When my oldest daughter was in preschool at her Montessori school, they taught geography by first helping her learn what town she lived in. They talked about the landmarks in her town – the post office and the gas station. Once she understood, they introduced the concept of her state and then the idea of fifty states that fit within a country. By kindergarten she was working on her continents and the countries within them. I remember early in the process asking her teacher if it was okay that my daughter kept confusing which part fit within the larger part – she would call her town a state or not understand that the state fit within the country. Her teacher smiled at me kindly with all the patience afforded to a first-time parent and simply said, “it’ll come.” She went on to explain that this idea of place and our existence within it can be taught technically, but when it came to reality, it was just something that had to “click” for children. They are so in the moment; so keyed into what exists immediately in front of them that this understanding of being just a grain of sand in the middle of a patch of dirt in the middle of a section of land, just doesn’t matter.
Since we left Prayertown I have longed to bring my close friends back to where I grew up. I felt that if I could take them there, they would understand; they would truly grasp the gravity or the humor or the confusion in my stories. I fantasized about physically walking them down the paths that I walked as a child and jumping over the cattle guards with them. I would point out each building and suddenly each of my stories would become illustrated and would therefore be clear. They would no longer have to nod slowly while trying to imagine something that sounded outlandish even to me as it came out of my mouth. My family did visit once when I was a teenager and though the land was similar, many of the buildings had changed locations or function and I found this to be disconcerting. I preferred to remember everything as it was fixed in my mind and though a small part of me still is quite interested in going back, I know that place as it stands now isn’t my framework. And so, like a preschooler, I start small. I start from the town I lived in – Prayertown – and all of its landmarks, its terrain, its topography, letting the geography unfold giving context in order to bring understanding.
To begin with, Prayertown was not actually a “town” at all. It was a small community made of two parts – a family section and an ordained religious section. The Community sat within a valley, surrounded by prairie and ranch-land and nothingness. The nearest large town – Amarillo – took about an hour to drive to. If driving from Amarillo, we would follow the longest, most boring stretch of highway that passed between thousands of acres of brown ranch-land. I remember watching the telephone poles come, one right after the other in a straight line as we flew past them down the road. There were so many and they came so fast, it was dizzying. Sometimes we would take a route that included the Historic Route 66 and on this road we would sit up straight as we whizzed by to see Cadillac Ranch with its cars standing on end, the only color to be found along with way. I knew we were getting close to home when we’d pass a hill on our left with the three wooden crosses erected that we used during our Easter passion plays. Finally we’d take a left down a short dirt road and then another left onto another dirt road that wound around and down, into the valley where we lived.
The family community came first in the valley and we’d pull down the road, dust swirling behind us, the huge garden on our left that was tended by all and seemed to reap green beans by the millions. The school, called Holy Family School, that my dad drew the plans for and we later built stood adjacent to the garden. There was a small red and white trailer that stood somewhat in the middle of the property that was used at one time for a school and later as storage for the overflow of donated clothes and other things accumulated by three families over the years. I distinctly remember learning Spanish in that building and then, when it was used as storage, running from the wasps that had built a nest in the bathroom of the building.
Besides those buildings, there were only three mobile homes. Ours was the first, Webers came second and Franzens third. There was some yard between each but not a lot. There was a circular road around the entire compound – when driving in, we’d approach our house and then continue down the road to Webers and then to Franzens. Along the other side of the road was an embankment that dumped into a bit of a woodsy area. In front of our house was a small hill that I used to climb with one grandma while looking for interesting rocks and with the other grandma while looking for pretty flowers. The side of this hill had either been dug into or was eroding because it had a steep incline and at one point someone had built a campfire there. Pieces of charred wood remained and we used to create elaborate stories about the Native Americans who had been there before us. At the base of the hill behind some shrubs and sparse trees, we kept a shed that was insulated in order to store our canned goods. The path to this shed holds much folklore regarding rattlesnakes and other deadly creatures who would sun themselves there.
Our yard was quite large and was surrounded on two sides by a red-stained handmade fence. The corner of the fence was decorated by the cosmos and marigolds my mom planted, as well as the blue morning glories that wound around it, blooming in the morning hours each August. The opposite corner of the yard held a large shrub – I think of it as a lilac although I can’t imagine lilacs would grow very well in Texas and I don’t remember it blooming. I set up a type of fort inside of the shrub, near the base and would play for hours, talking out loud to my imaginary friends.
There was a worn dirt path that extended from our house to the school. It was only as wide as a foot and every morning I would walk it, pretending I was Laura Ingalls Wilder on her way to school. The path was formed by the steps of my dad and I – he would leave earlier to open the school and do lesson prep in order to teach all grade levels of the children in The Community. I don’t remember my dad leaving but I remember playing on the front steps of the school, climbing up the rail with the other kids as we waited for school to start.
The school had a makeshift playground with a wooden teeter-totter and later came some swings. The main feature was a huge maypole that stood in the middle of the yard. It was essentially a large flagpole that had long ropes hanging from it, like a tetherball pole to the extreme. We would hold onto a rope and run until we picked up momentum and then swing around the pole until losing speed. On the other side of the playground was the field where the horses grazed and where, later, we kept kept chickens in a low-lying stable with a steel roof.
The entirety of the family community was weedy and dusty and could be walked by a child moving quickly within about ten minutes. The road was groomed by a road grater from time to time but it was rocky and the dust between the rocks was fine. It was not uncommon to find flattened, fossilized horny toads and frogs on the road. We stepped carefully in case a rattlesnake happened to be sharing the route. Frequently, there were tarantulas. The land felt treacherous and familiar all at once. It was my home.