and great-grandfather (Homer) had owned together. It is the place where my grandmother grew up. My mother reminisced about the small patch of land my great-grandmother had tended, a vegetable and flower garden, and beyond it, the land my great-grandfather had tilled. She regaled us with stories of Mimi, the industrious wife of a farmer, snapping the necks of dinner chickens and plucking them clean. It was a stark contrast to the gentle, quiet, if not a bit frail, great-grandmother I remembered. In my mind, she was a soul better suited for gently cradling a cup of tea than slaughtering unsuspecting chickens. The image of her strong and fearless doing what had to be done gave me new perspective.
I come from a long line of strong, courageous females, it would seem.
The funeral went as funerals go. The chapel and cemetery set in a picturesque, rural area outside of town. It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm, and cows were murmuring off in the distance. I suspect our unusual quietness was a bittersweet recognition of the irony that bidding a loved one farewell was the one thing that had a way of bringing the living back together.
After the casket had been laid, we mobilized the troops. We'd need lunch before everyone traveled back to their separate corners of the world. Having had our fill of Pizza Hut (and having no inclination to try Sonic), we ended up at a little local restaurant called The Bomber Inn.
My people are not a small people. At 5'10" I am one of the shorter cousins on my mother's side of the family. As we descended on The Bomber Inn, the staff and regulars looked at us incredulously, but only for a moment before shuffling chairs and tables to make it work. We crammed into booths, shared menus, stormed the single restroom. Clearly strangers, nobody poked or pried. They just made us feel welcome.
I don't recall what I ate that day. A grilled cheese or a chicken-fried steak, who can say for sure? I remember strange things from that afternoon. One of the waitresses asking my cousin to come into the kitchen to reach something on a high shelf. An older gentleman approaching my uncle to tell him he had a "mighty handsome family." More than that, I remember a feeling. A feeling of being acutely aware of the importance of eating together that day.
The truth is we cannot control the ticking of time. We don't get a say in when or how or where things come together or fall apart. We get busy, stressed, preoccupied, but at least a few times a day, life forces us to stop and eat. And we can choose to do that together.
Author Norman Kolpas once said, “Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.” That afternoon, crammed in booths at The Bomber Inn, we weren't just eating lunch, we were celebrating a life. We weren’t just nourishing our bodies, we were nourishing our hearts and our spirits, too.
It's unlikely I will ever be in Frederick again. I doubt I'll be back at The Bomber Inn. But I often think of the kindness they showed us that day, and I hope they know that more than a meal, they gave us a rare and precious moment of togetherness in the heartbeat of America. It won't soon be forgotten.